In the Fall of 1963, The Judy Garland Show premiered on the CBS Television Network. While Garland personally received rave reviews, its initial critical reception was mixed. The show lasted one season, with 26 episodes aired. During the run of the show, Garland had an all-star list of guests that included Peggy Lee, Tony Bennett, Ethel Merman, Barbra Streisand, Bobby Darin, Lena Horne, Vic Damone and Mel Tormé, who also served as musical arranger for most of the series. There was considerable turmoil behind the scenes during the production of the series, much of which is covered in Tormé’s book, On the Other Side of the Rainbow: With Judy Garland on the Dawn Patrol (Galahad Books: 1974).
To celebrate this memorable slice of television history, the Lyrics & Lyricists series at the 92nd Street Y called upon singer/pianist Billy Stritch to host an evening devoted to songs that were performed on the show. He also was artistic director, musical director and arranger, while Dick Scanlan served as writer/director for the program. The choreography was provided by Richard Stafford. Joining Stritch in presenting the music were vocalists Aisha De Haas, Gabrielle Stravelli, Alysha Umphress and Max Von Essen, all of whom are wonderful vocal talents. The instrumental support came from Stritch on piano, Patrick O’Leary on bass, and Mark McLean on drums.
Stritch was a perfect choice to put this program together. He is among the most knowledgeable purveyors of classic American popular music, an attribute that enabled him to sort through the extensive catalog of songs that were part of the Garland shows, selecting ones that captured the essence of the material performed by Garland and her guests. He also made wise choices in matching material to performer and has a knack for creating medleys that fit together seamlessly.
Speaking of medleys, the evening opened with a pairing of “Just in Time” and “Hello Bluebird” performed by the full company. Along the way Stritch chose groupings of songs like “It’s Only a Paper Moon,” “It Might As Well Be Spring” and “That Old Black Magic;” “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Love;” “Almost Like Being in Love” and “This Can’t Be Love;” “Smile,” “When You’re Smiling” and “Get Happy;” plus a trio of songs devoted to Garland’s children, “Liza, “ “Happiness Is a Thing Called Joe” and “Lorna.”
Of course, there were the songs most associated with Garland such as “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolly Song,” “The Man That Got Away” and “Over the Rainbow. Other selections included ‘For Me and My Gal,” “A Cottage for Sale,” “That’s Entertainment” “Who Cares,” “As Long as He Needs Me” and “Stormy Weather.”
By the end of the concert, those in the audience, many of whom had seen the original television shows, were transported back to a time when standards were still a major part of the musical landscape. Stritch and company did a stellar job of bringing this music to life in a way that was timeless, while providing commentary that placed all of the songs in informative perspective. —JOE LANG