Judy Garland in Concert
The last time Judy Garland appeared in Boston, explained her son Joey Luft this past Saturday night at the Boston Pops, was before a crowd of more than 100,000 in 1967, two years before her death. The occasion was a free concert on Boston Common and Joey, then 14 years old, was quite overwhelmed by the size of the crowd and the intensity of the fans, to which his mother told him not to worry: by this time this kind of frenzy was what she learned to expect.
Garland, though, never made it across town to Symphony Hall or to appear with the Boston Pops - an oversight that was rectified in an unusual and brilliantly conceived concert for which Luft provided the introduction. Called Judy Garland in Concert, it was a collaboration between the orchestra (under the direction of the enthusiastic Doug Katsaros) and Running Subway, a New York-based entertainment company that specializes in state-of-the-art technology-driven projects, such as this one and a similar one involving Frank Sinatra.
The concept involves isolating Garland's voice through advance sound engineering techniques from her appearances largely from the concert performances she gave on her CBS-television show during the 1963-1964 season and playing the video back with the Pops offering accompaniment. The vision of Garland's black-and-white image projected on one of three screens that sat above the audience was a bit odd at first - as if she was being piped in from beyond. Yet it was easy to be drawn in by the dramatic power of her performances and the sheen of the orchestral accompaniment. Is there a better back-up band for a singer than the Pops? I doubt it.
For Garland fans (and there were many in the SRO hall), it was an opportunity to bask in her electrifying talent. Far from being a gimmick, this melding of technical expertise and performance gave Pops audiences an opportunity to see what Garland could do best - seduce an audience with her dynamic deliveries of many familiar songs. There's little doubt that this is an event that could tour concert halls throughout the country.
In addition to the performances, there was biographical information provided by a bluntly honest Garland. As directed by Chris Goirdano with a creative assist from long-time Garland expert John Fricke, there is little attempt to whitewash the more unsavory aspects of her life. Instead the drug problems, the breakdowns, the physical hardships and amazing comebacks were chronicled in Garland's voice, culled (I suspect) from the now infamous tapes that the singer made in London in the early 1960s when she had hopes of compiling them into a book. Additionally there was a continuous flow of images shown on three screens above the orchestra that followed Garland from vaudeville to Hollywood and the concert stage. Some of the directorial touches cleverly put black-and-white footage of the orchestra on either side of Garland, adding a sense of verisimilitude to the concert. The result only further informed the high drama of the interpretations themselves.
And what knock-out performances! At the time, Garland was still in amazing voice at the time of her television show, and, though she looked thin and a bit frail, was in good-humor and in total command of the stage. This being just three years after her Carnegie Hall appearance, it featured numerous cuts from that legendary event, including her medley of "This Can't Be Love" and "Almost Like Being in Love," a pensive "If Love Were All," "That's Entertainment," and "Come Rain or Come Shine." There were, of course, her signature songs - "The Trolley Song," "Chicago," "San Francisco," "Swanee," "The Man That Got Away," and, of course, "Over the Rainbow." The latter, from an onstage performance with Garland in her tramp costume, was especially touching.
Her wry sense of humor was evident when she told a story of the night of the Oscars in 1956 when she was in a hospital room recuperating from Joey's birth. The networks descended upon her and turned her recovery into a media circus, that was until she lost and they abandoned her as quickly as they came. Garland tells the story with such self-effacing charm that you wish more of these personal anecdotes were included in the program. Her persuasive way with a lyric was in evidence with her evocative rendition of the jazz standard "A Cottage for Sale," which she turned into something akin to a dramatic monologue.
There were, of course, a large gay contingent in the audience, but the fact that they were largely middle-aged was too bad. This would be a perfect opportunity for younger audiences to experience Garland's mesmerizing talent. To think that their idea of a gay diva is a self-serving talent like Kathy Griffin is most depressing - Judy Garland was the real thing. Whether or not the Stonewall riots were caused by her death is a matter of dispute, but we would like to think so; and concert like this one, which we hope will find its way across the country and back to Boston, offers plenty of reasons why.