Prizm News / April 1, 2018 / By Christine Howey
Cleveland’s Joan Ellison performs as Judy Garland on stage. Offstage, she’s restoring original arrangements from Judy’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
By Christine Howey
Was a single concert in New York City on April 23, 1961, the greatest night in show business history? Is it still the “holy grail” of live performances? Will it always be the ultimate example of a singer blending vocal strength, restraint and taste?
All of those descriptions have been applied to Judy Garland’s concert at Carnegie Hall that Sunday evening 57 years ago. And legions of people, within the gay community and far beyond, have paid homage to that singular moment-in-time when a 38-year-old singer— fragile and battered by life but still powerful—devastated her audience with 25 matchless songs.
While Garland certainly earned most of the praise for the concert, there are other aspects to the event that also deserve recognition. Prime among them are the arrangements by a variety of people, which were brought together under the musical direction of Mort Lindsey.
Many people, understandably, don’t pay much attention to the orchestra and how the notes are arranged on their music stands. But any musician or singer will tell you that the orchestrations are a critical factor in the success of performance, how it is received and how it endures. The orchestrations indicate the notes for every instrument, establishing the rhythmic feel and mood of a song, harmonizing the vocal melody and often adding new instrumental countermelodies.
That’s why the symphonic arrangements from that Judy Garland performance are being lovingly restored by the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project. And there’s an Ohio connection to the project: Renowned (and openly gay) singer, pianist and music revivalist Michael Feinstein, a native of Columbus, invited Clevelander Joan Ellison to serve as editor of the project.
Ellison is a graduate of the Oberlin Conservatory of Music and a teacher of popular voice at the Cleveland Institute of Music.
“It’s such an honor for me to be involved in this project,” says Ellison, who performs three shows of Judy Garland songs, including a one-woman theater piece titled, “All Happiness, Judy Garland.”
“Judy Garland was my first vocal influence, ever since my parents gave me a record of ‘The Wizard of Oz’ when I was 2 years old. And I’m still performing many of Judy’s songs and paying homage to her brilliance to this day.”
For more than a decade, Ellison had corresponded with Feinstein until she met him at a Blossom Music Center concert in 2016. The two discussed some of the arrangements from the iconic Garland concert, and that led to Ellison joining the restoration project sponsored by the Judy Garland Heirs Trust.
It’s no easy task. As Ellison notes: “It’s actually like a treasure hunt, searching for the keys to the kingdom that was the music on that night.”
Out of the 25 songs Garland sang at Carnegie Hall, plus the overture, there are reputable copies of a few. And of the arrangements in hand, some have only the instrumental parts but not the conductor’s score.
“Then there are the cross-outs, weird quiggles, unreadable handwriting and the occasional missing part, so then I have to transcribe from the recordings. It’s incredibly complex, but I’m working on it steadily and hope to be finished in a year or two.”
The goal of the project is to make the orchestrations playable and available for rental to orchestras and organizations that would like to recreate these songs as they were done more than 50 years ago.
It will be a new way for those scores—penned by musical luminaries such as Nelson Riddle, Conrad Salinger, Hal Mooney, Jack Cathcart and others—to be celebrated all over again.
As Ellison says, “It is a tremendous responsibility and also a great joy to be working with this music.” Not to mention the opportunity to collaborate with Feinstein, as well as historian and author John Fricke, who wrote “The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion to the Timeless Classic.”
Ellison performs these amazing arrangements with orchestras around the country in her Judy Garland symphonic pops concert called “Get Happy! A Judy Garland Celebration,” as she did at the Cleveland Pops at Severance Hall in 2017.
“Getting to stand onstage and sing these arrangements myself with a symphony orchestra is the biggest thrill I could ever imagine and makes all the work worth it.,” she says . “There’s absolutely nothing else like it.
It’s also another chance to pay tribute to the genius of Judy Garland, a performer who shared her vulnerabilities as well as her undeniable life force on stage. That ability to share, as she struggled to overcome her own obstacles, made her an enduring legend.
Christine Howey has covered the arts in Northeast Ohio for more than two decades. She also has written and performs in her own one-woman show, “Exact Change,” about her life as a transgender woman. She maintains a theater blog at raveandpan.blogspot.com.