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‘Night of a Thousand Judys’ Host Justin Sayre on the Legacy of Gay Icon Judy Garland

It’s National Gay Pride month, which is why you may be noticing a few more rainbows and equal signs than usual. But celebrating gay culture is a year-round gig for Justin Sayre, who as host of The Meeting* of the International Order of Sodomites dedicates a monthly variety show to the propagation of non-heterosexual contributions. Having just wrapped up the fourth season in the cabaret space at the  West Village bar The Duplex, Sayre is set to host his annual celebration of perhaps the most widely loved gay icon: Judy Garland. Night of a Thousand Judys brings together a variety of performers, singers, musicians, and actors to pay tribute to the venerable performer in a show that benefits the Ali Forney Center, a non-profit organization that supports the needs of homeless LGBT youth in New York City. This year’s show, which takes place June 17 at the Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center, includes Justin Vivian Bond, Carolee Carmello, Martha Wash, Molly Pope, Rachel Shukert, and Madeleine Peyroux, among others. I spoke with Sayre last week to learn about the inception of both The Meeting* and Night of a Thousand Judys, as well Garland’s enduring legacy and impact on the LGBT community.

Flavorwire: Night of a Thousand Judys is an extension of The Meeting*. Can you explain a little about what The Meeting is and how you started the series?
Justin Sayre: The Meeting started about four years ago now, and it was in response to some talk about “gay culture.” I came up with the idea of a secret gay society that would meet and celebrate gay icons. It was also really about celebrating people rather than imitating them or anything like that. At the end of every season we wanted to do a charitable event. I always wanted to work with the Ali Forney Center; it’s something I’m very passionate about — how we take care of our kids. We came up with the idea of doing a show entirely around the music of Judy Garland and the allure around her. It was a big success and the Ali Forney people were really behind us, so we went to Playwrights Horizons the year after that. And this year we’re at the Kaufman Center.

Judy Garland is such a major gay icon. What about her has the community latched onto and found in her?
There’s the tragic element and the camp element, as well as [an appreciation for] the larger-than-life, depressed female figure in gay culture, sure. But she’s a once-in-a-lifetime performer. There’s never been anyone else like her. She was so unique. But unlike so many other performers, she was able to really touch an audience and even people who just listened to her records. She really sang to people as if they were the only people alive in the world. I’ve heard this from people who saw her live — I didn’t experience it myself, but I have with her recordings. She has this sense of magic that makes you feel like the only two people in the world, and that the only person who really understands you is this woman singing this particular song. There are other performers who have done that, certainly, but there’s a certain reverence with Judy. She was like a comet that came and went. People get choked up about her — I get choked up about her.

Let’s talk about the performers who have done the show and are doing it this year. Were they mostly peers and colleagues at first? How did you pick the roster of performers who you wanted to be involved?
We always compile a list throughout the year of people we love in New York and would love to work with. We’ve been very lucky; the first few years we always incorporated our friends; that’s something we’ve stayed really true to. It’s always a mix of uptown and downtown performers. We’ve always tried to have a wide array of performers rather than a Broadway roster. We really cast the net wide. New York is such a varied place where so many people are doing interesting things, and we wanted to make sure the whole scene gets represented for a night.

What about the Ali Forney Center is so important to you? Why did you choose this organization as the beneficiary of the event?
I think the work they do is visible on the ground. I think marriage and bills and laws are important, but I think how we take care of our young people is a huge part of not only gay rights and equality but also how we survive and how we keep the culture going. That was really important to me right off the bat: I wanted to work with a charity that was making a difference day-to-day in people’s lives. There are a lot of gay organizations and causes, but being a persnickety old liberal, I’m not sure I’m on-board with everything. I wanted something that I was totally on board with. Forty percent of all homeless kids in New York are [in the LGBT community], and the Ali Forney Center doesn’t just place these kids in homes — they also help them get an education.

Is that the impetus behind celebrating Judy Garland at an event that will benefit a younger audience? I wonder if Judy Garland’s legacy will continue to be relevant to future generations.
There’s a big debate over whether she is relevant or not. I feel she’s more relevant now than she was before. People have a lot more access to old films; the Internet puts everything out there, and it’s not unforeseen that kids will go watch Judy Garland movies and still get excited for them. Will she still be a gay icon? I think so! Right now, gay culture is at a weird point. We’re becoming mainstream in a real way, and that’s changing the face of what makes up gay culture. There’s the weird thing about exploitation — we seem drawn to things like Real Housewives, and I’m not sure why. It’s not Bette Midler; it’s a bunch of women with a lot of money in New Jersey. I’m hoping there’ll still be a lot of torch-bearers like myself and people I know who will keep responding to her in that way. That’s what’s important about the show we do; it’s not about doing the song like Judy did it, but putting your own spin on it and letting your own voice be heard as a tribute to her.

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