The daughter of Judy Garland and half-sister Liza Minnelli, Lorna Luft has carved out her own successful career as a performer, recording artist, author and producer.
As a child, she appeared with her mother on American television in The Judy Garland Show and in concert, including in Garland’s renowned month-long engagement at Broadway’s Palace Theater.
In her own right, Luft has featured in myriad stage productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway and on national and world tours, including: Promises, Promises, The Boy Friend, Grease, Carnival, Little Shop of Horrors, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Follies, Girl Crazy, Mame, They’re Playing Our Song, Jerry Herman’s Broadway Years, Guys and Dolls, Hollywood and Broadway, The Magical World of Musicals and Extremities.
As a singer, Luft served as a background vocalist for rock group Blondie, has released solo records like Our Day Will Come, and performed in concerts around the world at venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, Madison Square Garden, Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center and the Royal Albert Hall.
On screen, Luft has been seen in American TV shows including One Life to Live, Tales from the Darkside, Murder She Wrote, Caroline in the City and Trapper John MD as well as the films Where the Boys Are ‘84 and, opposite Michelle Pfeiffer, in Grease 2.
In 1998, Luft published her memoir Me and My Shadows: Living with the Legacy of Judy Garland, which was made into a multi award-winning television mini-series which Luft co-produced.
In her new stage show, Songs My Mother Taught Me, Luft celebrates the legacy and stellar back catalogue of her famous mother. The show started in Atlantic City and played across the US before an extended engagement in Los Angeles, where it won two Ovation Awards for Best World Premiere Musical and Best Musical Direction.
Songs My Mother Taught Me received its UK premiere at the West End’s Savoy Theatre on 6 July 2004.
Date & place of birth
Born 21 November 1952 in Santa Monica, California.
The Banff School of Fine Arts.
Lives now in…
Los Angeles but I’m staying in Kensington while I’m in London.
First big break
Promises Promises. It was my first Broadway show. I was just 19 and a half. To be hand-picked by David Merrick, and to work with Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Neil Simon and Michael Bennett - that was pretty significant.
Career highlights to date
One of the most important moments for me in the last five years was making the mini-series of Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows. It was such a difficult project to undertake. We had so many problems. The network, ABC, was under a lot of pressure - there was a mass exodus of the heads there and we could have been thrown out with the bathwater. Then we lost our funding. It was a rollercoaster. But finally getting it made and then having it recognised throughout the industry, having it nominated for 13 Emmy Awards and then winning five, and winning the critics’ award and winning the AFI and the Golden Globe. That was extraordinary.
Guys and Dolls with Jerry Zaks, the great director. I did that for almost two years. I just recently played the role of Mama Rose in Gypsy in Richmond, Virginia. That’s the Hamlet of musical comedy roles for a woman. I’ve also done so many concerts, working with my friend Jerry Herman. Last night I ran into my friend Guy Stroman. We did Girl Crazy together on stage before it became Crazy for You. Exremities with Farrah Fawcett. Doing straight plays is always a challenge. It keeps you in touch with the tools of your craft.
What roles would you most like to play still?
I can’t really think of a lot. I’d love to do Mame or Vera in Mame. I’d love to do Hello Dolly – Jerry Herman said to me, “you’d be a good Dolly”.
There are a lot of people I’ve worked with who I really respect: Michelle Pfeiffer, Farrah Fawcett. Barry Manilow has been a great singing partner. We just did Blenheim Palace together here on the 4th of July. Barry is a great musician and we’re very very old friends. He’s a great human being.
I love Jerry Zaks. He’s a great director because he was an actor. I’d love to work with Trevor Nunn – who wouldn’t? There are a lot of directors I’d love to work with, especially in film. You know, who wouldn’t want to work with Steven Spielberg? Who wouldn’t want to work with Zemeckis? My number one favourite film director right now is Clint Eastwood. I think Mystic River was one of the best movies ever made. It had a great script, great actors, great direction. It kept your attention, it kept you on the edge of your seat. Everything in that movie – including the music, which Eastwood wrote – was extraordinary. If it wasn’t for that last Lord of the Rings, I think Mystic River would have won Best Picture at the Oscars.
Favourite musical or song writers
Of course, my dear friend Jerry Herman is one of my favourites. I have a pretty wide variety. I give a lot of attention to lyricists. Composers get a lot of hail and the lyricists don’t. Charles Hart is a brilliant lyricist. He wrote Phantom of the Opera. Bernie Taupin, great lyricist. Then you go to Ira Gershwin, Noel Coward, Cole Porter, Harold Arlen. Remember, that’s how Stephen Sondheim started. Before he started writing music, he was a lyricist. He’s one of the greatest lyricists of all time. Jerry Herman writes both too. I’m on the lyricists’ side because it is their words we’re singing. They are heroes.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
There were a couple of things. I saw a show called Kathy and Mo in Los Angeles. Kathy Najimy and Mo Gaffney – they’re two comedians, they write all their own things and they’re very talented girls. I saw Elergies in Los Angeles, which I really enjoyed. I saw Elaine Stritch, who’s a miracle. Unfortunately, doing six shows a week, I haven’t been able to go out and see a lot of things here. Not ones that I’ve enjoyed. I’ve seen things here that I haven’t enjoyed, but that’s my taste. I don’t want to say what they were. I’m here to promote theatre and say how important it is to have theatre, not to dish another show. There are people in those shows that are working really hard. I just didn’t care for the material.
What would you advise the government – British or American – to secure the future of theatre?
Yeah, money! The almighty pound and the almighty buck, okay? Especially in America. We tear down theatres in Los Angeles instead of going to them. Los Angeles doesn’t deserve the theatre because it doesn’t support it. There’s great theatre in America, especially in New York, in Chicago. But the theatre here in London is much more subsidised, the National, the RSC. If my memory serves me right, Shakespeare had a lot to do with it! I mean, you guys invented all this. So respect it. The most important thing is to go to the theatre. If you don’t go to the theatre, you’re missing out on not only an educational experience because you might learn something that you didn’t know or see something interesting, but you’re denying yourself a great night out. The government in this country is more aware of that because they do subsidise. In America they don’t. Not like in this country. Yes, there are big issues – the health system, education - there’s a lot of stuff before the theatre that is very very important, but don’t treat the theatre, or any of the arts, as unimportant.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
Not an entertainer because I know what that would be like. A politician? Oh, no, just the pressure of it. No, I’d rather trade places with someone who could just go around shopping all day. Wouldn’t that be nice? Just for one day, but I’d get to keep all the stuff – as me. Yeah.
The last book I read was The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. I try to read more and I should read more, but it’s just a matter of time and uh and finding things that I really enjoy. I adored The Da Vinci Code.
Favourite holiday destinations
I love St Bart’s. It’s so beautiful that water in the Caribbean, well, really it’s the French West Indies. It’s an island that doesn’t cater to tourists, you know the big boats. It’s very, very small - only five miles long and three miles wide - and it’s very private. You can walk around there, see people in the market that you may have seen in New York or whatever, and nobody bothers anybody. And there’s no television. You can maybe pick up one really bad French channel, but that’s it. When I go away on vacation, I want to go away and do nothing. St Bart’s is my favourite for that.
Favourite after-show haunts
I think I’m beginning to be a mainstay of Joe Allen’s. Yeah, Joe’s and Orso’s and, of course, the Ivy. Also I love is Rule’s because it’s the only non-smoking restaurant in London. How do you like that? There you go, trivia question. Rule’s is the only non-smoking restaurant. I’m an asthmatic so I really have to be careful where I go after the show.
Why did you want to create the show Songs My Mother Taught Me?
I had done my book and I was getting ready to make the movie, well, the book had been bought, and I thought I was ready to take on this amazing catalogue so I called Barry Manilow and I said, “I want to do this”, and he said, “it’s about time” and then he introduced me to the writers. They’d not only written his shows for the past 15 years but they wrote all the Carol Burnett shows. We sat down and six months later we came up with the show. We started in Atlantic City and then it went all over the country. Then it was turned more into a theatre piece in Los Angeles. Now we’ve come to London.
What does it mean to you to bring the show to London?
This is the thing I always wanted this show to do. It’s meant so much to me to bring this show to London. Because British audiences are faithful, they’re not so fickle. The British have a sense of history so they know this music. I watch the audiences, night after night. I see them singing the lyrics to every song, I see them sitting there holding partner’s hands or their children’s. There are a lot of mums and daughters who come. I got a really sweet story the other day. This girl told me how she was having this kind of rocky relationship with her mom and then she brought her to my show. She said, “well, at least mine’s still here”. The show helped mend something between them. I thought that was really nice.
What differences have you noticed between British & American audiences?
I was warned, big warning, that British audiences were very reserved and that they wouldn’t stand. But, I’ll tell you, we have not had a single show when they have not stood up and gone completely nuts and stayed till the end of the exit music. That’s what I love. I love that they’re breaking the myth okay, the myth of British audiences being reserved.
How do you go on after receiving harsh reviews?
First of all, I don’t read them. I don’t. My feeling is this. In every other medium, say for instance sports, if somebody is commentating, it’s another athlete; if it’s politics, it’s another politician. Not in the arts. Our critics cannot do what we do. The great writer Paul Theroux said that critics are eunuchs at an orgy. So that’s why I don’t read them and I never believe them. I don’t see Trevor Nunn being a critic, I don’t see Jonathan Pryce, I don’t see Judi Dench. They start writing, that’s when I’ll start reading. Because that’s my peer, they know how hard it is to do what we do. But if they can’t do it, I can’t be bothered. Plus, I would feel so stupid if I let someone else tell me what to do or what to see. Let me make my own opinion. I just feel sad sometimes. Every actor that is in the West End right now is serving a big financial purpose to this country. When we’re attacked by the critics - and I’m told that, in my case, they weren’t even reviews, they were uncalled-for attacks on me personally - they’re hurting not only us but they’re hurting the economy. People should remember that. And don’t listen to them. Really don’t. I’ve got really great friends who have just been torn apart by the critics in this city. I don’t want to read anything that’s hurtful and mean … about anything. I just think that that’s a really horrible negative space. But wait, the most important thing to say here is that I judge the way this show is loved by a paying customer. Critics don’t pay. And I don’t think people understand that, I don’t think they know critics get free tickets. I respect the people who pay, who come in and have a good time every night.
What’s your fondest memory of your mother? Or your favourite song of hers?
I don’t have a fondest memory. I wrote a book about it, I made a movie, so I don’t have just one fond memory. My favourite song is different every night, depending on the audience reaction and how we’re feeling on stage. It’s like a family up on that stage. I’ve got incredible musicians. I was on a radio show today and they said ours was the best band in the West End and I would have to agree. And when we’re all having such a good time up there, it spills over into the audience. Sometimes it might be “Time Heals Everything” or sometimes “What’ll I Do?”, just me and the piano. It really just depends.
Does anyone ever accuse you of trading on your mother’s name?
I think they would say that to me if I were 20 years old. I didn’t do any of this until way into my forties. I waited a long time, because it scared me. Natalie Cole, maybe she’s another one they would say that to because of her dad. Or Lisa Marie Presley or Julian Lennon or Stella McCartney. There are a lot of us out there that people want to attack us because of our parents when all we’re trying to do is bring you a good time. I’m always the cheerleader for anybody who has a really really famous parent. You know, there are people who have stars as parents and there are people like Lisa-Marie, Julian, Stella and myself who have legends as parents. I say, be their champion, support them, because it ain’t easy.
What would your mother have thought of this show?
She would have loved it because she loved entertainment and because I am continuing this music. If you like Harold Arlen, the Gershwins, Cole Porter, this is what this show is about. It’s about great music and it’s about great arrangements - these are all of her arrangements - and it’s also a mother and daughter story, but it’s mainly about the music.
What’s the funniest/oddest/most notable thing that’s happened in the run to date?
I think there have been some really odd things. I did not know that Marlon Brando’s autobiography was called Songs My Mother Taught Me. Yep. We just found that out in the obituaries. I thought that was extraordinary. I also think that it’s interesting that one of my mother’s first records, before she even did The Wizard of Oz, was a record called “Stompin’ at the Savoy”. Lots of coincidences.
What are your plans for the future?
In the fall, I have symphony engagements in the States and then I have the rights for another film project that I would really like to get under way. I also owe Simon and Schuster another book!
Anything else you’d like to add?
I have a website – www.lornaluft.com - and a section on there called Lorna Uncensored. People can write in to me and I answer them. And it is me, I don’t have any ghost writers. I get all of the questions and I sit in my dressing room or I sit at home and I answer all of them.
- Lorna Luft was speaking to Terri Paddock
Songs My Mother Taught Me opened on 6 July 2004 (previews from 1 July) at the West End’s Savoy Theatre, where it’s currently booking until 28 August.