A Memoir Moves from Page to Stage

In the autumn of 1968, a 26-year-old up-and-coming songwriter named John Meyer had a chance encounter with a legend that changed his life. While working as a pianist at the popular night spot called Three in New York City, a mutual friend introduced him to Judy Garland — who was, at that time, as renowned for her troubled life as she was for her dynamic abilities as a performer. Soon thereafter, he and Garland became romantically involved, and the two months that followed were, to put it mildly, an emotional roller-coaster ride.

The couple became engaged, but their love affair was short-lived. Garland went on to marry Mickey Deans just three months before her tragic death in June 1969. Nonetheless, Meyer’s memories of this magnificent (and often, magnificently exasperating) lady became the basis for his book Heartbreaker: A Memoir of Judy Garland.” Originally published in 1983, it was republished by Citadel in 2006 — this time with an accompanying CD of never-before-heard material from Garland.

Now Meyer has taken his story from the printed page to the stage, adapting it into a new musical production. Renamed Heartbreaker: Two Months With Judy Garland, the show had its world premiere this summer as part of the Adirondack Theatre Festival in Glen Falls, N.Y., starring Broadway’s Christine Andreas as Judy Garland.

“I’m a theater writer,” Meyer said. “I always saw this property as a play or screenplay.”

This is a slightly unusual kind of piece, he said. “It’s more like a play with music than a true musical — yet there are moments that mimic the musical’s form, as when the two leads perform a dance number.”

Meyer explains the primary difference between dramatizing his story and writing the book: “The book came out as an emotional outburst. The play took construction and editing — it was a more cerebral process. My passion has always been original musicals, and here, I am exercising the craft I’ve honed over the years — on my own story!”

Comparing his situation to what would happen if, say, Tony and Maria were to make up their own songs for West Side Story, Meyer observes, “I can’t think of another show where the creator has adapted his or her own tale, but when ‘John’ in the show has to reflect finally on what this broken affair has meant to him, I’m in the ideal position to show the audience his feelings.”

As for the score, all the numbers he wrote for Garland are featured, but it’s another song -- placed at the evening‘s conclusion – that is perhaps the most bittersweet. Meyer said that he essentially began writing this song — called “When Do Words Come True” — on the day of her funeral.

Meyer hopes this theatrical version eventually will run off-Broadway, then ultimately on the big screen. In the meantime, he said, he has a number of other projects in the works. Last year, he finished his second book, which also centers on Garland.

“I’ve written a novel using Judy as the fictional heroine of a World War II adventure called Operation Ruby Slipper,” he said with a smile.

To write that book, Meyer imagined what it would have been like if Garland had served as a special undercover agent behind enemy lines in 1943, even as the young actress was promoting The Wizard Of Oz in Europe.

In Meyer’s memoir, he recounts details of his liaison with Garland as well as his attempt to “rescue” her from the demons that plagued her final year. By that point, she was desperate for money, and he tried to get her back on track with the Internal Revenue Service. This entailed helping her find jobs, including guest appearances on several high-profile talk shows.

During the course of their relationship, Meyers said, Garland performed at a tribute concert honoring “Over the Rainbow” composer Harold Arlen. None other than Richard Rodgers personally accompanied her vocal warm-up. (Subsequently, Arlen himself would be called on to underwrite one of Judy’s medical bills.)

Meyer frames his account in almost journal form, with chapters divided by individual days. He captures the syntax of Garland’s words so well that you can practically hear her speaking. But although it’s always an enthralling read, it can occasionally be an exhausting one too, which is a compliment to the authenticity he brings to the narrative.

During their time together, Garland introduced four of Meyer’s songs on national TV, among them the sardonic “I’d Like to Hate Myself in the Morning,” which was later made famous by Shirley Bassey, and “It’s All for You,” recorded by Margaret Whiting. The two others were “After the Holidays” and “God Bless Johnny” (written specifically for her appearance on The Dick Cavett Show).

“Being a wise-ass by nature, smart, edgy satirical lyrics came easily,” he said with a laughs. “When I met Judy, our sensibilities meshed — she was a smart-ass, too. When I played her ‘I’d Like to Hate Myself,’ she giggled with glee!”

Many of Meyer’s numbers — sung by Garland and other artists — can be heard in a collection titled Bringin’ Out the Beast, available from CDBaby.com. Later, he went on to write original revue songs and special material for the likes of Lily Tomlin, Madeline Kahn, Eartha Kitt and many more.

Meyer, who says it was never his intention to be on stage himself, credits Milton Berle with first inspiring him to write songs and work in the entertainment industry.

“I was a huge fan of his TV show,” Meyer said. “So when he recorded an album of Rodgers and Hart material, I ran right out to get it.”

He said it wasn’t so much Berle’s skill with a melody as it was the lyrics he was singing.

“These tunes sailed above reality with buoyancy, wit, melody -- they were sheer delight! Rodgers and Hart led to Cole Porter, Porter to Irving Berlin, Berlin to Frank Loesser – what a trove of funny, touching, inspiring stuff!”

Meyer said it was after a particularly “dispiriting” stint as a copywriter for an ad agency that he decided to put his musical training to use by taking jobs as a pianist in cafes.

“Having memorized all these tunes, I had a ready repertoire, and I’d annotate my singing with notes on the history of the songs,” he said. Happily, audiences responded favorably to his witty combination of anecdotes and expert musicianship, and a great act was born.
Both Heartbreaker: A Memoir of Judy Garland and Operation Ruby Slipper are available from amazon.com.

Garland’s appearance on The Tonight Show, where she sings “It’s All for You,” can be viewed at: All expand=1] for You. Her rendition of &quot

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

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