Summer, 2004


Among the array of dazzling celebrities who attended Judy Garland's final concerts at the Palace Theatre in the summer of 1967, Joan Crawford (over the top in pink everything) was the biggest star. Even Judy's daughter, Liza, whose visibility was on the ascent, couldn't compete with JC.

The name that no one had ever heard was Peter Allen's, a performer Garland had discovered in Hong Kong and subsequently introduced to Liza who wound up marrying him (even though he was gay, gay, gay).

In fact, Judy introduced Peter, gushing and sputtering his praises, as Liza made her way to the stage while Peter remained seated in the audience. Most of us didn't even see his face.

Liza wore a purple mini-dress that flowed beautifully as she improvised a dance upstage while Judy sang her city medley ("Chicago" and "San Francisco"). Perfectly in sync with each other, it was a dazzlingly theatrical mother and daughter duet.
Marking the first time I'd been away from my hometown of St. Louis for any duration, I was in New York, studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Art's Summer Session. Carole was someone I'd immediately befriended at school, our relationship cemented by our mutual Judy obsession. We attended the opening night and at least fifteen of the performances during the month-long run. Flat broke, we were so devoted to the legendary Garland that we risked life and limb by sneaking into one of the most famous houses on Broadway by climbing up a fire escape.

While Garland didn't exactly fall into the musical theatre mode, she possessed the emotional dynamics of any show on Broadway. Among the knock-out performances that summer were Barbara Harris in THE APPLE TREE, Joel Grey in CABARET and Angela Landsbury in MAME

Thirty-seven years later, my daughter Tia and I are lucky to experience a performance of equal power: Hugh Jackman as Peter Allen in THE BOY FROM OZ. The musical biography script specifically references the three-year Allen-Minnelli marriage and recreates the drama of Judy's death in 1968.

In a direct address to the audience, Jackman as Allen alludes to a long presumed connection between the star's demise and the Stonewall riots.

Imagine being a queer (but not out) and having Liza as your wife and Judy as your mother-in-law. Whether it played out as poetically in real life is beside the point but in the musical theatre version, Allen seems to accept his gayness after the drag queens and leather men fight for the liberation of all queers.

Jackman's commitment to the role is heart-pumpingly powerful—vulnerable, and oh so fucking theatrical. The moment the light hits him, he pulls you in and doesn't let go. His charisma is electric; not the stuff of puffed up press releases. My nine-year old fell madly in love with him. (So did I.)

The actress who plays Judy maintains the tragic star's dignity amidst nervous ticks and that manic laugh. The Liza character is attempted by an actress who does a good vocal impersonation but seems a bit clunky. Keep in mind that this was Liza when she was skinny and graceful.

I must have been in some denial about the likelihood that Allen's death form AIDS would be depicted in the musical. Seeing it coming, I wondered if it was a mistake to bring Tia.

When Allen's lover dies at the top of act two, Tia went into a response mode that was clearly different that the euphoria on her face when she watched the showstopping musical numbers. She wiped one tear away, then another and repeated the ritual before checking to see if I was crying. Then, very delicately, she wiped one of my tears away—something she had never done before.

The people-pleasing plot manages to turn Allen's death into an over-the-top finale, recreating his triumphant final performances in his homeland of Australia.

At lunch the day we are scheduled to return to L.A., Tia and I share our thrilling experience with my old friend Carole. It seemed impossible to comprehend what had transpired in the thirty-seven years that were separated by Judy at the Palace with Allen in the audience (Then) and Hugh Jackman playing Allen (Now). Carole and I agreed that the Stonewall riots and the AIDS crisis, both captured in THE BOY FROM OZ, were pivotal for us.

Both Carole and I have experienced inevitable shifts in terms of our respective careers. As wide-eyed teenagers, we shared the dream that we were destined for a long career as Big Broadway Stars. Instead, life has rewarded us more subtly and less predictably but no less resonant.

Tia, of course has proven to be a force in my life that is unparalleled. At seventeen, I never would have imagined a scenario that would include something as harrowing as AIDS or as utterly awesome as being Tia's father.

It was a fabulous vacation, overflowing with memories. But like the defining moment of seeing Liza perform with her mama while her new husband watched from the audience at the Palace in 1967, recalling the summer of 2004 will likely be stirred by the unforgettable performance of Jackman as Allen.

  ©2004-2015 Michael Kearns