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#PBSForTheArts Artist Spotlight

Joan Ellison

(Photo: Beth Segal)

June 11, 2021

By Elisa Lichtenbaum

As part of #PBSForTheArts, a multiplatform campaign from PBS and The WNET Group celebrating the resiliency of the arts in America during the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown and reopening, we’re pleased to present a series of artist interviews spotlighting the inspiring pandemic survival stories of artists across the country. From Broadway dancers and concert performers to classical musicians, visual artists, and beyond, discover how these creative, resourceful artists have kept the arts vivid and vital during the pandemic.

Singer Joan Ellison, Teacher of Popular Voice at The Cleveland Institute of Music, has made a specialty of reviving Judy Garland’s repertoire from the Hollywood years to her historic Carnegie Hall concert and television show, restoring Garland’s glorious orchestrations from the original sources. She has brought Garland’s vibrant musical legacy to life in numerous concerts, including a 2019 Carnegie Hall 50th anniversary tribute concert in Asbury Park, New Jersey, featuring and hosted by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. At Michael Feinstein’s invitation, she serves as editor of the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall Concert Restoration Project for the Judy Garland Heirs Trust. In the following interview, Ellison talks about her unique concert experiences during the pandemic, her lifelong love of Judy Garland, and more.

Joan Ellison makes her New York City debut at Feinstein’s/54 Below in 2016.
(Photo: Mark Flanders)

Did you have performance engagements that were postponed or cancelled due to the COVID-19 performance shutdown in March 2020?

Yes, all of them for the past year and a half have been postponed, except a holiday concert that got moved forward to October so we could do it outdoors. For the Get Happy! Judy Garland concert with the New Haven Symphony, which was supposed to be last June, we instead put together a Joan Sings Judy From Her Living Room concert in an effort to bring some cheer to people in lockdown. I actually tuned my own piano for the first time ever. It felt like wrestling a bear for four hours and I broke two strings, but it still sounded better than before, so I considered it a win! And of course, I had to self-accompany, which I hadn’t done publicly for over a decade — but rediscovering that possibility was one of the musical silver linings of the pandemic. 

Your show Get Happy! Joan Ellison Sings Judy Garland, with Enid Symphony at Governor’s Park in Oklahoma, did go on despite COVID in October 2020. What was it like to sing in front of a live audience again – and in the middle of a pandemic?

At first it was pretty surreal. My husband, Mark, drove down with me from our home in Cleveland because I didn’t want to get on a plane. As if the pandemic-related protocols weren’t exciting enough, there were 65 m.p.h. winds sweeping down the plain during the afternoon rehearsal — it was Oklahoma, after all — so we’d have a period of calm, then all of a sudden scores would go flying and I’d turn around half expecting to see Margaret Hamilton flying by on her bike. But it settled down just in time for the first downbeat, and it seemed like we were all just happy to get a chance to do a live concert again. And, of course, there’s no thrill that tops singing Judy’s original arrangements amidst a live orchestra.

THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME: Joan Ellison visits Judy Garland’s childhood home at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. She is sitting on the landing where young Judy (aka: Frances Gumm) and the Gumm sisters performed for their friends and family.
(Photo: Mark Flanders)

How long has Judy Garland been an inspiration to you, and do you recall the moment when you realized that you wanted to devote your artistry and career to recreating her repertoire and preserving her legacy?

Since I was two and my parents got me the Wizard of Oz album. “Over the Rainbow” contained all the longing I couldn’t express in words, and Judy’s singing defined what singing should be for me from that early age. There were some detours and a lot of classical voice and piano study, as well as lots of musical theatre, but in 2009 I decided it was finally time to put together a concert of her songs and record my first album. The more I’ve studied her body of work, the more awestruck I have become. I think any of her fans will agree that she was a once-in-500-years artist.

One thing led to another, and in 2016 Michael Feinstein offered me the undreamt-of chance to help him restore Judy’s original orchestral arrangements, including her Carnegie Hall Concert, and then the original film arrangement of “Rainbow” when he rediscovered the lost parts and MGM score a couple of years ago. So, things have kind of come ‘round to the beginning for me. And making these glorious charts accessible again for current and future generations is shaping up to be my life’s work, as more of them just keep appearing out of the woodwork!

Joan Ellison with Judy Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft following “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50thAnniversary Concert” in 2019 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey.
 (Photo: Mark Flanders)

Today would be Judy Garland’s 99th birthday. If she were alive today, what song would she sing to lift our collective spirits during these unprecedented times?

Of course, “Over the Rainbow.” JFK called her and asked her to sing it over the phone to cheer him up. She might even have sung the verse for us, which begins, “When all the world is a hopeless jumble, and the raindrops tumble all around/Heaven opens a magic lane….”

What has been the most difficult thing for you as a performing artist during the pandemic?

The sense that any moment everything you’ve been working for all your life could be gone. So what remains? And who are you if you are not doing that? And worse yet, at any moment, people you love could be gone. Both of my sisters got Covid, but have thankfully recovered. And so many people all over the world have had it so much, much worse. I feel very grateful and lucky to have made it through to where we’re seeing blue skies beyond the rainbow, along with my family and friends. 

Joan Ellison performs in “Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert” in 2019 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey. 
(Photo: Mark Flanders)

What has helped you maintain a sense of hope and optimism during these challenging times?

Finding artistic flow experiences has kept me “pandemic fine” most days, and even brought joy. For several of the darkest and most uncertain weeks of 2020, I was immersed in restoring the iconic orchestral arrangement of “The Trolley Song,” with Conrad Salinger’s gorgeous countermelodies filling my head waking and sleeping. It’s four minutes of pure happiness, so if you haven’t seen it in a while, go watch it on YouTube! It felt like an act of faith to restore it, when I didn’t know when, if ever, I’d actually be able to bring it to life with an orchestra.

It helps a lot that my husband has an offbeat sense of humor. And clichéd though it may be, taking time to notice beauty in the everyday things and small human kindnesses helped. Walking home from the opening day of our farmers’ market last month, my pansy basket broke but landed perfectly upright on the sidewalk, and the couple walking their dog towards me made a friendly pleasantry about it and I dissolved in tears at the unexpected normal-ness! 

Joan Ellison’s last concert before the COVID-19 performance shutdown in 2020: “Judy & Liza at the Palladium” at TheatreZone in Naples, Florida.
 (Photo: Mark Flanders)

What’s next for you?

Now that I’m fully vaccinated (hooray!!), I was finally able to try out an idea that had been percolating since last spring: arranging an intimate Garland concert for voice, piano, and cello, (working title The Garland Variations). It’s been a real delight to put together because a cello brings so much additional emotion and color to the table. And symphonies and performing arts centers are finally scheduling actual live concerts for the fall and spring — just in time for Judy’s centennial, which is June 10, 2022 — so it’s looking like the season ahead will include lots of singing for people, which is what I love most! 

Joan Ellison performs “Stormy Weather” in Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall: The 50th Anniversary Concert in 2019 at the Paramount Theatre in Asbury Park, New Jersey. The concert, conducted by Michael Berkowitz, featured performances by Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft (who also hosted), Debbie Gravitte, Karen Mason, and Gabrielle Stravelli.

Stay up to date with Joan Ellison via her website, or follow her on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Elisa Lichtenbaum | @ElisaVonTap

Elisa Lichtenbaum is a Senior Writer at The WNET Group. An avid theatergoer and tap dancer, she is dedicated to helping theater artists and the theater community make a vibrant comeback following the pandemic.

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