Signature Theatre salutes the songs of Judy Garland in ‘A Star is Born’ cabaret

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews a Judy Garland tribute at Signature (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Lady Gaga just earned a Golden Globe for Best Original Song in the latest remake of “A Star is Born” (2018), but the iconic version remains Judy Garland’s 1954 classic.

How serendipitous that Signature Theatre is celebrating her Jan. 8-26 with “Judy Garland: A Star is Born,” a cabaret-style show featuring the most famous songs of her legendary career.

“I’ve always loved Judy Garland; I’ve always loved the movie ‘A Star is Born,'” director Matthew Gardiner told WTOP. “There is no singer that was quite like her that was able to connect with an audience that changed how singers worked in her time. … Maria Callas said that she had the greatest instrument ever and Bing Crosby said there has never been a voice like hers.”

Blending a lower range with unique vibrato, Garland’s voice is a wonder to behold. Here, it’s channeled by Katie Mariko Murray (“Passion”) and Awa Sal Secka (“Jesus Christ Superstar”), who will alternate songs with piano accompaniment by Chris Urquiaga (“Entirely Elvis”).

“You could call her a contralto,” Murray told WTOP. “The comfortable part of her voice is the lower range, almost speaking range, so it’s immediately relatable. It sounds doable, but it’s really hard! … It’s really a time capsule (of) the ’30s and ’40s. She was at the top of her time, but this music resonates with us a lot. That’s what’s exciting about sharing it in a new way.”

The set list includes the “A Star is Born” signature song “The Man That Got Away,” which was recently voted No. 11 on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Songs of All Time.

“They knew how iconic that song would be, so (director George Cukor) filmed it three different times on three different sets, three different looks, and they just felt like they were never getting it right,” Gardiner said. “Finally, the version you saw was after like 40 different takes.”

The painstaking filmmaking process was necessary to do justice to such powerful lyrics.

“It’s one of the best songs ever written,” Murray said. “The storytelling is heartbreaking. It’s immediately relatable for any listener. Like Judy, it’s guttural, straight from the bottom of her gut and the bottom of her heart. It’s a painful song, yet you can relate to the joy of what once was and the reflection of not having that anymore. It’s a hard song to sing. It’s a big song. It demands a lot attention. … It asks a lot from the singer to sing that big ending. It’s cathartic.”

Think of it as the ’50s version of Gaga’s “Shallow” — a movie song that took on a life of its own.

“I really liked ‘Shallow’ when I saw it in the movie,” Murray said. “I think the beginning of that song is so strong, but I think the chorus lacks in comparison to ‘The Man That Got Away.'”

“A Star is Born” was expected to be Garland’s first Oscar win, but she was upset by newcomer Grace Kelly, who delivered both “The Country Girl” (1954) and “Rear Window” (1954) that year.

“She had just given birth to her son,” Gardiner said. “She was in the hospital bed and all of the cameras were pointing at her because everybody thought she was going to win. The envelope was opened and they announced Grace Kelly’s name and the story goes that the cameras were out of that room faster than Grace Kelly could get to the stage to accept her award.”

In addition to several numbers from “A Star is Born,” Signature will also present powerful numbers from the beloved holiday classic “Meet Me In St. Louis” (1944). The movie quite literally birthed Liza Minnelli, as Garland fell in love on set with director Vincente Minnelli.

“I’m singing ‘The Trolley Song’ — clang clang clang!” Murray said. “My friend Awa is singing ‘The Boy Next Door.’ Such great songs. We love the movie and I wish we could do more!”

Why choose those instead of the title track and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas?”

“There would be riots if we didn’t,” Gardiner said. “It’s funny. People have contacted me like, ‘Are you putting anything from ‘Gay Purr-ee?’ These obscure Garland movies! There are some obscure things, but for the most part I’m like, ‘There are too many good songs to put in a random song from other shows.’ … ‘Trolley Song’ and ‘Boy Next Door’ were no-brainers.”

Of course, you can’t have a Garland tribute without “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), namely “Over the Rainbow,” which was voted No. 1. on the American Film Institute’s Top 100 Movie Songs.

“‘Over the Rainbow’ is a hard song because the first two notes is an octave,” Murray said. “It’s low and I’m a soprano. … But that song, because it’s so easily recognizable, it holds a place in people’s hearts. It doesn’t matter who’s the singer, you can always enjoy that song.”

While she loved “Oz” as a kid, she is impressed by Garland’s 1961 rendition at Carnegie Hall.

“My perception of Judy is not necessarily built on her as Dorothy, even though that is so iconic and how America will remember her,” Murray said. “It’s more later (when) she won the Grammy. … She was the first woman to win Album of the Year for her concert at Carnegie Hall. For me as a singer, that just changed my life. You could hear the wear and tear on her voice. The sound was once so innocent and raw, then it grew into this depth, this beauty.”

No matter how many decades pass, Garland’s “Over the Rainbow” is forever fascinating.

“Just looking at the way she over the years performed it … the meaning of it has changed,” Gardiner said. “The song means something different to me now than when I was a 5-year-old watching it on my TV over and over and over again. There’s regret, longing and hope in that song. There’s so many emotions and colors in it that go far beyond what was in the original.”

Now, audiences are experiencing those rich colors at Signature.

“When something starts playing,” Gardiner said, “you hear the breath, the gasp like, ‘It’s here!'”

Find more details on the Signature Theatre website. Hear our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Matthew Gardiner & Katie Mariko Murray (Jason Fraley)

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