In honor of Garland's famous comeback at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961, the New York Pops, under the baton of Steve Reineke, set out to perform the legendary entertainer's entire set from that evening, song for song. They also used the original arrangements and orchestrations in Garland's original keys. It was a superb finish to the Pops' season.
For the special evening, the Pops invited Tony Award winners Heather Headley and Karen Olivo, and Drama Desk nominee Ashley Brown, as well as Luft, to perform the songs that are now part of American Songbook history.
Fans of all ages, including singular critic and writer Rex Reed (who was at Garland's original 1961 concert), filled Carnegie Hall for the chance to feel the magic from 50 years ago. Reed, who was seated just a few rows away from me last evening, recalled that Garland's powerhouse performance in the film "A Star Is Born" was matched only by that April night at Carnegie Hall.
When the drum roll began and those famous first five notes of the overture (echoing "The Man That Got Away") began, followed by those infectious bongos, the audience took over. Fans who had been listening to the Capitol Records album of the concert over the past 50 years, cheered and applauded on cue throughout the overture, no doubt guided by the applause heard on the original recording, as the Pops played snippets of "The Trolley Song," "Over the Rainbow" and "The Man That Got Away."
Olivo, Headley and Brown, all possessing uniquely beautiful voices, performed several trios throughout, including "When You're Smiling," "San Francisco," "That's Entertainment" and "Chicago."
Olivo also delivered a sensual "You Go to My Head" and a tender "You're Nearer"; while Brown had the chance to perform Garland's signature medley "You Made Me Love You"/"For Me and My Gal"/"The Trolley Song" and "Over the Rainbow"; and Headley put her own stamp on "Do It Again" and a full-voiced "Stormy Weather," which had the audience cheering.
I would be remiss to not note that the evening also was a fitting send-off for composer Hugh Martin, who died March 11 at the age of 96. Martin penned the score to the Garland screen vehicle "Meet Me in St. Louis," introducing audiences to such gems as "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," "The Boy Next Door" and "The Trolley Song."
In 1961, 38 musicians originally backed Garland, but the March 11 tribute boasted the 70-piece pops orchestra. It certainly took all three soloists performing together to truly balance the incredible sound coming from the musicians, as Headley told the crowd, "It's like a train. You either get on the front of it and ride it, and see new places together, or it's gonna run you over!"
But it was when Luft took the stage that performer and orchestra truly melded. When Judy Garland is your mother and producer Sid Luft is your father, showbiz is simply in your blood.
Luft, who sat in the front rows of Carnegie Hall for the original concert at the age of 9, reminisced that it was the first time in her life that she ever saw adults behave in such away. For the record, Judy's fans stormed the stage numerous times in 1961. Iconic photos from that evening show fans reaching for Judy at the foot of the stage.
Rex Reed, who was in the fifth row for the original concert, recalled that Eli Wallach and Anne Jackson had to keep him in his seat because he was in such a state. He also recalled that Lorna, her brother Joey, and half-sister Liza Minnelli, were attended to by Rock Hudson and Hedda Hopper that night. (If only I could have had those baby sitters!)
But back to March 11. The evening truly belonged to Luft, who performed three of her mother's songs, including "The Man That Got Away," "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby (With a Dixie Melody)." Luft pointed out that her first song, "The Man That Got Away," was from the only film her parents made together and said she is often asked about her earliest memories. "I was about 3 or 4 and my mother pulled me on stage and said 'Lorna likes the loud ones,'" she said prior to launching into "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby."
Luft's voice, burnished and full, took on the Pops orchestra with ease. The voice is uniquely her own, but there were numerous moments where that signature throb that belonged to Garland came through. Even Reed had to remark that Judy came through when Lorna sang. It was haunting, thrilling and appropriate. Fans sat with their eyes closed, listening, as Luft hit the pinnacle of each song conjuring the broad vibrato and focused power that, for a few moments, were simply, Judy.