A very Happy Birthday to Judy Garland, who would have turned 91 today.
She left us far too soon, but I like to think that she is singing and dancing and not starving herself up in heaven with the multitude of other brilliant entertainers that I know are up there.
I have always identified with Judy Garland, and it has taken me years to figure out why. I’m a straight, white, female, librarian. I grew up in a home with eccentric parents and lots of music – reggae, rock and roll, traditional Irish, bluegrass, and zydeco.
But no showtunes.
The first time I saw The Wizard of Oz as a very young child, I fell in love with it, and since then, Judy Garland has always held a very special and respected place in my heart. I grew up in a house that was far from repressed. Creativity and originality was celebrated, and the arts were a paramount force in my upbringing. For the most part, I am a perfect blend of my parents — all my traits are ones that can be easily attributed to either my father or mother.
Still, there was (and still is) a switch that goes off in me when the lights dim in a crowded theater, or when I hear the first few bars of a Sondheim, Gershwin, or Cole Porter song that didn’t go off in my parents. For me, as Dorothy Gale opened the door to colorful Oz, so too was my love of musical theater opened to me. To this day, I credit The Wizard of Oz as my introduction to showtunes.
I know that Garland is seen as an icon for the gay community because of the myriad of personal demons she had to face throughout her life — personal and professional battles with people who wanted to manipulate her for one reason or another — she was starved down to almost nothing, called ugly and unattractive by the big boy film executives, was financially unstable and married five times, and suffered from drug and alcohol abuse. Despite all this, she is still talented as hell, glamorous and campy. The gay community sees her as triumphant over these evils that plagued her, as powerful as the recognizable belt that she uses as her tool for resilience.
For me, Judy Garland will always represent Dorothy Gale, the little girl in the blue gingham dress who dreamed of a world outside the monotony of her sepia-toned farm life. When I listen to her sing, I understand how deeply closeted gay boys living in rural Iowa feel as they read fashion magazines underneath their covers with a flashlight for fear of their father finding them out. She is the other. She is youth. She is more. Garland’s voice represents my passage to independence — her yellow brick road is the road less travelled, the one where my family and I part ways. She lets me, just for a minute, sing along with her unmistakable voice and pretend that we are together on stage, dressed to the nines and championing the same cause.
Judy Garland and Fred Astaire, from Easter Parade. Their timing could not be a better example of perfection.