Justin Sayre on ‘Night of A Thousand Judys’ and singing for a good cause

Justin Sayre 2012 - Photo by Chasi Annexy

Justin Sayre

Night of A Thousand Judys, set for June 17 at New York’s Kaufman Center, is a one-of-a-kind event. The annual benefit concert for the Ali Forney Center brings together some of Broadway’s best for a night celebrating the life of Judy Garland. The Ali Forney Center assists New York’s homeless LGBT youth by providing a safe place to sleep, career planning assistance, medical check-ups and other necessities for some of the city’s most vulnerable citizens. Each year, this great cause brings the theatre community together as The Meeting* presents this special star-studded performance of Judy Garland’s work. Justin Sayre, the writer and host of the evening, let Stage Door Dish in on the process behind putting the show together, the organization he is so passionate about and who will be bringing all of those Judy songs to life. 

SDD: I’d love to talk to you a bit about Night of A Thousand Judys. How did it all begin?

JS: Well, almost four years ago, I started my show called The Meeting*, and when I was first talking to producers and friends about how to do this show, we wanted to celebrate gay icons every month. And at the end of the series, we always wanted to do a benefit for the Ali Forney Center, who houses LGBT youth in the city. I really love the work that they do and I just wanted to get involved in this way. So the first year we just did a regular benefit, and it went really well. But the year after, I really wanted to kind of focus the show around an icon. Judy Garland was born and died in the month of June, which is Gay Pride Month here in New York. You know, she’s really the biggest gay icon there probably ever was. So we thought that we would do an evening of just her songs, and the first year was a fantastic success, and we’ve just been snowballing since then. Last year, we sold out Playwrights Horizons, this year we’re up at the Kaufman Center with an amazing group of performers – Martha Wash, and Madeleine Peyroux, Justin Vivian Bond, Carolee Carmello. So many great, amazing people. And it just keeps getting bigger and better. So I’m really excited about the trajectory we’re on with this show, and also the fact that every year we come back to help the Ali Forney Center, which is something I’m really passionate about. 

SDD: When did you first discover their cause ?

JS: I had always kind of been interested in urban politics, especially as a gay person here in New York. I found out about the Ali Forney center because I was interested in how to take care of our young people. The message of the Forney Center and the real on-the-ground work that they do, which is not just getting people into homes but assisting them with getting education and getting jobs and getting placed and you know, it’s tremendous. I always wanted to be part of that in any way I could. So it’s been several years where I’ve been really been batting for them as much as I can. When we went to them the first year they were so ecstatic to have us, and now we’ve formed a really solid bond with them, and three years in we’re doing a much bigger show and we hope to get bigger next year. So it’s a bond that I hope really lasts for a long time.

SDD: You’ve written it and you are hosting, right?

JS: I write and host– you know, every month of The Meeting*, so it’s really kind of an extension of that. So, I work with my two great producers, Adam Rosen and Dan Fortune, and we reached out to talent and got great responses. But I write the skits, I write my opening monologue, I help people pick songs, I work with our great music director Lance Horne. I really try to be involved as much as possible because it’s something I really care about, and because it’s an extension of the show I write every month, I really want have my stamp on this as well.

SDD: Where do you draw inspiration when you’re writing?

JS: I think it’s different case by case to be totally honest. Sometimes for the regular editions of The Meeting*, I take something from the headlines or something that’s kind of hitting me that week or something based on the icon. For Night of A Thousand Judys, we’ve done now, for the past two years, parodies of her movies. So last year we did a version of The Wizard of Oz from Toto’s perspective and he only has a couple hundred English words, so it’s great. It was really funny, and I was really blessed in that way to have great performers like Flotilla DeBarge and Jenn Harris add so much to the material. This year we’re doing a lesser-known Judy Garland movie. We’re doing The Harvey Girls, which is about Judy being a waitress on the Old West, which I just thought was a very fun thing. We have some great people lined up for that as well. I think about how we’re going to make it funny without ever making fun of Judy. That’s something that’s always really important to The Meeting* and to Night of A Thousand Judys. We never get impersonators, we never have people doing their impressions. It’s really about what these icons and what these performers mean to the fans and to other performers. So we really love when our performers take their own spin on something that Judy Garland did. Last year Bridget Everett did an unforgettable version of “Come Rain or Come Shine” and Molly Pope did Judy Garland’s arrangement of “Chicago” with all the extra verses. But it’s really about – we really want the individuals to take on the legacy of Judy in some way and make it their own. So I think when I’m looking for material of what we’re going do for Judy, I really kind of look to that and say “okay – how do we want to make this funny in its own way?” And this year, The Harvey Girls just kind of won out because you can’t beat a waitress on the Old West, you know?

SDD: Do you have specific performers in mind when you start putting it together or does that process come together more organically after the fact?

JS: We always have a goal list, we always have people that we want to do Night of A Thousand Judys, we pursue them – but we’re also just so open. There’s so much talent and so many amazing people in New York. So we really always try to think outside the box quite a bit. That being said, I always have my certain goals for people that I want to get. This year I’ve gotten some of them, and some had conflicts. But that’s the other thing we try to do, is not repeat performers from year to year. So we try to keep the variety up as much as possible and really get amazing people from all corners to participate, and it’s really an amazing event, it’s something I’m always really proud to be a part of.

SDD: Would you say there’s a very positive atmosphere because it’s such a great cause and everyone’s coming together? 

JS: Oh, absolutely. I think that people have a ball. Backstage and front of house, everyone is just so excited to be a part of this amazing evening. People give a lot – the performers especially give a lot of their time, and the musicians give a lot of their time for charity and you see how excited they are. Lea DeLaria, who’s singing this year, is a huge Judy Garland fan and a friend, and she’s bursting at the seams to get to sing the song she’s picked this year. And so many of the people that are in the concert are just really excited about getting a chance to pay tribute to this amazing performer, but also to really give back to an organization that looks out for a lot of young people that are overlooked in New York. So I can’t imagine a happier backstage really, and as for the audience, they laugh, they cry, they sing along, it’s a really – it’s an amazing event.

Night of A Thousand Judys 2013

Night of A Thousand Judys 2013

SDD: Has Liza Minnelli ever been involved?

JS: We’ve asked Liza every year and she isn’t involved, and I really understand that. Her mom is such a monolith, and so is she. I think that Liza’s her own thing. I think Liza should be celebrated in her own way. She’s always been so gracious, and she’s an amazing performer and an amazing humanitarian. But I really understand why maybe she wouldn’t want to be part of Judy’s night. That’s a little too personal and I really respect her for that. So no, she hasn’t been involved. I’ve never met her but everything I’ve ever heard about her is true, she’s so warm and loving and I can’t wait until the day I get a chance to.

SDD: Have you had a memory in the process of putting this show together in the past couple years where you felt like it was the most triumphant moment of the whole show?

JS: Yeah. Last year we opened the show amidst a little bit of a controversy with End of the Rainbow. End of the Rainbow came out and it was a huge success for Tracie Bennett. But there were articles in the New York Times, and then another website online, I don’t remember which. But it talked about, you know, “Is Judy Garland even relevant? Why should we care anymore?” I was putting this show together and I was asked to write some comments about it. So I wrote a little talk about it and when we were putting the show together, the director at the time, Ben Rimalower, said “You know you should really put that in, it’s really great.” We put it in, but we also put in the song “A New World” from A Star Is Born. So I did the little speech and it was great, and people laughed but they also really thought. I sang “A New World” center stage on the floor. It was really gratifying because in a way, that’s what Judy Garland represents to me as a performer, that she was someone who was so in touch with her audience. She was someone who was so a part of their emotional life, who understood them and spoke directly to them. And I felt like in that moment I was able to do that, in my little way. Luckily that’s been – it’s on video, and people have commented to me about it and it’s just – that meant a lot to me. So yeah, that’s definitely a moment for me.

SDD: If you could say one thing to Judy if she were here today, what would you say to her?

JS: “Let’s grab a drink!” No, I think one thing – I would just want to say “thank you.” To be really honest, there are very few performers who touch you in that way and who make you want to be better in your own performances but also make you want to be a more accessible human being. And I think that Judy Garland, for me, is somebody like that. She’s always so vulnerable but strong, and so wise but open. She’s someone that just – I can’t explain it, she really touches me like very few other artists. So I think if I had one word it would probably – you know, one little phrase, “thank you.” And then I’d say “could I buy you a drink?”

SDD: Stage or screen?

JS: Stage.

SDD: If you could delete any song from existence, which one would you choose?

JS: “Firework,” I hate that song. I don’t know why, it just irritates me to no end.

SDD: Do you a favorite word?

JS: “Exquisite” is my favorite word.

SDD: What is the last great show you saw onstage?

JS: I really liked Pippin. I just saw Pippin.

SDD: What are you currently obsessed with?

JS: My next project. I write plays, so I’m working on my next project.

SDD: Who is the last person who made you feel starstruck?

JS: Deborah Harry.

SDD: Do you have a life motto?

JS: No I don’t, but I should come up with one.

SDD: If you could trade places with anybody on Broadway, who would you choose? 

JS: I think I’d like to be Bette Midler for a day. Just a day. And play Sue Mengers. You’d get to sit on the couch and tell jokes, I think it’s marvelous.

SDD: Which Broadway star would you most want to get a drink with?

JS: Well, besides Judy, I’d have a Diet Pepsi with Elaine Stritch. But I’ve already done that.

SDD: Oh, that must have been cool.

JS: Oh, it was. I was totally intimidated but yeah, I had a drink with Elaine Stritch once. It was unbelievable.

SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.

JS: Funny. I hope, kind. Big hair. Bigger mouth. Well spoken.

SDD: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

JS: I do write and I do host it, but I really work with an amazing team. That’s Dan Fortune and Adam Rosen and Lance Horne my musical director, and Paul and everyone at the Ali Forney Center and everyone that’s volunteered. You know, I may be the one that’s credited as writing and hosting but I am really just the guy that gets to stand up front as opposed to the really great group of people that help the show happen. So I’d just like to thank them.

About Claire H.

Writer, performer, picture-taker, New Yorker. Find me on Twitter at @Claire_Hannum.

Comments are closed.