Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland

Grand Opera House, York

Thu May 14-Sat May 16 @ 7.30pm, plus 2.30pm Sat matinee

£12.90-£34.90

Grand Opera House website

Lorna Luft is a fabulous interviewee. Garrulous, open, full of stories about her showbiz pedigree – daughter of Judy Garland, half-sister of Liza Minnelli – she could not have been more charming.

Except for one awkward moment. A moment when the temperature of our conversation plunged so quickly it felt like my phone might freeze to my ear.

To be fair, it wasn’t Lorna’s fault. I asked a question so unexpected, and so clearly unwelcome, her reaction was entirely understandable.

But let’s come to that later.

Lorna is in York from Thursday (May 14) in a show dedicated her mother, one of the world’s greatest entertainers, Judy Garland.

“Nobody did what she did. She started at the age of two running out onto a stage. When she was seven and eight she played all the vaudeville circuit and then of course was signed to MGM and made 37 movies,” Lorna said.

When they came to choose songs for the show, they had “thousands of concerts, thousands of radio shows and all the music that was written for all of those movies” to choose from.

“It’s like walking in to this insanely big library and choosing what book are we going to take home. There’s a wealth of material there that is just extraordinary.”

A love letter to mom

Lorna and mother Judy Garland perform together at the Palace Theatre , New York City, in July 1967. Photograph: Ron Galella / WireImage
Lorna and mother Judy Garland perform together at the Palace Theatre , New York City, in July 1967. Photograph: Ron Galella / WireImage

For Lorna it is very much a personal tribute, “a big love letter” to her mother who joins her via film clips as part of a multi-media show.

In her autobiography, Lorna made clear that it wasn’t always an easy relationship. Judy Garland’s volatility, made worse by dependencies on drink and drugs, must have been difficult for her daughter.

“My mother was the best mother she knew how to be. When you think about it today, there are a lot of people out there struggling.

“Especially mums with kids and marriages which maybe are not working – but they’re not legends. You put that added luggage on top of all of that and, yeah, it’s hard.”

Now 62, Lorna understands more what her mother went through.

“My mother wasn’t a tragic figure. She had tragedies in her life, but she wasn’t tragic. I’ve never blamed the studios for what happened to her.

“When you start putting a very young girl on tablets to keep them working – but they didn’t know what they were doing. They didn’t know how harmful it would be.”

But there was laughter too.

“She was hilarious. She had the best sense of humour, she was self-deprecating.

“Lucille Ball was asked once what it was like to be the world’s funniest woman. She said, ‘I’m not funny. My writers are funny.

“‘You know who’s funny? Judy Garland. Judy made me look like a mortician.’”

‘We were gipsies’

Lorna was born into showbiz royalty. Did she feel trapped by that?

“You only know what you come from. The royal family in this country only knows from where they come from. That’s their normal. That was my normal.

‘I just went into the family business’ – Lorna Luft
‘I just went into the family business’ – Lorna Luft
“I just went into the family business. My sister and I, when we were really young kids, we used to watch these situation comedies like Leave It To Beaver, when the mother was cooking the dinner and vacuuming the house – we thought that was the strangest thing in the whole world.”

So it wasn’t like that in her house?

“No, it wasn’t! We were on the road, we were travelling, I went to 17 different schools… It was so exciting. We were gipsies.”

If she were still with us, Judy would not have been keen on social media – Lorna’s sure of that.

“She was very protective of her privacy, only because she was so public. Thousands and thousands of people that would gather whenever she went to some place – like when I was a child and we went to Disneyland it became chaotic because people went crazy when they saw her.

“So she valued the time at home, without a camera, without any media. We didn’t grow up with any of that. We didn’t grow up with tour buses going by and pointing out our houses. She would not have liked all of that.”

Would she have been happy if her own children had gone into showbusiness?

“Are you crazy? No! How fast can I say that?” Her son works in IT in a Seattle hospital while her daughter is learning how to be a chef. And Lorna dotes on her eight-month-old granddaughter.

“It’s going to be an interesting thing when Jordan – my granddaughter – gets older. Jamie’s already said to me, ‘When are we going to show her the Wizard Of Oz?’ – I said, not until she’s ready.

“Because it’s a scary experience, and we’re going to sit with her and explain everything.”

Best friend Barry

Lorna's best friend – and her mother's duettist – Barry Manilow. Photograph © Weatherman90 on Wikimedia Commons
Lorna’s best friend – and her mother’s duettist – Barry Manilow. Photograph © Weatherman90 on Wikimedia Commons

Lorna endured her own scary experience when, in 2013, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. How is she now? “I’m fine. That’s behind me, yes.”

She talked very publicly about her ordeal. “That was my personal decision – if I could talk to women about taking their health care into their own hands and being proactive, that’s what I wanted to do.

“That’s all I wanted to do. I wasn’t going to give them medical advice, all I was going to say to them was, take it seriously and be proactive.”

One of those who helped her through the ordeal was Barry Manilow. They dated for a while in the early Seventies “and we wound up being best friends”.

Last month Barry married his manager Garry Kief. They had been together for more than 30 years. Lorna couldn’t make it but said, “I’m so extraordinarily happy for them. I’m happy for anyone who has that kind of a relationship and is able to now get married.”

On his album Dream Duets, Barry sings with the stars of yesteryear, including a version of Zing! Went The Strings Of My Heart with Judy Garland. Lorna was thrilled.

“And I just thought how great is it that my best friend and my mom can do a duet together. How great is that?”

A return to York

The show she is bringing to the Grand Opera House, Judy – The Songbook of Judy Garland – is an all-singing and dancing extravaganza. Joining her on stage will be X Factor runner-up and Dancing On Ice winner Ray Quinn.

It won’t be her first trip to the city.

“I’ve been to York. I’ve been there with Wayne Sleep many years ago. I find York to be one of the most beautiful, beautiful places – and of course the surrounding area is just absolutely stunning.”

And it is here that I throw in the question which – temporarily – causes the conversation to freeze over.

Did you know Liza Minnelli’s former husband David Gest lives here some of the time?

“What did you say?”

David Gest – Liza’s ex-husband – has a home in York…

“Oh.” Stunned pause. “Oh well, I don’t speak to him.

“I don’t really… No. I have nothing to say or anything about David Gest.”

Ahem. Clearly there was going to be no reunion. It was time to change the subject. Fast.

Who do you think would love the show?

“I would say every single person who has ever enjoyed The Wizard Of Oz, Meet Me In St Louis, Easter Parade and A Star Is Born.

“And for everyone to come and see, not only a show about a legendary entertainer, but a show that will bring back memories, and a show that you can walk out of and say, ‘I had a great time’.”

For that’s what Lorna does, like her legendary mum before her: provide an escape from the cares of everyday life.

“All I’ve done is to pick up the torch and keep running with it,” she says.