What Was It Like to See Judy Garland’s Famous Carnegie Hall Show?

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[article as originally published at TDF Stages, June 15, 2016.]

Welcome to Geek Out/Freak Out, where theatre fans get enthusiastic about things.

This week, Stages contributor Martha Steketee geeks out with retired general manager Albert Poland at his home in Wappinger Falls, New York .

In his 43-year career in New York theatre — which spanned Broadway, Off-Broadway, and off-Off-Broadway venues — Albert Poland served as general manager for more than 90 productions. He also operated the Astor Place Theatre from 1977 through 2000, and appeared as a performer at Carnegie Hall, La MaMa, Judson Poets Theater, and The Village Gate. In 1955, as a 14-year-old in the Midwest, Poland founded and was the original president of the first official Judy Garland Fan Club.

Today’s topic: Performers we wish we’d seen… and those we wish we could see again. (Here’s our first GOFO on this topic, also featuring Laurette Taylor!)

Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. April 23, 1961.
Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall. April 23, 1961.

Martha Steketee: It is our mutual love for Judy Garland that brought us together in the first place, at a meeting of Garland fans about five years ago. You attended her Carnegie Hall concert in April 1961, an event that heads up my wish list of performances I didn’t see. Before we go to that beloved topic, talk to me about shows or performers you didn’t get to see on stage.

Albert Poland: Laurette Taylor in the [1945] Glass Menagerie. I assume you saw that splendid documentary, and every single person said they wished they had seen her.

Martha: Broadway: The Golden Age by Rick McKay. Wasn’t that stunning? And McKay says he was surprised by this uniform response among the actors he interviewed.

Albert: Clearly it was a transcendent performance, you know? And if you look at the photos of her, she radiates that, darling.

Martha: At the end of the film they show a found bit of …

Albert: A screen test for her. It’s a completely grounded, unaffected performance. It was very typical of the actors of that time to be speaking in standard stage accent, or what we now call Mid-Atlantic. She was at her kitchen sink, and the authenticity of the character came right through. I would love to have seen her. I imagine that the only thing that I saw that could be compared would be Vanessa Redgrave in the production of Long Day’s Journey which I was fortunate enough to be general manager of. That is the most transcendent performance I’ve seen in my lifetime, and I just would imagine that they’re comparable.

(L-R) Julie Haydon and Laurette Taylor in The Glass Menagerie, 1946.
(L-R) Julie Haydon as Laura and Laurette Taylor as Amanda in The Glass Menagerie (1946).

Martha: You write about this performance in the memoir that you’re working on, about watching that performance come to be.

Albert: I got a glimpse of Redgrave’s process. It involved anger.

Martha: Having a blowup at one point, in rehearsal.

Albert: [Speaking of anger], one of the primary energies behind Judy’s genius was rage. She talked about it. Remember when she’s talking to Barbra [Streisand] on her TV show and asks, “Don’t you enjoy singing? Doesn’t it get all the rage out of your system?” [You can see that moment here, starting at 1:14.]

Martha: And young Barbra didn’t really know what Judy was talking about. I’d forgotten that quote in this context. Thanks for bringing it up.

Albert: That was part of Vanessa’s process, at least in that production. Whatever gets you there. The other performance that I wish I had seen is Al Jolson on the stage of the Winter Garden, in one of those runway performances that went until 1:30 in the morning, you know. Because I’m sure he managed a true excitement and an intimacy with the audience that was much like Judy’s. His concerts apparently did go on. He sang ’em all and stayed all night! The Winter Garden is my favorite theatre. Partly because he was there, but also it’s where I saw Tammy Grimes in The Unsinkable Molly Brown, which was the most genius performance in a musical that I’ve seen in my life, and Angela Lansbury in Mame, and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl. I saw the first act seven times and the second act 15 times.

Martha: Classic second-acting! As somebody who loves theatre spaces, it’s as much about the memory of the performances you saw there as the space itself.

Albert: I love the space itself too. I love the name, the Winter Garden.

Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone in A Long Day's Journey Into Night (2003).
Vanessa Redgrave as Mary Tyrone in A Long Day’s Journey Into Night (2003).

Martha: We haven’t talked about the one performance you often write about as a pivotal experience in your life. April 23, 1961. Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall.

Albert: I’ll always say it’s the greatest night I ever spent in the theatre. Nothing comes within light years. She was a remarkable performer. That performance as a total experience, and in the context of where she was in her life and career, made it the greatest night I’ve spent in a theatre. It was not the best singing I heard her do — that would have to be at the Opera House in Chicago in 1959 when she was quite heavy and, as Gordon Jenkins wrote, at the end of the concert she was singing better than she was at the beginning. That is great singing and great technique. When she sang “Chicago,” the clarion ring in her voice was just not to be forgotten. The voice had no air in it. It was solid tone, whether she was singing at pianissimo or fortissimo. At Carnegie Hall, the voice had air; it was not solid tone all the time. But I remember when she sang “San Francisco,” she crescendo-ed the note in “San” and it was like a wall of steel coming out over the audience at Carnegie Hall. It was just astonishing. You don’t really get that on the record that she was crescendo-ing. That was the end of act one.

Martha: I never tire of asking people who were there detailed questions about the experience of that evening. What did you do in the intermission? I can’t imagine moving, and I know the performance only from the recording.

Albert: It was a very warm, sunshiny evening. It seems to me that it was still daylight but I don’t know. Everybody went out, and we were all ecstatic. People were just electrified. We knew what we were seeing.

Martha: Are there other performances you’d love to go back to?

Albert: Gilbert Price. I would love to be with Gilbert and hear him sing again, you know. He was the purest “God performer” with an unobstructed conduit for the voice of God, more than anyone else.

Martha: Is that your phrase?

Albert: Yes, for me it’s the ultimate talent. Price did a concert in a loft at 1st Street and Second Avenue that just knocked our socks off. And it was just a free concert for his friends. I don’t remember what he sang that night, but when we were in school together at the Theatre Wing, that was the first time I heard “Lost in the Stars.” He later starred in it on Broadway. And I also remember that he and I sat onstage at La MaMa once and spontaneously sang “You Are So Beautiful” to each other. I don’t know if we were watching a rehearsal or what it was. He was a very spontaneous person.

Martha: Hugh Jackman and The Boy From Oz, that production that you were so deeply involved in as general manager, was one I wished I had seen live. What other performance would you love to revisit?

Albert: It would be great to see Sinatra again. I saw him three times. I saw him in the ’70s and ’80s. At Nassau Coliseum — he made the place into a living room. I didn’t like The Main Event at Madison Square Garden at all. It was broadcast on television.

Martha: What was it about The Main Event that you didn’t like?

Albert: I didn’t think he was in good voice. It wasn’t my kind of Sinatra. But the last time I saw him, it was at Carnegie Hall. Brilliant. He rose to the dignity of the hall. The house dimmed to about half, and this man walked out onto the stage in a tux and tails. No overture, no nothing. It was Frank Sinatra. There was something really humble about it: I have come to give a concert at Carnegie Hall. And he sang three songs from Merrily We Roll Along, which was just going into previews at that moment. He didn’t learn the new songs. He kept the scores in front of him on music stands.

Martha: Are there any contemporary performers that move you in this same way, either straight acting or singing? People you’d travel any distance or come into town to see?

Albert: There’s no one that I’m smitten with the way I was with Judy or Sinatra.

Martha: I’m with you on Garland. Not so much with Sinatra. But as long as people are telling me an honest story in song, I’m willing to give them a listen. It takes a lot to capture my heart and my imagination.

© Martha Wade Steketee (June 15, 2016)

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