LORNA Luft may sound perky but she’s actually pretty tired. It’s fair enough, having given two concert performances as part of the cast of Stephen Sondheim’s masterpiece Follies the day before we speak. “Meryl Streep was in the audience,” she shrieks. “Oh my god. It was so cool. Just great. I’m so glad that I didn’t know that before I went on. The whole world showed up – it was wild.”
As the daughter of Judy Garland and Hollywood producer Sid Luft, there is something rather sweet about Luft being overwhelmed by the starry audience who packed out the Royal Albert Hall. Full of stories and chat, it’s clear she’s still on a high from the performance alongside Christine Baranski, Stephanie Powers, Ruthie Henshall, Anita Dobson and Betty Buckley, amongst others. There’s also something neat about it having been this particular show, Sondheim’s bittersweet elegy to Vaudeville, where Luft’s mother began her extraordinary career, years before MGM and those ruby slippers, when she was Frances “Baby” Gumm alongside her sisters, Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia, and their mother, Ethel.
Honestly, I had wondered how Luft might be with talking about her mother. The reason for our chat is the upcoming show, The Songbook of Judy Garland, which begins its national tour in Edinburgh next week. But it can’t be easy growing up in the shadow of “Miss Showbusiness”, not least because Garland is one of those performers whose mythology is every bit as potent as her fans are devoted. People, even now, adore Garland. Living with that might be a little difficult at times. As it turns out, my worries were misplaced. Luft couldn’t be clearer about wanting to celebrate the legacy of her mother. “When people tell me that they remember where they were when they heard this song or that, or they remember their children watching The Wizard of Oz for the first time, I just say thank you,” she says, “because that’s my mother’s legacy and so it’s my legacy and it will be my children’s and my grandchildren’s legacy.”
It’s not just audiences either, the people who have bought records or watched movies, enthralled by Garland’s voice. “When we were in rehearsals the other day, Betty Buckley, one of the treasures of showbusiness, told me that she could sing the Carnegie Hall album when she was ten years old,” Luft says. “It was my mom who made her want to go into showbusiness. I loved her for telling me that.” It also made her laugh. “Imagine a ten-year-old singing all those dramatic songs,” Luft says.
Recorded live on 23 April, 1961, the Carnegie Hall album became known as “the greatest night in showbusiness history”. Stormy Weather, That’s Entertainment, After You’ve Gone, Garland sang hit after hit in front of an adoring crowd. My dad had a copy of the two-disc album that crackled and hissed from years of playing. He loved it. Garland was long past her MGM heyday. She’d been signed when she was 13 in 1935 and made countless movies with Mickey Rooney, amongst other stars. “She made 47 movies and we lost her at 47 years old,” says Luft. “That’s insane. It’s crazy. And that’s saying nothing of the concerts and the radio shows and all of that. She worked very, very hard during her very short lifetime.” But it was her extraordinary singing voice that made her legendary, the high emotion, the unique connection to the audience. Hedda Hopper wrote of the Carnegie Hall concert: “I never saw the likes of it in my life.”
Luft was in the audience that night. She was eight years old. “I remember thinking it was very strange to see grown-ups behaving in a way that you didn’t really see very often,” she says. “They were standing up and rushing down to the stage to try to touch my mom. It was very odd for me. It was overwhelming. And then she brought us all up on stage and I just held her hand and it was like, OK, can we go home now?” She laughs, but it was a bit frightening. “I remember thinking, ‘Why are they acting like this? Why are they trying to grab my mom?’ And it wasn’t just a couple of them – there were hundreds of them.”
Only a few years after Garland’s triumph in Manhattan, Luft performed with her mother. She was 11 when she made her first appearance on The Judy Garland Show on television. Three years later, she shared billing with her mother (and her younger brother, Joey) at the Palace Theatre in New York. Liza Minnelli once spoke about how she learned to take her space on the stage and connect with the audience not only by watching her mother, but by performing with her. For Luft, though, it felt different. “She was never a legend or an icon to me, she was my mom. So when I performed with her on stage, I felt really safe. When I would perform on my own, she’d stand in the wings and watch me for a few moments and then when she’d leave I knew that she knew I was going to be OK. She taught me so much without teaching me. She never sat any of us down and taught us about singing. Never. It was her work ethic that taught us the most.”
THE idea for The Songbook of Judy Garland came from choreographer and ex-Strictly Come Dancing judge Arlene Phillips, who is creative director of the show. “A show like this hasn’t been done,” says Luft. “It’s a thank-you and a love letter to my mother.” As well as songs and dancing, unseen footage and interview material will be shown. It will be a celebration of all things Judy Garland.
“She was such a unique force,” says Luft, “an original. I listen to her, to her phrasing, how she treats the song, and I always think you don’t learn that, it’s just instilled in you. Yes, she had the greatest teachers in the world at MGM and she was like a little sponge and she soaked all of it up, but she also had that talent behind her.”
The library of songs to choose from, many of which were written for Garland, is, says Luft, both stunning and overwhelming. “We all took a deep breath before we dove into it. When it gets down to editing, it gets very difficult. You could be on that stage for a very long time because there’s such a lot of material that people just love.” Luft doesn’t have a favourite song, but she has a particular affection for The Man That Got Away because it’s from A Star is Born, the only movie that her mother and father made together.
The responsibility of managing the legacy of one of the most beloved of entertainers is something that Luft says she takes very seriously. She is fiercely protective of how her mother’s memory and image is used. The rule, she says, is to ask the question: would she have liked this? “I constantly think about that. Arlene and I spoke about it too. She [Garland] is a member of this cast.”
There is a slight pause and I wonder what’s coming next. “One of the questions you have to ask me is where my mother’s ancestors were from,” Luft says. “You have to ask me.” They weren’t Scottish, I say, caught somewhere between how could I not know that and who else would I rather welcome into the fold? “They were all Scottish,” she says triumphantly. “They were from Aberdeen. Judy Garland was totally Scottish.”
The maiden name of Garland’s mother, Luft’s grandmother, was Milne, she says, and when Luft was performing in Aberdeen last year, she was given a family tree which traced the family’s roots back to the 1600s. Luft couldn’t be happier. She is a fan of Scotland, her husband being half Scottish too. Edinburgh is one of her favourite cities in the world and, “every shop on the Royal Mile has met my credit card”.
AS WELL as, rather unexpectedly, being a fan of Mary Queen of Scots, Luft is a treasure trove of Garland trivia. Did you know that the powers that be at MGM wanted to cut Over the Rainbow from The Wizard of Oz because it slowed the film? It was saved by producer Arthur Freed who insisted he would take his name off the film if the song was cut. Did you know that Garland, despite being one of the most affecting of performers, never understood why audience members would cry as soon as she walked out on stage? “I’m not crying, so why are they crying?” she’d ask.
“She was funny, so funny, and self-deprecating,” Luft says. “Everyone thought that they knew her – so many people say that to me, and it was because of her openness. My mom got her education of how to be with an audience in Vaudeville. And she’d tell hilarious stories about all the crazy acts that they’d follow. She was truly hilarious, a great raconteur. But it was more than just memories. When she was let go by MGM, she started to perform concerts because she just knew, ‘This is what I do’.”
Luft has performed on Broadway and toured with her own shows as well as in musicals. There have been TV appearances, too. She might be less well known than her sister, Minnelli, but she’s still in showbusiness and from the reviews of Follies, she still knows exactly how to command a stage. “I’m in the family business,” is how she puts it. “You know, if you come from a family of doctors, someone’s going to be a doctor, or lawyers, someone’s going to be one of those. I didn’t do anything unusual.”
Garland may have started young (she was two when she made her first appearance on stage) and been taught by the best in Hollywood during its truly golden age, but, says Luft, a talent like hers is something that you can’t really teach, it’s something that you’re born with. That said, though, for young aspiring singers, Luft is convinced there’s no better way to pick up some tips than to watch the best in action.
“There is a whole generation of kids coming up who are talented, but they’re not getting the education they need. It didn’t all start with Wicked. It was those classic movies that we all learned from – the style of them, the sound of them, the look of them. Kids need to go back and learn about Cole Porter and the Gershwins. They need to watch Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly and my mom to understand why people are still talking about them. They were originals.” She pauses. “There would be no Wicked without my mother,” she says sternly. Then laughs.
l The Judy Garland Songbook is at the Edinburgh Playhouse, on 8 and 9 May then at the Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 2-6 June. For tickets, go to www.atgtickets.com