When I heard about An Evening with Judy Garland, the upcoming season opener for the Irving Symphony, my first thought was this is brilliant, why someone hasn’t done this before is beyond me. My next question is who has the chutzpah to take on the original diva.
Her name is Debbie Gravitte and she is a very accomplished Broadway and television actress and singer. AP calls her “One of the Best Voices on Broadway” and they are right. Before calling Debbie to talk about her career and her tribute to Judy Garland, I listen to her most recent solo CD, Defying Gravity, which is choc full of some of the best Broadway Tunes there are, bar none. Debbie’s interpretation of Defying Gravity, in my opinion, one of the greatest showtunes ever written, is brilliant. Taking on a song made immortal by Idina Menzel on Broadway takes a bit of nerve, Debbie Gravitte is bold in her choices and we are the beneficiaries of her guts. I hear a bit of Elaine Page in her, and yes, a bit of Judy Garland too.
I caught up with Debbie in L.A. where she was prepping for Six Degrees of Marvin Hamlisch, a tribute put together by Lucy Arnaz where she was to perform with Hamlisch, her frequest collaborator. Not since the first time I spoke to Leslie Jordan have I taken to an interview subject so quickly. Debbie is fun and sassy from the beginning, so how did it all begin for her?
“I was just really sort of loud, I can’t tell you what my ‘Oh my God’ I have to do this moment was. I do remember watching Damn Yankees on TV and I absolutely fell under the spell of Gwen Verdon.” She grew up the daughter of a mother she describes as a frustrated singer. Her mother never made a living with her voice, so how did Gravitte end up in the business they call Show?
She lands a part in an L. A. production right out of college. The director is Broadway legend Gower Champion who directed such shows as Hello Dolly, 42nd Street and Mac & Mabel. Her appearance in this show leads to her being called to New York to appear in the show that landed her an agent.
I have learned through years of interviews that you can’t get an agent unless you are in something, and you can’t get into anything unless you have an agent. Sounds like a system put together by Republicans, but I digress.
Since then she has enjoyed a varied career. After making her Broadway debut in the original cast of They’re Playing Our Song a musical with book by Neil Simon, lyrics by Carole Bayer Sager, and music by Marvin Hamlisch, she went onto appear in: Perfectly Frank (Drama Desk Nomination), Blues In The Night, Ain’t Broadway Grand, Zorba, Chicago, and Les Miserables.
Debbie Gravitte won the Tony Award for her role in Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, but she says all she ever wanted was the nomination. “The show…was my fourth or fifth show, and I had done other things where I had thought that I would possibly be nominated.” So when it happened? “It was pretty surreal. I had gum in my mouth. I stood up and handed my gum to my husband. I knew I had a chance, but I didn’t think it was going to happen.” I like her more and more.
Gravitte’s career is not limited to the Broadway stage. She is a very accomplished Television actress, solo recording artist, club act. So where is she most at home? “I hate to say it, because it is so cliché, but anywhere there is an audience.” She quickly adds, “There is nothing like being on Broadway”
The list of people that Debbie has worked with through her career is an amazing list of celebrities; the one that stood out for me was George Burns. Debbie opened for Burns in Atlantic City near the end of the comics’ career. “He might have been 99, I think. The thing that struck me he was a little bit out of it offstage, but they pointed him on the stage when it was time to do his thing, and you could have subtracted Thirty Years. It was unbelievable. He did his thing, and then at the end of the show, there would be his handler waiting offstage, he would walk off and then it was the same thing all over again.”
We have to get to it; Gravitte is coming to Dallas to take on arguably the biggest diva, the biggest voice of all time. She teams with Liza Minnelli’s Musical Director Michael Burkowitz and The Irving Symphony to present “An Evening with Judy Garland”? Gravitte stresses that she is not imitating Judy Garland. “It’s me and my personality singing Judy’s great songs and telling a few stories.” It is a tribute to Garland and her amazing career, her amazing talent. “When you listen to her, every song was like the last song she was going to sing. It’s wrenching.” I ask her about performing in the shadow of the diva. “You will hear these orchestrations start up; I think, I can’t believe I am going to sing these dongs with these arrangements.”
This is a close as you are going to get to experiencing Judy in concert. All the great Garland classics will be there. There will be video’s of Garland, and these are the original arrangements exclusive to Garland herself. I think the combination of Judy and Debbie is a winning one, and will be a night you will not soon forget.
Saturday, October 8th Irving’s Symphony presents An Evening with Judy Garland on the 50th Anniversary of Judy Garland’s first Carnegie Hall engagement. Tickets available at irvingsymphony.com $18-$49
Across town Friday and Saturday Liza Minnelli performs with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra. Tickets available at dallassymphony.com. $50-$122.
Take my advice Attend Liza on Friday, see Debbie Gravitte’s tribute to Judy Garland on Saturday. On Sunday, you can die happy.
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