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Her mother's voice

Lorna Luft had avoided performing the songs her mother, Judy Garland, made famous. Now, to honor her mother, she sings all of Garland's best-known songs - except one.

By JOHN FLEMING
Published October 8, 2004

  photo
[Times files]

“You’re never going to improve on perfection,” says Lorna Luft about Over the Rainbow.   photo
[Getty Images]

photo
[AP 1964]
A legend and her family: Lorna Luft at age 12, right, with her famous mother, Judy Garland, brother Joey, 9, and half-sister Liza Minnelli, 18, during a family trip in 1964.
photo
[Times files: 1967]
The Luft children and Garland. “Mama and I usually ring up room service when we eat on the road,” Luft said at age 14 in 1967. Two years later her mother died of an accidental drug overdose.

Even over the phone, you can hear her mother in Lorna Luft's voice, the breathy vibrato that helped to make Judy Garland such an infectiously dramatic singer.

"I don't think I sound like her at all, but then the audience says I sound exactly like her," Luft says from her Beverly Hills home. "I think it's whatever anybody wants to hear. I have a big voice, but I don't try to emulate her. That would be stupid. But people do hear it. It's normal. She was my mother."

Luft is appearing this weekend with the Florida Orchestra in Songs My Mother Taught Me, singing Garland standards such as Come Rain or Come Shine, The Man that Got Away and You Made Me Love You.

The only song associated with her mother that she doesn't perform is Over the Rainbow.

"You're never going to improve on perfection," Luft says. "But it is sung in the show. Mom sings Over the Rainbow on video."

Luft, fresh off a summer of performing Songs My Mother Taught Me in London's West End, has been doing the show with symphony orchestras for several years. Her husband, Colin Freeman, conducts.

"The whole show has been sculpted around an evening of me telling people what it was like growing up, how I heard these songs," she says. "It's interwoven with the video, and my mom and I sing duets. So it's a mother-daughter show. It's a show about family and about being together."

Luft, 51, has been labeled "Judy Garland's other daughter," but lately she has outshone her older half-sister, Liza Minnelli, whose tumultuous personal life has made her tabloid fodder. After a show business career marked by bombs like Grease 2 and Where the Boys Are '84, Luft wrote a best-selling memoir, Me and My Shadows, which was made into a successful TV movie, starring Judy Davis as Garland.

She stayed away from performing songs from her mother's catalog until putting together the show. "Only after I'd written my book and we made the movie was I able to say I think I can do this now," Luft says. "Everyone and their brother have recorded these songs. Why not me?"

Garland once said Luft had the best voice in the family. "It's so nice that she said that," Luft says. "That makes me feel really nice and really proud."

Luft has enjoyed some success onstage in musical theater roles, though mainly in second casts on Broadway and in tours. She made her Broadway debut in Promises, Promises and was Adelaide in an excellent Guys & Dolls tour. Two years ago, in a university production of Gypsy, she played Mama Rose, a role that cut close to the bone for her.

"It's the Hamlet of musical comedy roles," she says. "It was probably the most difficult thing I've ever done, because I realized I was playing my grandmother. Rose is such a monster. She's not an intelligent woman, she's street savvy, but she has no idea that she's hurting her children. She's just so driven."

Luft's grandmother, Ethel Gumm, was the ultimate stage mother, pushing Judy onto the stage at age 3. "I heard she was dreadful," Luft says. "She died two weeks after I was born."

She shudders at the thought of a stage mom she met in London. "I did a TV show with this poor child whose mother was this horrifying Russian woman," Luft says. "This kid, he must have been like 12, 13, you'd ask him a question, and the mother answered. I finally looked at her and I said, "Stop! Let him speak!' The kid was like a robot. It was right out of Gypsy. Things haven't changed."

Lorna and her brother, Joey, often appeared with their mother on the CBS series The Judy Garland Show (1963-64), but she says they weren't pushed to become entertainers.

"She didn't want us to go into it. With me, she basically thought, "If I don't mention it, maybe it will go away.' She never mentioned it. She just hoped it would go away, and when it didn't, when I said to her that this is what I wanted to do, then she backed me all the way."

As for Joey, Luft says, "My brother is not in the public eye. He doesn't want to be. He's a photographer in California."

Luft has a 20-year-old son, Jesse, now working for the John Kerry campaign in California, and a 14-year-old daughter, Vanessa. Neither is interested in show business.

Luft calls her mother a legend, and she makes it plain that being the daughter of a legend was not easy. She heard of her mother's death, from an overdose of pills in 1969 in London, on the radio.

"I didn't ask for this," she says. "The only thing that you can do if you're the daughter of somebody who is legendary is you have to learn to handle it. Either you're going to run away from it or maybe you'll embrace it. But you didn't make this choice."

With a few exceptions, Liza Minnelli has shied away from doing her mother's material, too.

"It's hard," Luft says. "What you want to do is pay tribute. That's why it took me so long. It's too overwhelming and it's too daunting."

She is protective of her mother's image, contemptuously dismissing Gerald Clarke's no-holds-barred biography, Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland.

"I didn't like that one at all," she says. "If you're going to write a biography of somebody, it'd be nice if you'd talk to their family. The man never picked up a phone and talked to me. Then he had the nerve, when I said certain things weren't right in it, to say I wouldn't know. He never spoke to me."

Luft considers Gerold Frank's Judy to be the definitive biography. She sounds a note of weariness at the industry of Garland books.

"I think everything has been said. My mom's up there with Elvis and Marilyn. What else is there to say?"

Asked if there are any contemporary singers who could ever rival her mother, the talkative Luft takes a long pause before answering.

"I think there are singers that have great voices," she says. "One of the great voices of all time was Whitney Houston. Unfortunately today, everyone thinks they have to do vocal aerobics. Just find a note and hold it. I do think that Christina Aguilera has a very good voice, but God knows, we can't hear it because she's so busy yodeling.

"I don't hear anyone who can hold a candle to my mother only because my mother was an original and then they broke that mold."

- John Fleming can be reached at 727 893-8716 or fleming@sptimes.com

PREVIEW

Lorna Luft performs with the Florida Orchestra in Songs My Mother Taught Me at 8 p.m. today at Morsani Hall of the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center, 8 p.m. Saturday at St. Petersburg's Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Sunday at Clearwater's Ruth Eckerd Hall. $15.50-$50.50. 813 286-2403 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286; www.floridaorchestra.org

[Last modified October 7, 2004, 14:15:25]


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