Mike Atkinson

Interview: Lorna Luft

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on February 8, 2008

Considering her mother is Judy Garland and her half-sister is Liza Minnelli, I could be forgiven for expecting gushing over-exuberance and plenty of “fabulous, darling!” – but no. Instead, Lorna Luft turned out to be sensible, grounded, business-like, with no illusions – and equally, with no bitterness at being somewhat eclipsed by the showbiz legends within her family. Now read on…

Tell us about your current tour, Songs My Mother Taught Me. I gather that this tells the story of your mother Judy Garland’s life in words and music?

Yes, it’s a two hour show of me telling you about my legacy. It uses screens; it has multimedia; there are stories; it’s how I grew up. It’s honest, which is why I think the audiences have been spectacular. They’ve laughed, they’ve cried; I wish I had the Kleenex concession! At Chichester, there were three standing ovations. I’m incredibly grateful. Someone said to me that “we were taken over the emotional runway of your life”.

Does the show deal with your own relationship with your mother?

Of course; that’s what it is. There’s a long medley at the end, which talks about how she grew up. But this is mainly about how I grew up.

Do we see and hear your mother on the screen? Are there duets?

Yes, there are. So it’s very personal, very funny… and I have a fantastic 11-piece orchestra.

Are all of the songs taken from your mother’s repertoire?

Yes, these are all her songs. It took me a very long time to do this – but then I don’t believe that you really get to know your mother or father until you’re in your forties. I don’t think you know them in your twenties or your thirties. In your forties, you’ve probably had children, and you’re at an age where you can look into your heritage, and really find out more and understand more about yourself. I’m 55 now, so it took me a long time.

I think there comes a time, especially if there was a difficult relationship, when you can see your parents through an adult’s eyes, and you’re prepared to give them a break. You stop being angry, and blaming them for things which you thought they hadn’t done right. You can see where the weaknesses may have come from.

I think you have more of an understanding, and I think in your forties you learn the most important lesson, and that is to forgive. You don’t need to forget; but you learn to forgive.

It’s one of the most empowering things you can do, as well. It sets you free.

Absolutely.

What personal qualities do you think you have inherited from your mother?

I know I’ve inherited her sense of humour. I’ve also inherited her work ethic. I show up on time; I hit the marks; I do the show at 110%. And that’s what she did. When she was on a stage, when she was on a movie set, when she was working: you saw 110%. And that’s something that’s lacking in today’s young artists. They have the opportunity sometimes to lip-synch, and a lot of artists today have the opportunity to get away with a lot of stuff that I find to be pretty shocking. I wouldn’t dare – dare! – subject an audience to it.

I’ve noticed that with some of the arena shows that I’ve seen. It can be surprising how many corners people will cut, and how much time they will spend off-stage.

Well, I was so pleased, because I just met this lovely, lovely girl, Melanie C. She invited me to the last Spice Girls concert at the O2. So I went, and I met all of the girls, and all of their families, and all of their kids – it was really lovely backstage. And I have to say that they gave 110%, and they were singing live, and it was so wonderful. It was absolutely great.

So there was a real warmth between them as individuals?

Yeah, and they did a whole tribute to their mothers. Melanie C even wrote me an e-mail the next day, saying “I thought you might like the show!” (Laughs)

That’s cool. So in what ways would you say you were most different from your mother?

I have a very good sense of reality. I really don’t like sycophants around me.

Was that a problem for her, do you think?

Oh yes. And I don’t like the people who come into my dressing room and start with all of the over-the-top praise. I shy away from that.

Maybe they think you have a more fragile ego than you actually do? They may think it’s required, in order to put you in a good place.

When my husband – who is also my musical director – comes in, he gives me notes. I appreciate that, because it means that I can improve. I don’t respect somebody who comes in and says that it was “the amazing thing I’ve ever seen”. That’s what’s different: I have a reality check. My manager was here earlier, and we had to go over some things. He knows: just cut to the chase. Just give me the bottom line of what’s going on, reality-wise. Then I can handle it. I’m not saying you have to be brutal or mean, but if you start to sugar-coat something then I’m going to see right through it.

I would imagine that the question that you’ve been asked most often in interviews over the years is whether you feel in the shadow of your mother. It must get tedious sometimes – but by doing this particular show, are you perhaps coming to terms with your position, as it relates to her legacy?

I would say that I was coming to terms with my legacy and celebrating it. It took me a long time to embrace it, to be grateful, and to say thank you, because I ran away from it for so long.

Until this morning, I had no idea that you went off and sang with Blondie…

Yeah! I died my hair purple, and sang rock and roll, and did all sorts of stuff. I sang on Dreaming, and I did a bunch of stuff on Eat to the Beat.

Dreaming is my favourite single of all time. In some ways, it captures everything about what it is to be a teenager.

She’s a lovely girl, Debbie Harry. She’s just a really really lovely, talented girl.

So you went kind of rock and roll for a while there?

Oh, I did everything. Everything that I could do to find my footing. The shadow was always there, and I kept trying to outrun it. But you’re not going to outrun your shadow. You’ve got to sit yourself down and say: I have to deal with this.

There has also been a renewed interest in your mother’s work, thanks to Rufus Wainwright’s exact re-creation of her 1961 Carnegie Hall show. Towards the end of his show, you guested on a couple of songs. Did you appear on every show of the tour?

We did New York, London, Paris, and L.A. together. Rufus is a very talented artist, and a very nice man. He and I talked at length, when he first wanted to do this, about what this all meant to him. He told me that it came from his heart, because of the despair and the depths of devastation that he felt after 9/11. He felt that he had really seen the horrors of what people could do to one another – and he put my mom’s Carnegie Hall album on, and it gave him hope. 

I think it’s more the feeling of the show. Vocally he’s not as strong, because he has his own vocal style and he’s not used to singing this kind of material. But the heart behind it is what stands out. 

It’s also that he’s taking my mother’s name into pop culture. I think it’s really important that it goes on. The week after he did the Carnegie Hall show, my mother’s Carnegie Hall album spiked through the roof. There’s a whole new generation that maybe only knew her as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, and didn’t know the performer – so they’ve now gone out and learned to appreciate the incredible live performer that she was.

What’s coming up for you after this tour finishes? What other projects have you got on the horizon?

I might go back to Los Angeles in mid-February. Around the 18th, I’m doing a concert with my friend Michael Feinstein in Palm Springs. After the concert, I’ll drive back to Los Angeles and get on a plane to Sydney. I’m going to Australia for about two weeks, on a promotional tour for the CD of Songs My Mother Taught Me. Then I come back, take a couple of weeks off, and then go back to Australia for two months, on tour.

Just missing their summer, unfortunately…

Listen: there’s a writers’ strike in Los Angeles, and there are so many people who are out of work. I am so grateful to be working. The other night, somebody looked at me and said “Ma’am, thank God you can sing!” (Laughs)

That’s really starting to bite now, is it? People are having difficulty getting the work?

What people don’t understand is that L.A. is a one-industry town. My friend Carol Thatcher took me to tea with her mom the other day, and Mrs. Thatcher and I were talking about the strike. I said that there was a trickle-down effect. When the writers walked out, the BBC and Sky news would say that “the writers are on strike”, but nobody ever understood that this has now cost L.A. over 300 million dollars. The make-up artists, the wardrobe people, and every single person that works on a television show now don’t have jobs.

Do the writers have a just cause?

Yeah! It’s all about downloading. You can download these television shows, and the writers aren’t getting paid! We knew that this strike was going to happen; we knew that the writers were not fooling around. They have said, over and over: we’re prepared to walk out for a year.

There has to come a point where someone’s got to start negotiating…

That’s what Mrs. Thatcher said! I said, Mrs Thatcher, nobody’s even talking to one another, and she said, oh, they can’t act like children!

But she was known as one of the toughest negotiators of all. It’s interesting that she was saying that’s what had to happen.

That’s what she said. And I said: you’re absolutely right. Carol Thatcher came to my show in Chichester. She’s a very smart, very bright, very well-read woman. And she said: well, this is just ridiculous.

You know, the trickle-down effect has even gotten to my daughter. My daughter, who’s seventeen, called me up before Christmas and said: Mom, I got a job in this big florists’ shop in Los Angeles, and I’m gonna make money for Christmas. She called me up two weeks later and said: Mom, I don’t have a job. I said: what happened? She said: all the Christmas parties were cancelled because of the strike.

Really? Wow, I hadn’t realised…

Think about it! All of the caterers, all of the limo drivers, and all of them – they don’t have jobs!

And is this damaging the cause for the writers? Are people beginning to turn against them, as their livelihoods are threatened?

I don’t know, but basically the producers have got to sit down with the writers. George Clooney said on television that they should lock them in a room, and not let them out until they come to an agreement. I’m with George Clooney! Lock ‘em in a room! Twelve Angry Men, I don’t care! Lock ‘em in a room!

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