It feels as if the English language cannot contain the brilliance of Judy Garland‘s legendary concert at Carnegie Hall (on Sunday, 23 April 1961). Superlatives are piled on with abandon in an attempt to capture just how wonderful and mind-blowing that night was. It’s often been called “the greatest night in show business”, and it seems that no accolade is too much. No amount of praise goes too far in describing that iconic performance in that hallowed venue.
Garland is the kind of entertainer that elicits extravagant praise because she isn’t merely a singer; she’s the embodiment of mid-century American showbiz. Her tumultuous life and career have been studded with tremendous success and crushing failures—these extremes seem tailor-made for a singer who would become a patron saint to gay men. Her tiny frame packed a wallop of talent, and she traded in raw, naked vulnerability. When she sang sad, torchy songs, it felt like she was flaying herself emotionally for her audiences, exposing her nerves to inform her art. She’s a martyr to her music; more than any other musical performer of the 20th century, Garland was the kind of singer that tried to give blood when she sang. And she was never more potent than when she was on the stage.
Sure, she was a movie star (one of the biggest at the time), and that’s still how her fans know her best. She’s the fresh-faced ingenue who teamed up with Mickey Rooney, Fred Astaire, and Gene Kelly to put on a show. Or, she’s the rosy-cheeked Dorothy Gale vanquishing evil witches and trying to get back home to Kansas. Or, she’s the emotionally fraught Vicki Lester in 1954’s A Star Is Born, watching her burgeoning career grow exponentially as her movie star husband’s career stalls steeply. These are the guises (or personae) with which Garland is familiar to most people. Little girls braid their hair and put on gingham dresses and sparkly red shoes for Halloween (as do some grown men, of course). And the trope of “Hey, let’s put on a show!” is largely due to the series of musical comedies she made as a teenager with Rooney.
Garland’s most successful film work was at MGM (as its greatest musical performer). The work she did for that studio was relentlessly cheerful and upbeat. All of the vulnerability that she possessed—the thick throb in her gigantic voice; those large, brown eyes, always on the verge of tears; and that catch in the way she speaks, as she nibbles her thumb forlornly—was used to maximize the potency of her endless optimism. No matter how bad things got (in most of her films, things never got that bad), she managed to shore up her feelings of doubt and soldier through. The films’ happy endings always assure viewers that our Judy will be fine. She usually ended the movies with a peppy number, her smiling face hitting that last triumphant note.
But Garland’s best work engages with both the light and the dark of her art. It’s when that resilience is truly tested that we get Garland at her peak. That is why her work in George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born is easily her superlative work. Cukor was a director who had a reputation as a tyrant with some of his actresses. Yet, he was also praised as a filmmaker who had a special affinity for leading ladies, with an innate ability to get the best performances out of them. (When he got fired from Gone with the Wind, Cukor was reportedly still consulted by Vivien Leigh for feedback on her work during filming.) It’s in A Star Is Born that, generations after her death, viewers can truly still see Garland at her greatest. It’s an extravagant three hours of her singing, dancing, laughing, crying, and emoting. It’s almost too much, and it’s the closest thing we’ll ever get to one of her fabled concerts that appeared to be more like tent revivals than simply concerts.
Because Judy Garland began her career as a vaudevillian and stage performer, to see her at her best means seeing her live. It’s the moment when she can share with her audiences that potent combination of mountainous talent and irresistible star quality.
Sadly, we cannot see her live anymore. But, what we do have is a library of artifacts from her concert career, with the highlight being 1961’s double album, Judy at Carnegie Hall. The album was released on 10 July, exactly one month after her 39th birthday. She had scaled some dizzying heights at that point in her career and endured some ignominious lows. She wasn’t even 40, yet she was no longer a movie star, her film career essentially over due to the financial failure of A Star Is Born and her reputation for being difficult and unpredictable on film sets. (She would go on to make only four more films, including an Oscar-nominated cameo in the 1961 Stanley Karmer drama, Judgment at Nuremberg.) She turned to the stage as a way to maintain a career, graduating to a new career as a concert performer.
Judy at Carnegie Hall works on many different levels. On the surface, it’s a concert album—one that captures a near-peak Garland at full possession of her considerable powers. But other layers surface once one listens to the record several times. Looking at the collection of songs (which contain a number of her signature songs, such as “Over the Rainbow”, “The Man That Got Away”, and “The Trolley Song”), Judy at Carnegie Hall also operates effortlessly as the best and most comprehensive greatest hits collection in her career. Although her work’s been endlessly compiled in many various forms, this LP is special because Garland was alive to contribute to the show’s conception. The budget-priced CDs of Garland’s songs that one can find in any store now (always featuring some version of “Over the Rainbow”) often are hodgepodge gatherings of tunes that are easiest to license. With Judy at Carnegie Hall, Garland has a hand in the album’s presentation.
Because Garland’s musical coming-of-age and growth came around WWII, her concert repertoire had been represented by the Great American Songbook. It’s ironic, then, that despite being regarded as one of the greatest vocalists of the 20th century, Garland is rarely included in lists of the greatest interpreters of the Great American Songbook. Frank Sinatra is usually at the top of them, and Ella Fitzgerald is often included as well. However, when looking at the songwriting credits of Judy at Carnegie Hall, it’s clear that Garland has a direct connection to some of the greatest tunesmiths of the pre-rock pop era. Artists such as Harold Arlen, Yip Yarburg, Ira Gershwin, Lerner and Lowe, Lorenz Hart, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, and Noël Coward, among others. Garland’s sophisticated urbanity worked well with the classy, refined elegance of pre-rock pop standards. Hence, it’s fitting that Garland’s greatest album was recorded in New York because although she wasn’t necessarily linked with the Big Apple (unlike her daughter, Liza Minnelli), there was something essentially New York about her.
Like any great soundtrack to a musical show, the album opens with an overture. The iconic Mort Lindsey conducted the show’s orchestra. To the welcoming applause, the orchestra launches into an instrumental version of “The Man That Got Away” from A Star Is Born. The arrangement is grand and stentorian as if introducing the score of a great Broadway show. The music quickly turns quick and jazzy with a lively version of “The Trolley Song” from Meet Me in St. Louis—which takes the song from its MGM 1940s context into supper club showbiz pop of the 1960s. Of course, the medley peaks with “Over the Rainbow” from The Wizard of Oz, arguably Garland’s most identified song.
She appears on the record with “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You)”, and it’s clear that this is a different Judy Garland than the fresh-faced juvenile who innocently warbled “Over the Rainbow” in sepia. Listeners who are only familiar with Garland-as-Dorothy will be surprised by the large, thick, and mature voice blasting through their speakers. Her voice is strong and muscular, its vibrato prominent; but, more important than the technical prowess of her singing is her ability to embody the tone of the song. Her giant voice is gregarious and friendly, and she uses her comedic skills to tweak some of the songs’ (overwritten) humorous lyrics.
After “When You’re Smiling”, she follows up with a medley of “Almost Like Being in Love” from the 1947 musical Brigadoon and “This Can’t Be Love” from the Rogers and Hart show The Boys from Syracuse. Though not a jazz singer or a Broadway singer, Garland can bend and adapt her singing style to barrel through a jazz song or a show tune with the aplomb of a pro. The medley is a swinging number, and she zigs zags with an adroit nimbleness.