Metro Weekly

“Judy” – Over the Rainbow with The Gay Men’s Chorus

The Gay Men's Chorus launches its new "Phenomenal" season with a cabaret toasting the original gay diva, Judy Garland.

Gay Men's Chorus of Washington DC
Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington DC

“I went to him and I said, ‘You’re the chosen one.'”

Thea Kano is recalling the moment she revealed to Jarrod Bennett the song he will be singing at Judy, the Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington’s upcoming cabaret.

“His eyes got big, like, ‘No,’ because ‘Over The Rainbow’ is the most iconic song of Judy’s — my opinion, but probably most would agree,” Kano says. “It certainly put her on the map at the age of 17 in The Wizard of Oz. And it has become known as an anthem, if you will, of the LGBTQ movement. So it’s a very big ask for a singer to present that song, because you can’t go so off the rails with it that people are distracted by it. At the same time, you can’t even begin to sound like Judy, obviously.”

Led by Kano as artistic director, GMCW kicks off a new season next weekend with a cabaret devoted to the music of Judy Garland, in honor of the centenary of the gay icon’s birth. As it happens, Garland helped to spark the Chorus’s entire 2022-2023 season.

“When it comes to programming a season, I always start with the cabarets: ‘Okay, what’s the cabaret theme going to be this year?'” Kano says. Once she realized 2022 was the seminal diva’s anniversary year, Garland became “the first cornerstone of this season.” After that, rooting around for other iconic artists whose “big birthday or would-have-been” could be celebrated at the season’s two additional cabarets revealed Whitney Houston, who would have turned 60 in 2023. Dolly Parton closes out the season in June.

“Judy, Whitney, Dolly: ‘Wow, look at these phenomenal women,’ that just naturally came into my brain when I saw that list,” she says. Hence, the new season was set in stone under the banner “Phenomenal.”

Planned well over a year before the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, that development earlier this year, along with the portent of more, possibly worse, rights-restricting cases in the offing, only solidified the new season. “We’re really focusing this year on phenomenal women, not just those three artists [but also] talking about other women, trailblazers in the LGBTQ movement,” she says.

Chorus members who wanted to be featured in Judy were instructed to audition with “a song that was performed by Judy Garland at some point in her career, and come in with a story to set it up.” That could be either “a personal story of what the song might mean to them or what Judy might mean to them. I did encourage folks not to audition with ‘Over The Rainbow’ — but to be a little more creative, dig a little deeper.”

During the 75-minute show, before breaking into song with Kano striking up a backing band, the 14 selected soloists will also “be talking about Judy, and maybe when and where she might have sung [each] upcoming song.”

The final roster of 12 solos and one duet represents what Kano calls “a diversity of voices and types of voices, certainly diversity of people, [and] a nice diversity of songs” — a mix that most will recognize along with a couple of unknown or unexpected selections.

Among the latter is a performance by Zac Barger of “Maybe This Time,” a song performed not by Garland but famously by her daughter, Liza Minnelli, in the musical Cabaret. Its inclusion in the program is a way “to acknowledge the many legacies of Judy Garland, including Liza. It’s kind of a stretch, kind of a reach, but it’s very creative,” says Kano.

Kano hopes audiences will gain as much from seeing Judy as she has in putting it together. “It’s really been a wonderful opportunity to learn more about the iconic and very resilient artist and person that Judy was,” she says. “She had a lot of hard knocks in life, as certainly we all do at some point, but she continued to show up and channel the energy from that darkness of her life into her performing. And as a result, it was just so vulnerable and so truthful.”

Kano also notes the relatability, sense of connection, and depth of feeling that Garland brought to the songs she sang, many of them also regarded as Great American Songbook standards, from “Come Rain Or Come Shine” to “The Man That Got Away.”

“It’s not as simple as, ‘Oh, there goes another one,’ but the pain of that, and the process and the excitement of a relationship, and then it somehow slips through your fingers.

“The song ‘Smile’ actually is a really good example, too,” continues Kano. “I think it’s the hope in these songs, the resilience, the ‘pull up your bootstraps, put on your smile, and just show up.’ So much of life is that.

“Particularly now, the challenges that we face as a nation, as a planet, a lot of us are showing up to work with that smile. Keep on smiling, even though the clouds are gray. Or look ‘Over The Rainbow’, one day where bluebirds fly.”

Speaking of rainbows and bluebirds, Kano couldn’t be more pleased with soloist Bennett’s take on the Garland signature.

“It’s absolutely gorgeous. As I said to him in the rehearsal the other day, ‘It was painfully beautiful — I mean just so real, so open and vulnerable. As he sings the song, each of the words unfolds. He brings a freshness and a truthfulness to it that’s just stellar, so I think our audience is really going to find that a highlight of the show.”

The Gay Men’s Chorus of Washington presents Judy on Saturday, Oct. 22, at 5 and 8 p.m., at The Vault at Capital One Hall, 7750 Capital One Tower Rd., in Tysons, Va. Tickets are $45. Visit www.gmcw.org or www.capitalonehall.com or call 703-343-7651.

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