Lorna Luft Remembers Mama with Songs and Memories
By Ellis Nassour
Songs My Mother Taught Me, at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency through Sunday, is Lorna Luft’s tribute to mom Judy Garland. It’s a magical trip down the yellow brick road. Luft early on says that mom JG kidded her about preferring "the loud songs." Evidently, mama knew this gal was a belter. The show, penned by TV variety sketch veterans Ken and Mitzi Welch [Carol Burnette shows, a Streisand TV special], opens on a poignant note: JG on her TV variety series singing to her young daughter a song specially written for her by Johnny Mercer, "Lorna."
Then come the loud ones! Performing with an 11-piece orchestra, M.D.’d by Colin Freeman, Luft knocks "Swanee," "Chicago," "Rockabye Your Baby (with a Dixie Melody)," "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart," and "I Feel a Song Coming On" right out of the ballroom.
What follows are Garland’s signature ballads, such as "The Man That Got Away," "Come Rain or Come Shine," "You’re Nearer," "Through the Years," and a song JG sang in her last film, I Could Go On Singing, "Hello, Bluebird."
The tunes are interspersed with projected photos and home movies transferred to video. Through modern technology, Luft sings several duets with JG.
A showstopping segment that assures you are seeing/hearing a singer onstage is Luft’s 25-song medley bracketed into a Born in a Trunk sequence that follows her mother from The Wizard of Oz to being fired by M-G-M [where she made over 25 films in 13 years], her comeback, returning vaudeville to the Palace and her celebrated Carnegie Hall show. Among the songs are well-remembered tunes from The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, The Harvey Girls, Summer Stock, and A Star is Born. It’s an amazing feat, a triumph – and afterwards she goes on singing!
Just not one particular song. Luft refuses to do "Over the Rainbow," the tune most closely associated with JG, stating, "It would be too painful, and you can’t improve on perfection."
Losing her mother at 16 was a devastating blow. "But Mama’s never gone away," she explains, "and she’ll always be with me. I remember her every time I enter a store and see her as Dorothy on a greeting card, hear her songs on the radio, see her movies on TV.
"When you lose a parent at any age," she continues, "it’s life changing, but it was particularly tough as a teenager." Luft is blunt about her years segueing into adulthood. "I was living here, and there was Studio 54, where I became a regular. I dyed my hair purple and sang with Debbie Harry."
She made her solo debut in A.C. on the Steel Pier, sharing billing with Wanda, the Diving Horse. Luft can never be accused of sitting back on her laurels. Her career has encompassed every arena of entertainment: concerts, stage, film, TV, records, best selling author, and Emmy-nominated producer.
At 11, she made her TV debut singing on The Judy Garland Show. At 16, she shared the bill with JG on Bway in a fabled month-long engagement at the Palace. By 19, she had joined the cast of Bway’s Promises, Promises. She went on to play Peppermint Patty in Snoopy, then starred with Farrah Fawcett in the brutally dramatic Extremities. She’s been a perennial in stock, regionals, and national tours here and abroad.
All along friends urged her to sing her mother’s songs, "but I ran. I was desperate to take my own footsteps. At that stage in my life, I didn’t have the strength and ability to give mama’s songs what they deserved. It was scary. I had to be strong and emotionally ready, and I wasn’t. Fortunately, when I got in my 40s, I could say ‘I can do this. I can look at the photographs, the movies, listen to the albums, and not be sad. I began to fully understand this woman who was my mother and my relationship with her. It was a process I had to go through."
Luft points out that friends who had lost a parent, such as Natalie Cole, Lucie Arnaz, and Lisa Marie Presley, helped her transition. "It’s been so fulfilling," she beams, "that I wish I’d done it earlier."
Luft explains she stayed away from her mother’s songs for a long time. "ran the other way because I was desperately trying to take my own footsteps. You don’t get to know your parents until you’re in your 40s. As I got older, I could put myself there. Finally, in my 40s, I was able to do it. I didn’t have the strength or ability to give this what it deserved. I had to be strong and emotionally ready, and I wasn’t."
She explained that only after she’d written My and My Shadows, and it was adapted for a TV movie, which she exec produced, was she able to face the idea she couldn’t rid herself of. "I was able to say, ‘I can do this now.’ Everyone and their brother have recorded these songs. Why not me?"
However, you won’t hear Luft sing "Over the Rainbow." In what should be a truly poignant moment at the finale, you hear a portion of JG’s recording, but at the same time Luft is singing the poignant "Shining Star." It could be that the Ballroom is not equipped for dueling amplification, but what should be a flawless moment isn’t quite that.
Luft explains it’s impossible not to be overcome with memories. "They flash through my head, and they give me strength. It’s also my way of paying tribute to the wonderful human being my mother was. One thing that really bugs me is when I hear people say how sad my mother was. She was always happy, no matter the circumstances."
In her concert, she tells a hilarious story of a later JG boyfriend who ran off from the Essex House here with what was left of her mother’s jewelry. JG swore revenge, picked up the phone, got connected to the police, and "put on an Academy Award-winning performance" as she reported the theft and where the bf was staying. The clincher was her telling the police that the bf was obsessed with Judy Garland. When the police broke down his door and took him away in handcuffs, he was screaming of his love of JG. He went straight to Bellevue.
She spoke of the Who’s Who in show business who passed through their homes [her godfather was none other than Ole Blue Eyes, a devoted life-long friend of JG’s]. "We were always singing around the house," she observes. "You never knew who’d pop by. At parties, there was no stopping mama. No one ever had to beg her to sing. She loved doing it." Since childhood, JG had been programmed to perform at the drop of a hat. "She was amazing. Sometimes, I’d step back and think ‘Where’s that voice coming from?’"
She reports that JG was a wonderful human being. "She was witty, kind, and smart. I mean, look when she started in the business and who she worked with. A lot of that had to rub off! She was the whole package. That’s what the show’s about. The person, the talent, the songs. It’s not about her personal life."
Luft observes that in the early years there was a lot of travel – "not always because I wanted to. There were 17 schools in 17 cities. I got very good in geography, but couldn’t spell geography."
Travel’s still in her blood. She and Freeman, who’s her husband [almost 20 years], have taken Songs My Mother Taught Me around the country, to U.K. [and the West End], Ireland, Australia, and China. They met in 1992, in the U.K. when she was appearing in the revue, Hollywood & Broadway, and Freeman was M.D. She says of him, "He’s the half that makes me whole." [Luft has two adult children from a previous marriage, Jesse, who’s a stockbroker, and Vanessa, who aspires to be a chef.]
Regarding Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, currently on the West End and billed as a play with music, starring Tracie Bennett [U.K. Hairspray, Les Miz], Luft says, "I’m not interested in seeing any of that."
The piece is set in 1968 in Garland’s hotel room as she embarks upon her show at London’s Talk of the Town at a low point in her career as she attempts to keep going. Though the show’s gotten raves for Bennett, it’s not always, so to speak, over the rainbow.
Ironically, in 1974, Luft appeared at London’s Talk of the Town, which was the site of her mother’s last club date. "That was quite a rollercoaster ride with all the emotions that were going through my head."
Quilter has stated, "Garland’s an icon, unique. She was a fascinating, charming, compelling, and incredibly funny woman – always. Life, love and fame just got the better of her. Once your brilliance reaches the heights that Garland reached, you have immortality in your grasp. She’ll be written about forever."
True as that may be, Luft’s not having any of it. "That show is everything I hate. When someone does a show about one part of my mother’s life and exploits only the tabloid issues, I resent it. Friends have seen it and for some reason have felt they had to tell me about it. They said Ms. Bennett throws herself arounds room, screams, and yells. That’s not my mother! She was about the work she did, the songs she sang, the gifts she left to us.
"If you don’t tell the entire story, A to Z, as I attempted in my book and as the TV movie did, you can’t do justice," continues Luft. "Mother was always happy in spite of the ups and downs. Amazingly, she always looked at the glass as half full. She was tiny, but she had incredible strength."
Lorna Luft: The Songs My Mother Taught Me is available from First Night Records, co-produced by Barry Manilow and Freeman. For much more on Lorna Luft, visit www.lornaluft.com.