BY DAVID NOH | Judy Garland’s legacy is, of course, incalculable, and not only are there her films and music that keep her so resonantly alive, there are also her children.
Judy’s middle child, longtime gay activist Lorna Luft, keeps her torch burning with her Feinstein’s at the Regency appearance (540 Park Ave. at 61st St., through Jan. 9, 8:30 p.m.; feinsteinsattheregency. com), “Songs My Mother Taught Me: the Judy Garland Songbook.”
Luft told me, “This is a show I’ve been doing for almost ten years, all around the world. I’m really proud of it, but it took me a long time to feel comfortable with all this material. I don’t believe that you really get to know your parents until you’re in your 40s. Before that, you’re making your footsteps, having kids, and figuring out your life and career. In your 40s, you’re able to look back and say, ‘What’s it all about, where did it all start, and how do I tell my kids?’ That’s what happened to me; I’d never sung these songs until then because it was too hard for me.
Judy’s middle child; ‘Rent’ boys reunite
“What’s it like to be constantly reminded of my mother, every time I turn the TV or radio or see her image in a card shop? She was everyone’s icon and legend but she was my Mom: I don’ t know any different. I understand and respect this unending fascination with her, but it’s not the same for me. I knew the human being in the white bathrobe in the kitchen who tucked me into bed and we’d talk. That inescapability from her is something I took a long time to feel comfortable with. There are very few of us who really understand this — Lisa Marie Presley, Lucie and Desi Arnaz, the Sinatra kids, Michael Jackson’s. But it’s weird, ok? It’s something we’ve just had to adjust to because they’re not here to guide us.”
Garland once praised Lorna, saying that she had more talent than anyone in the family, with her rich, warm, and mellifluous voice: “Every time that’s brought up, I’m very grateful. I still work on my voice with a coach and am fascinated by singers, like Renee Fleming, and the opera world. To me, that’s the real deal. I sent Renee my CD of this show, and she wrote me, saying that my ‘Man That Got Away’ was brilliant. I almost made wallpaper out of that. As I’ve said to her, ‘You open your mouth and that noise comes out. How do you do that?’ And she says, ‘I look at you and think the same thing.’”
Close friend Barry Manilow worked on the CD: “We met in 1972, and what he did for my CD was extraordinary. I had done the show for so long I naturally had gone into an automatic pilot situation. When we began, I started to sing, and he said, ‘I don’t believe one word out of you.’ He made me go all the way back to the first time I heard the songs, almost like therapy, and made me look at them in a way I hadn’t for a long, long time. He’s a brilliant director, but tough. Oh my God, my mother would have loved working with him. He’s another Mort Lindsay!”
Luft sang with Rufus Wainwright at his 2006 recreation of Garland’s immortal 1961 Carnegie Hall concert: “When he contacted me about doing this big tribute, I didn’t really know him, but when we met, his passion was so infectious. He said, ‘I have to make people never forget.’ There was never any footage of her concert, there’s no DVD, and right after he did that, my Mom’s Carnegie Hall CD spiked through the roof because there are two generations who don’t know that record.
“I was there in 1961, and what was extraordinary was that I’d never seen adults act like that, standing on chairs, screaming, and reaching out to her. The Beatles hadn’t come along yet, and it was really interesting to me, because it was for my Mom. Before the concert, she was not exactly nervous, but like how a horse gets excited before a race — that’s how she would get. She and Mort Lindsay had rehearsed it and knew exactly what they were doing. It was one of those nights everybody was anticipating, and Mort just said to me, a couple of months ago, that the stars just lined up and everything came off perfectly.”
A sadder milestone was Garland’s New York funeral in 1969, the same week as the Stonewall Uprising: “There’s a whole group of people who say that my Mom’s passing away had nothing to do with Stonewall and then others who say that was a key element. I have no opinion about it because I, too, am getting an education about it all, just listening to those who were there. I was a 16-year-old who had just lost a parent, and didn’t know anything about it.
“As for the funeral itself, and all the crowds, I don’t really remember any of that. I’ve seen the footage, but it was a sort of out-of-body experience for me. The body sort of protects you from tragedy with a defense mechanism that allows you to put one foot in front of the other. It was incredibly painful for me, as it is for anyone who loses a parent, whatever the age; it’s a life-altering experience which never gets better, just different.”
Recalling her father, Sid Luft, she said, “We had a very interesting relationship, very close growing up, but then we became estranged when I wrote my book [“Me and My Shadows”] because he wanted to do his, and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re gonna beat me to this!’ I said, ‘Hello? She was my mother and your ex-wife. If you want to, go ahead.’ But he never did, and we became estranged because I discovered that it wasn’t as painful for me to really look into who my parents really were. My father resented that, because he thought of my Mom more as property, and certainly it was his livelihood, something that was very sad and disturbing to me. But, at the end of his life, we made amends and he said, ‘You wrote a fantastic book and made a brilliant mini-series from it,’ and that made me feel good.”
Luft had this to say about “Judy Speaks,” a bootleg CD from private tapes of a distraught Garland railing against her father, which certain vicious queens adore playing to get into a questionable “party” mood: “That was pretty vile. I know where that came from and how it was obtained by people. These conversations were meant to be private and were made public, and I’ve heard parts of them, but it all has a big ‘ick’ factor for me. I wonder if these people would play it if I was in the room, or my sister or brother or my children? They’re all exploiting someone who had a part of her life that was tragic. She wasn’t, but she had tragedies in her life, as we all do. But, again, people like to watch car crashes and people in public life crashing and burning and reality TV shows. I don’t wanna see that. Thank God I have a clicker, which everyone has a right to have in America!”
Luft’s book sparked rumors of a rift it caused between her and sister Liza Minnelli: “Again, I love the fact that all this stuff goes out there! We have both made a conscious decision not to talk about our relationship because whatever we have said, nobody wants to hear that we really like each other. So we now say nothing because if you keep it personal between the two of you, it’s special. Once you put it out there, everybody starts talking, so let’s just not do that.”
Of all Garland’s films, “A Star is Born” has a special appeal for Luft “because of her extraordinary performance and it is so well written by Moss Hart. It was like Carnegie Hall, when all this talent and the stars lined up, and then you had this idiot, Jack Warner, who decides to take a pair of scissors to it.” Asked about that certain mysterious collector who swears he has all the cut footage from the film intact, Luft sighed, “Oh yeah, okay, sure! I know this guy, and you sort of wannna say, ‘Okay, if you’re gonna run around and say you have this, either you’re going to share it with the class or the class is gonna leave, ’cause we’re all sort of done with it.’ I’m not going to buy into the drama.”
Luft’s favorite Garland song? “There are so many, but there’s one, ‘Through the Years,’ which was one of her favorite songs, that I duet with her in my show. It’s such a great lyric and was not one of her most infamous songs, but one she really loved.”
“Rent” co-stars Anthony Rapp and Adam Pascal are reteaming for a Town Hall concert on January 10 (123 W. 43rd St.; 8 p.m.; the-townhall-nyc.org), presented by Feinstein’s at Loew’s Regency, and I fought my way through the security at the Regency Hotel (there for a visiting Israeli dignitary) to hear Rapp rap about it.
“Adam and I have been friends for all these years,” he said, “and doing our own music, but it was really his idea. It was something I’d thought about, but I don’t want to impose myself on other people, so I’m glad he did it. Our sets are very different, yet complementary. His is more stripped down and atmospheric with that incredible voice of his, then I do one that is straight-ahead rock band stuff, and then we do stuff together.
“I do some original stuff from my album. ‘Look Around,’ which came out in 2000, songs I’ve written since then, this Radiohead song ‘Creep,’ which they don’t perform in concert anymore, a ‘Hedwig and the Angry Inch’ song, because I got to play that a few years ago. Then Adam and I will sing “Rent” songs, stripped down and totally different.”
Rapp just returned from Seoul, South Korea, where he performed his one-man show, “Without You,” a sell-out at last year’s NYMF festival: “Adam and I were on tour with ‘Rent’ there last year, and our producer brought me back for four weeks. I was so conscious on my first night that Seoul is still pretty closeted, and there’s content in my show where I talk about coming out to my Mom. There’s very little open conversation about that, so it meant a lot to me to do that there. I had a signing after every performance and a lot of people didn’t speak much English, but I got letters, like one from a young man saying how the ‘Rent’ DVD helped him come to terms with his sexuality and inspired him to work for equality in South Korea. So, just being in touch with that ripple effect was really powerful.
“Musical theater is really exploding in South Korea, but they still haven’t quite developed the infrastructure for it. But audiences are really eager, so they’re throwing everything at the wall to see what sticks. My show was 90 percent young women, not gay men, but then that’s the case in America, too. I don’t know why that is, but I do believe that the younger generations profoundly don’t care if you’re gay and kind of like the idea of otherness and queerness, and celebrate it.
“My coming out? Part of what happened was in 1992 when I was cast as a replacement for John Cameron Mitchell in ‘Destiny of Me,’ so I got to be around [playwright] Larry Kramer, and that was very galvanizing in the early ’90s, which was still going pretty crazy around AIDS. There was no way not to be out for me. I understand that people struggle with it, with their families, and there are certainly celebrities who are closeted, which will probably always be the case. But I wish they would accept it because with all these kids right now the stakes are higher all the time. How much money do you need? Are you really afraid of ruining your career, which it probably won’t, anyway? You could make a huge difference, especially celebrities of color.
“I’ve never had any backlash from it, at least never to my face. If there somehow has been, I’ve worked enough, so it’s balanced out. Maybe conversations have happened in closed rooms, but I don’t know or care, and it’s only brought good things to my life.”
“Rent” remains special to Rapp and, although composer Jonathan Larsen’s untimely death was a tragedy, he told me, “Dan Weiss, one of ‘Rent’s’ original band members, told me this story in Korea that Jonathan’s last night on earth was our dress rehearsal, and, afterwards, the audience clamored around him.
“The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini was there to cover it because it was the 100th anniversary of ‘La Boheme,’ but he was so blown away he asked Jonathan to sit for an on-the-spot interview. At some point Dan asked Jonathan how he was doing and Jonathan said, ‘I feel like I’m the luckiest man alive.’ So I’m comforted knowing that he felt that and had no idea of what was to come. It remains unbelievable to me.”
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” followed “Rent,” in which Rapp was witness to the star being born that was Kristin Chenoweth, whom he said everyone thought was great in the rehearsal room, “but when we opened in Chicago, the audience went bananas for everything Kristin did, and then Ben Brantley wrote like five paragraphs about her in the Times. So what happened for her was what happened for all of us in ‘Rent,’ but this time only for her. We were very happy for her, but she was in this crazy position, because Brantley had also maligned the show — this amazing moment in her life in this panned show she loved with all these people we loved.
“Of course, we didn’t hate her, were happy for her, but sad that the show didn’t get the life it deserved. Brantley wrote something like the audience felt there was a black hole in the room, and I know the night he was there the audience was going nuts for it. It’s so strange.”
Critics! They’re like awards: “I’ve been reported as having been Tony-nominated for ‘Rent,’ which I wasn’t. I even knew someone who was on the Tony committee that year who told me, ‘I just want you to know that there were voters in that room who literally couldn’t remember which one was Adam and which was you. They were confused! [My brother] Adam [Rapp] was nominated for a Pulitzer, but that was the year they decided to give no award, and that’s almost worse. It’s fine, nice to get recognition, and it’s beautiful that Jonathan Larsen will always be known as a Pulitzer Prize winner, but at the same time, if he wasn’t, it wouldn’t mean the show isn’t as amazing as it is.”
Rapp has a boyfriend, Michael Quadrino: “He’s a figure skater, which is a crazy, brutal, competitive world that I have so much respect for, but no envy of. There’s so much hard work, degradation, and struggle for so little reward. It’s worse than being a dancer because skating is such a tiny, tiny window of opportunity. Michael’s brother, an actor, had read my book, and Michael had just broken his ankle and was devastated and low. Danny thought my book might help him, and Michael read it and wrote a really nice email about how my book helped his experience. I wrote him back and we started a correspondence, became friends, and a few months into it, something more. More unlikely and kind of wonderful.”