A true American legend, Judy Garland’s inimitable legacy has been cemented in pop culture for generations. Because Ms. Garland’s untimely death in 1969 has been so closely associated with the historic Stonewall Riots in New York City, the 50th anniversary of both events in 2019 has brought the star back into the spotlight yet again. This year will also see a new (albeit controversial) biopic about Judy’s life come to the big screen. There’s even a Broadway-bound musical about Garland’s early career in the works. It may have been 80 years since audiences first fell in love with Dorothy Gale from Kansas, and five decades since we mourned the passing of one of the world’s greatest entertainers… but it’s safe to say that the fascination with the woman born Frances Ethel Gumm in Grand Rapids, Minnesota will NEVER go away.
For New York singer Seth Sikes, Judy Garland has been more than just a great entertainer. Garland has been an inspiration and a creative muse for the young artist since his childhood. Sikes has channeled his affinity for Ms. Garland, as well as for Judy’s daughter Liza Minnelli, into a series of successful cabaret shows. While both Judy and Liza are eternal favorites of drag queens who either lip synch to their music or mimic their voices, Sikes doesn’t impersonate those transgenerational icons. Rather, he musically captures the unique spirit and performance style of the two stars, bringing the audience a wide variety of beloved classic songs in the process. Audiences have taken notice of his vocal skill, his energy, and his respect for his inspirations. Sikes has appeared numerous times at the Manhattan cabaret hotspot Feinstein’s/54 Below, filling every seat for all his performances. His debut show Seth Sikes Sings Judy Garland won Broadway World’s “Best Tribute Show”. His follow-up piece Seth Sikes Sings Liza Minnelli was just as successful, selling out weeks in advance. Seth Sikes returns to Feinsteins/54 Below with his tribute to Ms. Garland on Wednesday, August 14th. Backed by his full band, he’ll perform many of Judy’s greatest hits, along with lesser-known gems and some songs she never got the chance to perform herself.
Seth Sikes took the time to speak to me about his upcoming show, life in New York City, and, of course, “All Things Judy”!
JR: Hi, Seth! Thank you for speaking with me! Congratulations on your upcoming show at Feinstein’s/54 Below. It’s one of my favorite places.
SS: Thank you. It’s one of mine as well!
JR: So… Let’s talk about Judy Garland. Here we are in 2019, and the interest in her music and in her life has never really gone away…. but it seems like it’s in full force recently. Where did your affinity for Judy come from? And when did it first start?
SS: It came to me at a very early age, and when I say “early” I mean at like six or seven years old. I grew up in Paris, Texas, a small town northeast of Dallas. My aunt had a few VHS tapes of MGM musicals. One of them was Summer Stock. It’s the movie where Judy sings Get Happy and Howdy Neighbor on the tractor! When I saw her, I just thought that she was the most fascinating creature I’d ever seen, and that her voice was just overwhelming– completely overwhelming. There were only a few other movies that I had seen her in back then, like Me and My Gal and of course The Wizard of Oz— although I wasn’t as obsessed with that movie as much as so many other people are. But anyway, that obsession grew and grew. Then, weirdly, I also became very, very into Liza Minnelli as a little boy as well. My aunt also had a video of Liza performing at Radio City. I sort of became more of a Liza fan for a while. When I moved to New York and started to meet people here, I remember that I was at a party and a guy said, “When you start dating somebody, the first thing you should do when you go home with them is look at their CD collection and make sure they have Judy at Carnegie Hall!”
SS: I was like, “Judy sang at Carnegie Hall?” I didn’t know that; that is how ignorant I was on the whole subject. I’m 35 years old, and YouTube had just started at this point. It’s not like I grew up with all this stuff at my fingertips. So, of course I got the CD. I didn’t know what to expect when I put it in! This was several years after Summer Stock and The Wizard of Oz. Her voice was much more raw. It sounded like she’d been through something, you know?
JR: Oh yeah!
SS: Then, from there on the obsession just spiraled, you know? Then I watched all the movies, and the endless video clips… and became obsessed with the performances on The Judy Garland Show, which are all on YouTube. It’s just been this lifelong thing.
JR: It almost sounds like you didn’t discover Judy, but rather she discovered YOU!
SS: Absolutely. And you know, I think a lot of gay guys are so attracted to these “tragic women”. But I didn’t even know about that part of her life when I was obsessed with her as a kid. That part was completely unknown to me. I only came to know about that stuff later. And, of course, that was all very fascinating. I certainly can relate to that side of her as well in many ways. But it didn’t start there!
JR: Nice! So, one of your Judy shows was called The Songs That Got Away. Where did the title come from?
SS: With the name of that show, of course I’m playing on the title of the song The Man That Got Away. But also, Judy died when she was 47 years old… obviously way too young for us to have lost her. If she had lived a little longer, think of all the songs by Sondheim and others that she never even got to hear: like, I’m Still Here or Broadway Baby or Losing My Mind— you know, all these great songs that she would’ve sounded so great on, and that she would definitely have sung had she lived another 20 years like she should have. I don’t do an impersonation or anything like that. I think that there is some unconscious channeling that happens sometimes. (Laughs) Yes! But it’s not an impersonation. I just thought it would be interesting to throw in some songs that she never got to do, and maybe throw in a few like Judy-ish arrangements on those songs.
JR: Gotcha! Yes, it definitely would have been interesting to see how Judy would have taken advantage of the world of cabaret– one of the few forms of performance where age doesn’t matter. A cabaret audience will appreciate talent at any age. So, you mentioned Liza, who is Judy’s daughter but from a different generation. You pay tribute to Liza as well in one of your shows as well, right?
SS: Yes. In my shows, I sing the songs but I also talk about how Judy influenced my life since I was a little kid. I weave the songs in and out of my life. I talk about growing up on a rural farm and then watching Judy on a tractor– and then driving our tractor around singing Howdy Neighbor and Get Happy at my Baptist church and things like that. After I did my string of “Judy hit concerts”, I was trying to figure out what to do next. It was Liza’s 70th birthday, and it just made sense that I would do a Liza tribute. It just made sense that I would do the Liza show, because like Judy, Liza also had such an acute impact on my life. Liza was “New York” to me: that video Liza: Live From Radio City Music Hall, and the song New York, New York! She got me more interested in show business and more interested in Broadway than I was before. So, it was just a logical thing. My relationship with Liza was the next story I wanted to tell!
JR: Right! Well, Judy and Liza’s fans can never get enough! And clearly, the public can’t either. My feelings about Liza is that she definitely gives us that classic MGM “Let’s put on a show!” vibe. Like Judy, she is very conscious of her public persona. And, of course, like her mom she was always the consummate entertainer. But she was also a generation later than Judy, so we have that grittier aspect. Today, a celebrity is almost forced to talk about the other side of show business: the drugs and the partying and all that stuff. It’s clear that you really researched a lot about Judy and Liza, so you’re something of an expert. Given that, what would you say is Liza’s place in pop culture today as we near the end of 2019? Will she be as enduring an icon as Judy is?
SS: In my opinion, yes. I mean, I was at a video bar in P-Town last week and they put on Liza. She was singing New York, New York at a concert. The boys just went nuts. They went wild for her and, and I thought, “Well, this is great!” The people were still responding to her. I mean, you just cannot deny that talent– the majesty of that talent when you watch her in her prime in the late eighties and early 90’s when she was killing it in these concert halls everywhere. I mean, no matter what generation you are, no matter if you liked that kind of music, you just can’t deny that talent. I do worry sometimes that she can become a little bit “camp”. But I think that Liza embraced her campiness when took the part on Arrested Development and on Sex and the City 2. I don’t think she’s afraid of her campiness. People like her, and most stars who live long enough can exist in people’s minds as a camp figure but also as a great talent. I don’t think that people can become camp figures unless they also had great careers. She’s still relevant, for sure! I’m lucky to have seen her on stage several times. There’s no one left like that. I mean, Streisand still is. She does her thing, but it’s completely different kind of thing. Streisand all about control. Liza is the last of the great Golden Era powerhouse Broadway performers– and honestly, I do think that she’s the very last one. It was a very sad day for me when she moved to L.A. Again, she was always “New York” to me. It was great knowing that walking around town, she could be just down the Avenue or across the park! It was very sad to me when she sold the apartment and moved to L.A.– but I think it’s a much easier lifestyle for her out there.
JR: How true! We all wish her all the best of luck! So… back to your show! Have you ever looked out into your audience and been surprised at who is there?
SS: (Laughs) Not really! The people who enjoy this stuff tend to be people in, you know, in their50’s, 60’s, 70’s, 80s, 90s… (Laughs) Those are the people who enjoy it the most. I do get some great pleasure when the younger people come and they’ll be like, “I’ve never heard these songs!”… but if I can get them interested in this material, then I consider my job done. Part of it is keeping this stuff alive. It’s all about Judy, of course, but it’s also NOT all about Judy! It’s about these songs. They are the kind of songs that mean the most to me, and the only kind of songs I connect with. They are also the only kind of songs I can really sing! I can’t sing pop music! It doesn’t work. But I can connect with these fantastic old songs… and I’m not the only one. It’s happened more than once: Older gentlemen who have been obsessed with Judy their whole life will grab me by the hand and say, “I understand!”
JR: Wow! That’s great to hear! So, as a singer, is there anything special you do to protect your voice?
SS: This is my first show in New York in over a year. I was busy working as an associate director for The Band’s Visit on Broadway, and we just launched the tour. Even when I’m performing, it’s not like I do three shows a week. It’s every few weeks or every few months or something. So I’m not as regimented as other singers. But… when I have a concert coming, I get crazy! You’re just so scared that you’re going to catch that cold a couple of days before the concert. When I first started actually performing publicly in New York, I literally went crazy. I didn’t get sick, but I was babysitting and I was wearing rubber gloves and taking Vitamin C all the time. I keep warmed up and in vocal shape by hitting the piano bar and singing along. Of course, you could probably do some damage if you’re singing too loudly or drunkenly at a piano bar! (Laughs) But that’s the way I like to keep my chops up. If have a show coming up, like I do in a month, I’ll start going regularly to a piano bar several days a week and singing along. That way you don’t bother your neighbors as much!
JR: (Laughs) Oh, that’s great. So now, you mentioned New York. We all both love and hate New York City at the same time. We love it because, well, it’s New York! But we hate it because it’s expensive and loud and noisy and there’s a lot of like competition… and things like that. What is it like being an independent artist living in New York City?
SS: Well, it’s hard as hell. You can use that quote! (Laughs) But it is really hard. Because it’s expensive. You really have to hustle, just not necessarily just to make it as a performer but to pay the bills and have a decent lifestyle. I mean, I guess you could sing all the time but not be able to eat very well– but you know, you want to have a nice life and you want to be able to go on vacation. It’s very hard to balance. It’s sort of a puzzle that you have to put together. I’ve been able to do it well because I found a job that’s quite flexible– working for a not-for-profit, doing administrative work. I’ve worked for them for 12 or 13 years on and off, and I haven’t had to do the “waiting tables” thing so much, which I really think would make me unhappy. But it is a constant battle, and you’re working all the time, and when you do have a few hours or a night off, you think, “Oh, I don’t want to work on my show. I’d rather, you know, go out to a nice dinner, or SEE a show, or go to a movie!” But you have to make yourself work and you have to find the balance. It’s hard. Very hard!
JR: For most performers, it is the love of performing that really motivates them. And with you, that love of performing really comes through! Again, New York City is a long-term, love-hate relationship!
SS: Yeah! The great thing about doing this show in New York City is that it’s just different here. You’re on the radar of all these people. When I did the Judy show, all kinds of fun people started coming… and then we did the Liza show, and John Kander comes. And Joel Grey came, and Susan Stroman came. That doesn’t happen in another city! That’s a real New York thing. That’s the incredible thing about performing here. Also, keep in mind that I’m performing at 54 Below, which is in the basement of Studio 54— which is where I’m told all the fun used to happen when people like Liza were partying! That’s pretty special!
JR: Oh yeah! If those walls could talk! (Laughs) So, what do you do for fun when you’re not performing or rehearsing?
SS: Aside from piano bars, which is my “go to”, I’m a fiction junkie. I love reading serious fiction and I spend WAY too much time doing that. So that’s sort of my main other thing. And then I’m a Fire Island enthusiast, so I go there as much as possible.
JR: Did you go there on July 4th?
SS: No. That was the first Fourth of July on Fire Island that I missed, because I happened to be in P-Town this year! And that was completely wild. I’ve been to P-Town many times, and it’s usually such a quaint, fun, laid back kind of trip. But this was a CRAZY party!
JR: (Laughs) Well, I’m fond of both places. I don’t get to P-Town as often as I want to. I would have loved to have gone there over the last couple of weeks and just get some of that cool Cape Cod air, you know? Something to break the heat of our beloved New York City! So… is there anything else that you’d want to tell the masses… besides, obviously, to get your tickets for the show?
SS: I’d just say that one of the unique things about my show is that I have this fantastic seven piece band. My orchestrator is doing a sort of reduction of Judy’s arrangements, and of course we tailor them for me. But it’s not your typical cabaret. You’re not just coming out to just hear a piano or a trio. You get a full brass band. It’s kind of hard to find that these days in New York!
JR: Oh, how true! Now, one last question: Do you plan on seeing the new movie about Judy? I know that Judy’s children were not asked to participate, which is kind of odd…
SS: Well, that makes me suspicious!
JR: Yes! The movie is reportedly based on the Broadway show End of the Rainbow, which depicted the last few weeks of Judy’s life– which was obviously not a happy time. That said, I’m going to have to see the movie because, of course, I’m fascinated by every little thing about Ms. Garland!
SS: I am too! And of course I’m going to see it. From the trailers that I’ve seen, I’m not excited very much about the performance. I am bothered that they decided to have Renee Zellweger try to sing. She’s singing Over the Rainbow and it doesn’t sound anything like her. It doesn’t sound magical or exciting at all. In Bohemian Rhapsody they used Freddy Mercury’s real voice, and in a way, whether or not you liked the movie, that was very successful. I think that’s because his voice was so iconic, and that the decision was part of the movie’s success. I think that they could have and should have done that same thing here. I didn’t know the movie was based on that play. I really, truly loathe that play. The reason why I loathe it is not because it became so unpleasant to visit the last few days or months of her life when she wasn’t at her best. You know, if it’s done well and if it’s done respectfully, I think that’s interesting. I loathed the piece because none of her redeeming qualities were there. I mean, this was a person who, up until the very end, could walk into a room and the whole party would just completely circle around her. She was so charismatic and so incredibly magnetic that people just fell in love with her to the end. She occasionally had horrible qualities because of the addiction– but nothing in that play ever convinced me of that. She just was this loud, cursing, dunk monster of a human the whole time. I never saw anything endearing about her. I don’t see that to be necessarily the case from the trailer of this movie. If they’re able to bring a convincing portrait of Judy’s magnetism and beauty to the movie, and not just the ugliness, then I’d be an onboard. I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.
JR: Agreed. We might not have had the privilege of meeting her or even seeing her perform, but clearly the many people who have met her or who have seen her on stage have said the same thing: She might have had some dark traits, but she was every bit as charismatic and magnetic as you said earlier. Any project about Judy really needs to capture that essence that made her a legend!
SS: Yes! Can I add one more thing? They’re doing a Broadway-bound musical about her, called Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz. It’s about Judy life from like 11 to 14, or like 13 to 16, or something like that during the time when she made The Wizard of Oz. I saw readings of it, and my friend is casting it. They were looking for a Judy. I love the fact that we’re keeping her story alive, and keeping her music alive, and that new people will get to learn about her. But I just kept saying to him, This is an impossible task, because this kind of talent comes along once every 100 years or something like that– and you gotta find somebody who looks like her, who is also a great actor, and who can dance. I mean, casting Judy Garland to me is an impossible task. There’ve been many movies and depictions of her, and not a single one has ever been satisfying. So I think just the nature of that assignment is difficult. I feel sorry for Renee Zellweger for having to fill those shoes.
JR: And indeed, those are big shoes to fill! Thank you for speaking with me, Seth! See you at Feinstein’s/54 Below!
SS: Yes, it was a pleasure. Anyone who’s a fan of Judy and Liza: I’ll talk to you anytime!
JR: Same here!
Seth Sikes will appear at Feinstein’s/54 Below, 254 W 54th St., New York City, on Wednesday, August 14th at 7PM. Tickets and more information are available here. Tickets on the day of performance after 4:00 PM are only available by calling (646) 476-3551.
(Photos by Mitch Zahary.)