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Why Judy Garland is still such a beloved star, 50 years on

PUBLISHED: 10:46 15 June 2019 | UPDATED: 10:46 15 June 2019

Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

Judy Garland and Tom Drake in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

It's 50 years next week since Judy Garland's death, aged only 47 - and 2019 also sees the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz. Here's a personal look at her unique appeal.

Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDBJudy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, and Bert Lahr in The Wizard of Oz (1939). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

I suppose it was probably The Wizard of Oz which started it for me, as for so many others. Judy Garland has a voice which just gets inside you, with its emotional power.

Watching the film on TV as a child, I found it hard to believe that a young girl (and studio bosses were grimly determined to make her look even younger) could sing like that.

I've seen the film, which celebrates its 80th anniversary in 2019, many more times over the years, and, while it's a classic where the whole cast are superb, the young Judy's voice and personality are absolutely central.

Hard to believe that her performance of Over the Rainbow - the song that became her signature all through her career - was almost cut from the film because MGM chiefs apparently thought it was too sad.

The blend of sadness and hope is the point - as in Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, which became almost as beloved through her war-time performance in Meet Me in St Louis. Again, Garland fully brings out the bitter-sweet emotion of the song.

From clowning to haunting torch songs

After falling in love with the young Judy's voice, I moved on to discover the later musicals where she was older and more glamorous, even if she was often still playing the girl next door.

A small bonus for me was the fact that her first name was the same as mine. As a schoolgirl, I had put up with comments such as "Where's Punch?" or "I've got a dog called Judy."

Judy Garland and Peter Lawford in Easter Parade (1948). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDBJudy Garland and Peter Lawford in Easter Parade (1948). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

Watching Garland in her beautiful period outfit, singing The Trolley Song as she climbed aboard, you just knew that nobody had ever made those jokes to her. (Although, of course, her real name was Frances Gumm!)

But, even in a glamorous costume drama like Meet Me in St Louis, Garland's appearance is always secondary to her singing.

I've seen it suggested that one reason her voice is so emotionally resonant is that it is clearly related to her speaking voice, with her personality coming through both. In an era when many actresses' voices were dubbed by singers, Garland was always and unmistakably herself.

One of my favourite films of hers is Easter Parade, where she and Fred Astaire sing, dance and clown their way through a host of great Irving Berlin songs.

The comedy number We're a Couple of Swells, where they are both dressed as tramps, is a real treat, giving Garland a chance to show her unique comic ability.

But a few minutes later the mood changes completely and she is sidling into a bar, where she performs a haunting torch song (Better Luck Next Time) as only she could. It may not be one of her best-known numbers, but it is guaranteed to send shivers down my spine.

Garland is recognised as one of the greatest torch singers - with her own experience, struggles and world-weariness increasingly feeding into these songs in her later performances. All her personal troubles, the drugs and broken relationships, might have damaged her film career, but they didn't damage the emotional truth of her singing.

Her best-known torch song is probably The Man That Got Away, from A Star Is Born, but there were so many stunning performances, captured not only in her films and official recordings, but also in various live videos which you can find on YouTube.

Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Tony Martin in Ziegfeld Girl (1941). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDBJudy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Tony Martin in Ziegfeld Girl (1941). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

Read more: Judy Garland - Self-destructive genius or the girl never allowed to grow up?

From Rufus to Renee

Rufus Wainwright, who famously recreated Garland's Carnegie Hall concerts, talked about his love for the singer, who is known as a gay icon, when he visited Ipswich in 2010.

He said: "I think everybody finds her fascinating whether you love or hate her. She's magnetic without being attractive. It's a strange blend that draws you in."

I was at Wainwright's concert at the Regent, and remember really enjoying his interpretation of Garland songs during his set.

Garland's enduring status is reflected in how often you see her image used - everywhere from the sleeve of a recently-released Neil Young live album to the infuriating ads for Halifax. If you are lucky enough not to have seen those, they used small clips from The Wizard of Oz in the same way that the company borrowed from Top Cat or The Flintstones. I'm hoping I've seen the last of these commercials, which just made me feel so sad.

Now Garland is the latest legendary singer to be chosen for a major biopic, following in the wake of Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody and Elton John in Rocket Man.

An almost unrecognisable Renee Zellweger takes the title role in Judy, which is directed by Rupert Goold and due for release in the UK in October.

Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDBJudy Garland and Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). Picture: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/IMDB

Adapted from the stage show Over the Rainbow, which was performed in the West End and on Broadway, it will focus on a series of concerts at a London nightclub in 1968, just a year before her untimely death.

Zellweger, who showed that she has a great voice in Chicago, does her own singing in the film, and the trailers which have been put out feature her performance of Over the Rainbow.

After seeing the trailer, I'm looking forward to the film - and am interested to note that you can hear Zellweger's own speaking voice reflected in her singing, as with Garland.

But the film is bound to send me back to recordings and films of the real Judy.

A tribute concert and a magical afternoon tea

Half a century after Judy Garland's death, her star shines as brightly as ever, and tribute events are being planned in the region.

Leading jazz singer Sara Dowling has performed Judy Garland tributes at many venues across East Anglia, including this year's Bury St Edmunds Festival.

Sara and the Chris Ingham Trio are now set to bring The Jazz of Judy Garland, described as an "evening of swing, poignancy and anecdote," to Ipswich School Festival of Music on Saturday, October 12. The concert will take place at 7.30pm in the Great School, Ivry Street, and tickets are available from the New Wolsey Theatre box office.

As well as being the 50th anniversary of Garland's death, 2019 also sees the 80th anniversary of the release of The Wizard of Oz - and Norwich city-centre venue OPEN, in Bank Plain, is holding a special afternoon tea in honour of the occasion.

Guests are invited to dress up in costumes for the event, starting at 1pm on August 30.

They will be able to tuck into Yellow Brick Road sandwiches, flying monkey cupcakes, munchkin scones Emerald City milkshakes... and even bone-shaped biscuits in honour of Dorothy's little dog, Toto. You can book for this event via OPEN's website.

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