One thing to take away from Judy at Carnegie Hall is her athleticism as a performer. The flexibility and strength Garland shows in the first two numbers alone set the stage for the concert. But it’s not just her power as a singer that’s evident; it’s her power as an entertainer, too. One of the most generous stage performers of her era, she captivated her audiences with her singing and her stage presence and stage patter. Self-deprecating and comical (Garland was a hilarious comedienne and a legendary raconteur, as evidenced by all of her talk show appearances), she often punctuated her shows with laughs. If you listen to her version of “San Francisco”, you get to hear Garland become the consummate cabaret entertainer.
That tune—the title track of Jeanette MacDonald’s 1936 star vehicle—is a romping, bouncing tribute to the Gay Mecca. As if the queer subtext of queer icon Garland belting an anthem to possibly the gayest city in the country isn’t enough, there’s a very camp intro to the song in which Garland comically sings in mock admiration of MacDonald’s enduring (if relentless) performance of the song. To the audience’s laughter and applause, Garland sings, “I never will forget… mmmm, Jeanette MacDonald”, breaking up her fans with the well-timed “mmmm” before she continues with “I never will forget how that brave Jeanette / Just stood there in the ruins and sang.”
The way she tears into the words “ruins” and “sang” reveals a good-natured contempt for MacDonald’s hokey, light operetta-style of singing. That’s particularly heavy-handed when she trilled a rather bathetic version of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” that was mashed up with “San Francisco” at the end of disaster epic San Francisco. It’s a bit of a shady moment, with Garland sending up her fellow songbird to the merriment of her audiences. Yet, it’s all done in good fun, especially since in Garland’s history with MGM, there have been moments of equal chest-thumping lachrymose as well. The borders of camp blur mightily as Garland (a very camp performer in her own right) embraces the campiness of MacDonald.
Of course, one goes to a Judy Garland record to hear the hits; luckily, Judy at Carnegie Hall mines the diva’s history beautifully. For instance, “The Man That Got Away” pops up surprisingly early in the show (considering it’s such an important song in her canon). Though “Over the Rainbow” is regularly rated as her greatest song, I would argue it’s actually this stunning number, which was written by “Rainbow” writer Harold Arlen and music giant Ira Gershwin). It’s an interesting number that gives Garland a chance to do some subtle vocalizing as well as her signature belting.
It feels like two songs stitched together. The first part is a slow, chugging number in which Garland laments a lost lover as the song’s structure allows her thrilling, hair-raising vocal to run. She practically roars some of the lyrics, such as the “game” in “it’s all a crazy game”, which is downright heart-stopping. When she sings the words “good riddance, goodbye”, we get to the second part of the song: a build-up to an exciting and electrifying crescendo that sees her do some fantastic crooning.
The stylish “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” is another song highly identified with Garland and is a tremendous pleasure to hear. Lindsey’s orchestra does a superb job of approximating a big band, and it offers another moment for Garland to hug her audience with her gargantuan instrument. The song is also notable because of its extended instrumental break, which was a delightful way to have the orchestra show off its chops and bask in the spotlight—and a cheeky woodwind gets a great solo, as well.
Predictably, “Over the Rainbow” is the piece that gets the most oversized reaction by the crowd. It’s Garland’s anthem and has become a national anthem of sorts for gay male audiences. It’s a beautiful, wistful song, yearning in its desire. The lyrics tell the story of wanting to find transcendence and happiness somewhere off in the distance. In The Wizard of Oz, a 17-year-old Garland sang the song as Dorothy, lamenting the stifled stultifying environs of dustbowl-era Kansas. In Judy at Carnegie Hall, she sang the song as a brilliant and professional pop diva. It’s in this tune more than any other that she exploits the audience’s affection for her vulnerability.
Near the end of the show, Garland’s voice starts to fray; she misses a few notes early in the song, and she’s a bit pitchy, but that’s okay. That’s better because it’s when she stumbles that her audiences love her more. Of course, they love her when she’s laughing at being a riot, but it’s her frailty that made her into a pop saint. Garland starts uneasy on this rendition of the standard, milking the wear and tear in her voice before rallying and summoning up all of her special magic and hitting that last note perfectly. It’s simultaneously sincere and cynical, revealing her as a performer who adores her audience but at the same time understands how to manipulate them.
After its release, Judy at Carnegie Hall became a giant hit. It reached number one on the Billboard charts, earning a gold record and winning Garland a handful of Grammys. It’s considered such a landmark and a classic that the Library of Congress added it to the National Recording Registry in 2003.
As part of its legacy, Judy at Carnegie Hall is also a very queer record. It seems like the aptest tribute that fact came when openly queer artist Rufus Wainright recreated it with his show, Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall (which was released as an album in December 2007). The work is a track-by-track homage to Garland’s show, with Wainright taking on the role of the legendary diva. Wainright’s interpretation of Garland’s concert has a distinct gay sensibility not only because he’s engaging with her iconography with a queer audience but also because he’s an openly gay man performing songs normally associated with a woman.
In another affectionate nod by camp queerness, one of the tracks, “Come Rain or Come Shine”, was used on RuPaul’s Drag Race All Stars 4, in an episode entitled “RuPaul’s Best Judy’s Race” (wherein the queens pay homage to Garland by lipsyncing to the track at the end of it). The episode played with the gay male slang of calling a best friend a “Judy”; plus, the apocryphal explanation that the term “Friend of Dorothy” is a reference to Garland’s role in The Wizard of Oz.
Though released 60 years ago, Judy at Carnegie Hall still holds up. The music—some of the best-written songs of the 20th century—isn’t dated, and Garland’s performances—at times spirited, soulful, joyful, and stirring—give the album an emotional range and heft that remains potent over half a century after its release.