On Monday night, some of New York’s best and brightest stars stepped out to honor one of their greatest heroes – Judy Garland.
The third annual “Night of a Thousand Judys,” taking place at the Merkin Concert Hall at the Upper West Side’s Kaufman Center, is a Pride concert dedicated to the erstwhile Dorothy Gayle. Written and hosted by Justin Sayre, (with Lance Horne serving as musical director), “Judys” features a wide array of performers from the New York stage, including Nancy Anderson, Justin Vivian Bond, Carolee Carmello, Jaime Cepero, Lea DeLaria, Danielle Grabianowski, Telly Leung, Karen Mason, Scott Matthew, Christiane Noll, Madeleine Peyroux, Molly Pope, and Martha Wash.
“Judys” is a special presentation of Sayre’s monthly cult variety show, “The Meeting,” paying tribute to the legend and gay icon through a series of songs and sketches. “Every month at our regular show, we celebrate the life of a gay icon,” Sayre explained. “But the goal of the show has always been creating community. From the very beginning, we sought out to end our season with a large benefit for an organization doing good work for the LGBT community. When trying to figure out a way to celebrate Garland, the ideas just kept coming. I thought this isn’t just one show, it’s a series. It’s an annual show! In that way we combined our benefit with a way to celebrate perhaps the greatest gay icon of them all.”
And so in order to “celebrate the best gay icon with the best talent in New York,” Sayre amassed performers from all over the New York theatre map. “Every year, we are continually blown away by the response of the New York performing community. And I’ll tell you, something happens when you tell people it’s a Judy tribute,” he added. “Judy has a place in the hearts of so many performers, from so many arenas, that a chance to pay tribute to this legend is a chance many jump at.”
“I have always been amazed by Judy Garland’s incredible vulnerability,” said Carmello, who just enjoyed her third career Drama Desk and Tony nominations for Scandalous. “She had the ability to deliver sadness underneath joy, and the brilliance to layer longing and pain with charm and smiles.”
Adding to the appeal of “Judys,” however, is a serious cause. The concert benefits The Ali Forney Center, the nation’s largest and most comprehensive organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth. “It goes back to community again,” Sayre explained. “The Ali Forney Center does the work of caring for the most vulnerable of our community, our children. Brave kids, who came out, and for that act of integrity, to live their lives fully and truthfully, are punished by their natural parents. The Ali Forney Center assists these amazing kids find a place to live but also helps them rebuild their lives with education and careers.”
Community is a notion that runs deep for the “Judys” emcee. “When I moved to New York, I saw a community still dealing with the devastation of AIDS. I felt like I had to discover gay culture alone. I loved so much of what I learned and saw and I wanted to share that. I wanted an arena to talk about and celebrate what makes gay culture but also the politics, the love, the life, and everything in between that makes up our gay experience. I wanted to revel in our difference but also bond in our similarity. It’s become my own little version of the Carol Burnett show with a little Bill Maher thrown in.”
Sayre also theorized about why Garland’s legacy continues to resonate so strongly. “As a performer, Judy’s always represented the depth of commitment to an audience. Yes, her voice is iconic and thrilling and beautiful and a thousand other beautiful words and sensations, but beyond all that, she was able to make everyone in every audience she ever sang for feel a connection to her, to feel as though the song she sang was made just for them. That‘s unforgettable. It burns itself into your heart.”
Anderson, who can also be seen in Far From Heaven at Playwrights Horizons echoed that sentiment: “When I was five years old I distinctly remember sitting six inches from the TV screen watching Judy sing “Over the Rainbow” in the yearly broadcast of The Wizard of Oz and carefully identifying why I liked each and every nuance of her performance. She awakened in me a life-long obsession with song delivery at an impossibly young age.”
“To be touched in that way, by a stranger, by a performer, is magic,” Sayre said. “There really isn’t any other word for it. I know it’s magic for me. And I hear that echoed in the voices of so many performers and audience members who get just as excited about Judy Garland as I do, all the while raising money for an organization that is doing the best work in caring for LGBT youth. It’s a perfect fit and for a friend of Dorothy like me, it’s a dream come true.”
For tickets to “Night of a Thousand Judys,” please visit www.kaufmanmusiccenter.org/mch/event/ali-forney-center-benefit-concert.
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