Cabaret Lessons Picked Up From Statements By and About Judy Garland

Judy Garland singing her Palace Medley

I lately have gone through a phase of reading Judy Garland biographies, watching many of her films, and listening to much of her work recorded on albums.  I realized that I really knew very little about her, other than the fact that I loved The Wizard of Oz when I was growing up, and had seen it many times on television.  After reading her life story, which had its good and bad times, I was nevertheless struck by a couple of the statements that Garland herself made, as related in Gerald Clarke’s biography entitled Get Happy:  The Life of Judy Garland, and how they could be helpful to the cabaret performer when he or she is preparing songs for a set, or performing those songs for an audience.   Some quotes from this interesting book:

  • Judy said that “Good singing is a form of good acting, at least it is if you want people to believe what you’re singing. If you can make yourself believe what you’re saying—and you have to say some pretty silly things in musicals—everything else falls into place. Your timing, your gestures, your coordination, all take care of themselves.”  (139)

I think this pretty much stands on its own, and I have certainly had the experience of walking into a concert hall and listening to a technically excellent singer, much better singer than myself, but yet not been moved by the performance because the songs were not acted well.  I think that is a big key to getting the audience involved with what you are doing.

  • Clarke relates, in reference to Kay Thompson’s influence on Judy, that “Thompson’s influence is most evident in Judy’s increasing comfort with complicated arrangements and in her more kinesthetic delivery. Thompson made her more conscious of her movements, convincing her that singing involves not just the voice, but the entire body, that gestures and movements—the raising of an arm, the opening or closing of a hand, the expression on the face—are as important as tone, phrasing and volume. All that, and what Edens [Roger Edens of MGM] had taught her, too, Judy absorbed, and through some mysterious alchemy, turned into gold, accepting what suited her, rejecting what did not. She was always her own best teacher.” (212)

I found this interesting.  I have of late been reading and working through Kristin Linklater’s excellent text Freeing The Natural Voice.“  She has a very physical orientation to learning how to relax all the parts of the body that are used when singing, which is essentially the entire body.  Very good book for those who are kinesthetic learners, such as I am.  Although it is primarily written for speakers, most of what she says applies to singers as well.

  • Clarke also notes that “Good singing is a form of good acting,” she[Judy Garland] declared, and she did the reverse of what most other singers do.  She put the words before the music, instead of the other way around, treating the lyrics with all the reverence due them, as one of her longtime arrangers, Nelson Riddle, so aptly phrased it. “ I really mean every word of every song I sing, no matter how many times I’ve sung it before,” Judy herself said to one interviewer. “The whole premise of a song is a question, a quest,” she told another, making the same point in a slightly different way. For her, a song was not just a song; it was a story, and neither she nor her audience could ever be sure of the ending. Or so she made it seem. (297-298)

This goes along with the first point above, about believing the words.  The words are truly a big key to helping the audience go on the journey with you from the start of the song to the end.  This is also why it is so important to only perform songs that you understand, that make sense to you, because how else can you relate the story of the lyrics to anyone else believeably, including your audience.

  • Clarke sums up his thoughts about what Garland accomplished on the night of her concert at Carnegie Hall in this way:  “ To say, however, that Judy gave a perfect performance that night is accurate, but curiously insufficient. What made the one hundred and fifty-five minutes so electric was something everyone could share—something everyone can still share: a human triumph, a triumph not of combat or competition, but of spirit and determination in the service of art.”  (355)

How many times have I felt so blah and uninspired, most especially discouraged after auditions that did not go in my favor, or just a lack of auditions.  But the key to getting better at anything, cabaret performance included, is to get back up, determined to learn more and get better at entertaining an audience, in the service of art.  Art is so often pushed to the side anymore, by schools who put more emphasis on testing than money into giving kids an opportunity to experience the arts while young, and by what passes as “art” that is performed by people who maybe can get an audience because they are handsome or pretty to look at, but truly cannot sing well, and have no clue how to put over a song.  To see a good entertainer in action is to watch someone who has not only figured out what the club owner will buy, but has worked his or her head off selecting songs, so that they tell not only individual stories but also so that the entire evening has a meaningful through line, and then worked on presenting the songs, the notes and words, in such as way as to respect the composers and lyricists, and also respect what he or she has to offer the audience, as well as someone who knows how to market themselves so that they can fill the room.  A renaissance man or woman is required for this “spirit and determination in the service of art” in order to be able to accomplish it all, but I believe it is indeed possible to do so, and why it is such an accomplishment every time you can get up, and even more to get back up, on a stage to perform.

There is much insight for cabaret performance in just this little sampling–hope it is useful!

We’d love to hear from you–please leave a comment and share thoughts you have about the quotes above, or any insights you have gained about performing a cabaret act that you’d like to pass on.

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About Athena at McElrath Cabaret

Athena McElrath is an entertainer with a love for theatre and singing. She enjoys delving in the area of historical cabaret, researching the singers and clubs that were in business from before 1920 to the present, in New York and beyond.
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