In the three-plus decades since the death of stage and screen icon Judy Garland, her work and her image — apart from Garland's numerous films and recordings — had mostly been in the hands of various female impersonators. But a few years ago, the telefilm "Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows" seemed to change all that, bringing the legendary performer back to the distaff side. Both Judy Davis and Gypsy's Tammy Blanchard triumphed with and won Emmy Awards for their work as the legendary entertainer in the film based on Lorna Luft's book. Now, another actress is bringing the woman immortalized in "The Wizard of Oz" to full, glorious life. Her name is Isabel Keating, and last week she picked up a Drama Desk Award for her stunning portrayal of Judy Garland in the hit new musical The Boy From Oz at the Imperial Theatre. Keating is also Tony-nominated for her performance in the Peter Allen musical, which allows the actress to belt such Allen tunes as "All I Wanted Was the Dream," "Only an Older Woman," "Quiet Please, There's a Lady on the Stage" and the show-stopping "Don't Wish Too Hard." Earlier this week I had the chance to chat with the charming Keating, who re-creates Garland with incredible heart and stunning vocal and physical precision. That interview follows.
Question: Congratulations on your Drama Desk Award. What was that evening like for you?
Isabel Keating: Thank you. Oh, my gosh, it was surreal. The first part of it was really fun because I was sitting next to [The Boy From Oz co-star] Mitchel David Federan, and we were having some laughs — he's such a great person. And, then all of a sudden, they called my name, and I went up to some different cloud. I couldn't even think straight. When I came off, I said to [press agent] Joe Perrotta, 'Did I even say anything? Did I say any words?' [Laughs.] It was just such an honor. Also, I don't have much experience with these award ceremonies, so just to be in the same room with people that you've always admired and that are your peers but that you never see in the same room was really cool.
Q: How familiar were you with Judy Garland's work when you were cast in The Boy From Oz?
IK: When I got cast in the show, [I had done] the workshop, [which] was awhile before that. I knew a little bit more of her stuff; I originally only knew her from 'The Wizard of Oz' until about 1986 when my friend Joseph introduced me to a clip from one of her TV shows; it was her singing 'Old Man River,' and I was like, 'That's Dorothy? Oh my God.' And it really wasn't until 1995 when I did The Rise and Fall of Little Voice that I listened to her concert recordings. So I did some research then, but I still wasn't aware of the range of her work. I knew more of her films, and I listened to her concert recordings, so I was aware that she had the big concert years, but it wasn't until The Boy From Oz, really, that I delved in and read all of the books and found out all of her history. And her television shows were such a wealth [of information]. They are so amazing — some of them are just awful. [Laughs.] Even in the awful ones, though, there are moments of brilliance. And you see her as herself instead of in character. Even though she would always come through in the characters that she played, it was cool to see her interacting with guests but as herself.
Q: How did you go about approaching the role, as a character or as the icon?
IK: I put the icon to the side and respected it greatly, but left it outside the door [laughs] because it was too overwhelming. And, I approached it like I would building a character in a play, just in terms of the relationships. I mean, of course, you have the burden and the challenge when you're playing a historical figure — it's not a bad burden — it's a challenge of being true to the physicality. I'm fortunate that she's such an idiosyncratic person in that she had these specific ways of expressing herself, and needless to say, her voice, too, is so recognizable that you have to try to approach the sound of that somewhat in order to be true to life. Paul Huntley did the wigs, and that was really helpful. We went so far as to make the eyes dark brown. Because we figured, even for those first two rows of people who would see it, it would be a little disconcerting if you have [everything else] working and they go, 'Wait a minute, that's not Judy. She has blue eyes!' I wear brown contacts in the show, and they really change the shape of your face. It's really bizarre how they change the physiognomy of the face. Q: Vocally, I don't know your voice other than this show. How close are you vocally to Garland, or is this totally put on for the show?
IK: Of course, I don't sing like [Garland] all the time. I haven't had too much experience singing even as myself. But I know that I have certain things that I guess could be typified as her. I have been told by people that I have a plaintive quality to my voice, which I think could help with that kind of sob that Judy has in it. I try to get that in [my voice] when I can — that specific Garland thing. I never knew that I could belt, reach the back of the house like that. I always knew I could yell really loud, and I was the loudest one in my family, just because you had to compete. I was the eldest, but [my siblings] always acted like they were older. I think the loud thing comes in handy, but as far as my own singing, no, I don't sing like Judy.
Q: I know you haven't done other Broadway musicals, but have you performed in them regionally?
IK: When I first came to the city, I would audition for everything, whether I had the credentials or not. And I remember I auditioned for something down in Virginia in 1990. And, also, when I was in Savannah, my hometown, before I even did theatre professionally, they had a community theatre there, and I ended up doing one of the musicals there — Applause. I did it because I thought it would make my life in that town a little more interesting. So I auditioned and got into the chorus . . . I was in the chorus, and the chorus girl who played the lead chorus girl, Bonnie, got let go, and I then I got put into her role. Granted, you're supposed to dance for that role. [Laughs.] I did my best to fake it. I just thought it was so ironic, in retrospect, that a show about Eve Harrington taking over Margo Channing's role sort of had that subplot going on [within the cast].
Q: You had started to mention a show you had done in Virginia.
IK: I had auditioned for 1776, but the reason I auditioned for it is because they were doing this other show that sounded very interesting, a theatrical compilation of some stuff that had Stephen Schwartz music in it. I went in because I heard through a friend that they were a good place to work — they produced new plays, straight plays. And I thought, 'Okay, if I audition for this stuff, maybe they'll know my work, and then maybe I can do some new straight plays there when they do them' because I'm always interested in originating material. I thought, 'I don't even know what 1776 is, but I'll go in and sing for it,' and I ended up getting cast in the role of Martha Jefferson. There were nights where I was like, 'Where am I? I don't know what I'm doing' because singing with an orchestra [was such a new experience]. We did that for a couple of weeks, and I had a blast. And that was in 1990, almost 15 years ago.
Q: Was that the last musical you did?
IK: Yes, and then I did The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. It's a play, but you gotta sing. I always felt like I was sweating bullets up there because I felt like I was pulling one over on them, 'They made a mistake, they've cast me in this role. I don't know if I'll even be able to understand when I'm supposed to start singing.' . . . I listened a lot to the records. It was just sort of a 'whew' moment when I got through it and could go back to doing [straight plays]. I then did In Perpetuity Throughout the Universe regionally, which is a great play. I did Indian Ink — that was in 1999, but The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was one of the greatest things I've ever done. I just feel fortunate that I'd done so much work at the Studio Theatre that they even considered auditioning me for that because they were auditioning singers, and certainly they didn't consider me a singer.
Q: Would you consider yourself a singer now?
IK: I'm starting to! [Laughs.] Yeah, I realize that this is one of my skills that I do. I'm fortunate that my beloved is a musician, and he's been very encouraging and helpful on that, saying, 'Yes, you have to embrace it and use your instrument because you have it.' And there's something that I have to admit, and it's very scary to admit — I love it. I love singing! There's something otherworldly about it. The closest experience I've ever had to singing in front of an audience is doing Greek theatre. These huge emotions, like when you break into song because there's no other way to tell it. In a way, it's just an extension of what I do, but it's so great.
Q: You've been doing The Boy From Oz for about seven months now. How do you think your performance has changed during that period?
IK: The relationships have definitely become more intricate, more subtle. There are nuances there that all of us have discovered, so it becomes a richer and more textured fabric that all of us have created over the past seven months as we've all started to discover things about our characters and things about our responses to another characters. We just know our characters better, and I think that that's happened with me with Judy. I've come to trust her. I think the trust allows the character to live more fully because you can just respond freely. Now, granted, [that is] within the context of what we've created, in terms of what [director] Phil McKinley has set up in terms of blocking, where we have to be with the lights and stuff and not going radically out of bounds, but it is constantly new. And that's thanks in huge part to Hugh Jackman because of his take on Peter Allen, which is always fresh and [he has] such freedom out there with all of us.
Q: Is it as much of a lovefest backstage as everyone seems to say?
IK: Absolutely! [Laughs.] It's terrible, I keep trying to think of things, dirt to be able to dish, but there is none. Everybody — from the cast, the crew, the orchestra. Everybody loves going to work. It's so great. And you know how rare it is to be able to say that, it's just so great, so magical.
Q: Is this your longest run?
IK: Yeah, this is the longest thing I've ever done. I think the longest before that was Indian Ink. We started previews in August [and] I did four months of that.
Q: What are some of the challenges for you of doing eight shows a week and keeping the performance fresh?
IK: In the early part of the run, I learned how to pace myself physically because I had never really done a long schedule of eight shows a week. There was a point four months into it where I felt like my body was breaking down. [Laughs.] Because we had a couple of strange scheduling things, where we'd be off a Monday, then do 16 in a row, then have two days off. And at some point your body just says, 'No, this is the day that you're supposed to rest me,' and it complains. And I was going, 'Wait a minute, what's the matter with my knee?' But then if you pay attention to it, and give it some massage and some rest, it takes care of itself. As far as the artistic part of it, I've heard about the wall that people hit, the infamous wall. Either I've hit it and wasn't aware of it [laughs] or I haven't hit it yet, but I don't know that I could get tired of it — in terms of getting bored of doing the role — just because of who she is. There are so many levels to explore and also because of who our company is. We have antics backstage also, which really — even if you're in a funk or something bad has happened to someone's family — make us always able to laugh. I have a great dresser, who is just a great person to have back there. We're constantly laughing. Needless to say, Stephanie J. Block and I — we love each other so much. We're constantly laughing and talking.
Q: Have you formed a bond with Stephanie, your onstage daughter?
IK: Yes, it is so deep, and I hope it is healthier than the onstage relationship! [Laughs.] She's such an amazing talent. And Mitchel [David Federan] and I play poker together. He gave me a fancy poker set with lots of great chips for my birthday. So, there's a lot of stuff that keeps it fresh.
Q: Do you have a favorite moment in the show?
IK: No, it really depends on the day. Because the audience is such an integral part of it, the audience is another character in the play, so you just never know what you're going to get. So it's always really, really fun just to see what the ride is going to bring.
Q: How long are you contracted with the show?
IK: All the principals are contracted through Sept. 12. We'll see what happens after that. The producers are actively seeking a replacement for Hugh.
Q: Would you stay on if the producers find someone?
IK: Oh boy. I feel — this is strange to say. It would depend on who [the replacement] was. And I don't mean to be snarky about it, but I would feel like I was betraying someone, and I'm sure it feels that way for everyone. Since I've never had the experience of being in a long-running thing where they replace the cast. Granted, they might have felt that way in Enchanted April when I came in and took over for Molly [Ringwald], but it was a smaller group. We were already sort of intimate with one another there because it was a small group. But here, it's a large group. We've had to make room for different ensemble members coming and going. When the first one left, and the first new person came in, it was difficult, yet we welcomed them with open arms. And I would hope that would be the case with the lead, but Hugh sets the tone so much. His whole thing, his whole MO is — the work ethic is — incredible. I feel like I would be very judgmental. I hope that I won't be! [Laughs.] I just hope that my better self takes over!
Q: What are your thoughts about the upcoming Tony night?
IK: After what I experienced on Sunday night [at the Drama Desk Awards] — I was so flabbergasted. All the names that I wanted to thank wouldn't come into my head. And, of course, my agent said, 'You have to write some names down. It's not presumptuous, it's just necessary.' And I thought, 'Okay, I'll just write 'em down and whatever happens, happens.' I'm just thrilled to be there. I've never been to the Tony Awards. I've watched them. And, yeah, again, that word 'surreal' comes back to my head. I'm really looking forward to it, just to take the ride. Beth Fowler and I said that the other day. Somebody asked us, 'How are you guys feeling? You're in competition with one another.' And we looked at each other and said, 'Competition? This is amazing!' Just really looking forward to doing the red carpet thing. I don't have a dress yet. Don't have anything set up, and it's three weeks away. Yikes! [Laughs.]
Well, it's down to two. Next week will determine the fates of 16-year-old Diana DeGarmo and 19-year-old Fantasia Barrino, who hail from, respectively, Georgia and North Carolina. Earlier this week, Hawaii's Jasmine Trias was eliminated from the competition. To be honest, Trias stayed longer in the competition than she deserved; she possessed a fine voice but, to me, never seemed to have any connection to the lyrics she was singing. Whether she was performing an upbeat dance number or a sad ballad, she tended to offer the same smiley rendition. And, as good a voice as DeGarmo possesses — the young singer sure can belt impressively — it's been Barrino who I've been rooting for since early in the competition. If the previously ousted La Toya London boasted a smoother, more controlled instrument, it's Barrino who is and was the star of the third season of the FOX-TV program. (I had hoped Jennifer Hudson, who was voted out much too soon, would make it to the finals; I think she would have grown to become a formidable opponent for Barrino.) As for the effervescent Barrino, though, I don't think she's given one performance throughout the past several months that hasn't been exciting, whether tackling Aretha Franklin standards, pop hits or Porgy and Bess's "Summertime." I've been constantly amazed by her ease on stage, her emotional connection to the material she is singing and her unique, textured voice. Plus, anyone who can shed a tear because of what she is singing — rather than how she sang it — impresses me. Barrino is an original, dynamic performer with star quality who is deserving of the crown "American Idol." That said, I also thought last season's Clay Aiken should have been awarded the top prize, so I won't be surprised if America hands the title next Wednesday to DeGarmo. . . Let me know who you think should win!
(By the way, Clay Aiken will join Heather Headley at Monday's Home concert at the New Amsterdam Theatre, 214 West 42nd Street. Headley's Broadway Cares benefit concert will also include appearances by Norm Lewis, Adam Pascal, Michael McElroy and the Broadway Inspirational Voices. Call (212) 840-0770 for tickets.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and John Lithgow will be part of the June 7 gala benefit for the New 42nd Street, the organization responsible for the redevelopment of seven historic 42nd Street theatres. The benefit evening begins with cocktails at 6:45 PM in the lobby of the New Victory Theatre, 209 West 42nd Street. Lithgow will provide opening and introductory remarks prior to LuPone's 7:30 PM concert. La LuPone will offer selections from her acclaimed Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda concert, which features songs from Hair, Funny Girl, West Side Story, Peter Pan, Anything Goes and, of course, Evita. The one-night-only event concludes with a gala dinner at 8:30 PM at the New 42nd Street Studios, 229 West 42nd Street. Individual tickets for the benefit are priced $35 (show only), $50 (show only), $100 (cocktail reception and show only), $1,000, $1,500 and $2,500. Tickets can be ordered by calling Melissa Kalt at (646) 223-3082. For the show only, call (212) 239-6200. . . . It's been a busy week for those Wicked gals! Tony Award nominee Idina Menzel, who stars as Elphaba, will soon be seen on the silver screen. It was reported that the singer-actress will co-star in Robert Towen's "Ask the Dust," an adaptation of John Fante's novel. Colin Farrell and Salma Hayek head the cast of the film, which will be shot this summer in South Africa. Menzel will play Vera, who is in love with Farrell's character. The actress will miss performances of the hit new musical at the Gershwin to film the motion picture, although exact dates have yet to be specified. Menzel, as previously announced, recently extended her Wicked contract through Jan. 2, 2005. Her co-star, Kristin Chenoweth, will likely co-star in the feature-film adaptation of the classic TV series "Bewitched." The Tony-winning performer is currently in negotiations to play Marie, the nosey next-door neighbor to witch Samantha, who will be played by Academy Award winner Nicole Kidman. That film will co-star Will Ferrell, Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine. Chenoweth will depart her Wicked role after her contract is finished, July 18. . . . Marin Mazzie and Brian Stokes Mitchell, who have appeared onstage together in Ragtime; Kiss Me, Kate; and Man of La Mancha, will be part of PBS' upcoming "National Memorial Day Concert." This year's concert pays homage to all the Americans who have served our country with a special tribute to our troops in Iraq. Ossie Davis and Tom Hanks will co-host the annual concert, set to air on most PBS stations May 30, 8-9:30 PM ET; check local listings. . . . Speaking of Mazzie, she and husband Jason Danieley will appear in the Pasadena Playhouse's upcoming production of 110 in the Shade. The acting couple will star in the Harvey Schmidt Tom Jones-N. Richard Nash musical June 18-July 25. David Lee will direct the production, which is based on Nash's The Rainmaker. Due to previous commitments Mazzie and Danieley will miss performances June 26 (both shows), 27 (matinee), 30 (evening) and July 1 (evening). Tickets for 110 in the Shade are available by calling the theatre's box office at (626) 356-7529. The Pasadena Playhouse is located in Pasadena, CA, at 39 S. El Molino Avenue. . . . Little Shop of Horrors' Kerry Butler, who portrays the lovable but ditzy Audrey, will depart the company of the Jerry Zaks-directed production June 20. No replacement has been announced for Butler, although 'N Sync's Joey Fatone will begin performances as down-on-his luck plant-shop-worker Seymour June 24. . . . The original Audrey, Ellen Greene, who created the role of in the Off-Broadway and subsequent film of Little Shop of Horrors, is set to co-star in a production of Warren Leight's Side Man. Greene will appear in the Malibu Stage Company's mounting of the Tony-winning play beginning June 2. The production will play Friday and Saturday evenings at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM at the Malibu theatre, 29243 Pacific Coast Highway; call (310)-589-1998. The singer-actress is also heading into the recording studio in June to begin laying down tracks for a new solo recording. Among the songs Greene will record are Jane Siberry's "Love Is Everything," Queen's "You Take My Breath Away" and "Too Much Love Will Kill You," Tom Waits' "Rainbow Sleeves," Peter Allen's "Pretty Pretty" and "Continental American," Sarah McLachlan's "I Love You" and "I Do What I Have to Do," Nikka Costa's "Nothing," Paula Cole's "Throwing Stones" and Tori Amos' "Winter." She will also record the song "When Love Is Gone," penned by her musical director and husband, Christian Klikovits. Among Greene's upcoming concert dates are two shows at the San Francisco nightspot Martuni's, May 30 and June 20. She'll offer shows at 6 and 8 PM at the cabaret, located at 4 Valencia Street; call (415) 241-0205. Greene will also be part of the summer season at Provincetown, performing Aug. 19-31. . . . And, finally, two free outdoor concerts were announced this week. The third annual "Broadway Under the Stars" concert will be held June 14 in Bryant Park. The 90-minute toast to Manhattan marks the kick-off to the city's outdoor summer concert season. A host of Broadway stars to be announced shortly will take part in the evening, which includes songs from the musical theatre backed by a 35-piece orchestra. Montages of scenes from classic movies will also be shown on a giant screen in the park. Show time is 8:30 PM. Also, stars from nearly every show playing on Broadway will participate in the free "Stars in the Alley" concert June 2. The annual concert, held in Shubert Alley, will begin at 11:30 AM and will feature stars from A Raisin in the Sun, Assassins, Avenue Q, Beauty and the Beast, Bombay Dreams, The Boy From Oz, Caroline or Change, Chicago, Fiddler on the Roof, 42nd Street, Frozen, Golda's Balcony, Hairspray, I Am My Own Wife, Jumpers, Little Shop of Horrors, Mamma Mia!, Movin' Out, Rent, The Lion King, The Phantom of the Opera, The Producers, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Wicked and Wonderful Town. Shubert Alley is located west of Broadway between 44th and 45th streets. Audience members should enter on 44th Street. Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching!