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BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS


"You want to transport people, you want to shift the molecules in the room."

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

For nearly a decade, members of the arts community have gathered together for what has become an increasingly popular charitable event happening every June. As the benefit has grown in popularity and prestige, the list of names of celebrated artists who participate has grown more sparkling and glittery, right along with the gowns worn to the evening ... and why not? After all, June is the month of Gay Pride and the gala being produced is The Night of A Thousand Judys. Who doesn't want some shimmer, some Gay Pride, and some Judy Garland in their life?

The Night of a Thousand Judys is the creation of writer, performer, raconteur Justin Elizabeth Sayre and the Judy Garland-themed evening was born out of their wildly in-demand Joe's Pub series The Meeting of The International Order of Sodomites. Once the idea for the charitable concert had taken root in Justin Sayre's mind, the artists and the charity were quick to follow, and what a charity it is. The Ali Forney Center is a resource for LGBTQIA+ youth who happen to be homeless and in need of community - theirs is an organization that fits perfectly with Sayre's sensibilities and beliefs in the community of queer youth that will lead the future of change in this country. For nine years Justin has propelled themself, their show, and thier love of the young people and the organization that houses them up onto the stage - well, for seven years. 2021 will be the second year that the Night of a Thousand Judys is presented virtually. Oh, the show will be on stage once more in the future, but on June 24th, 2021, at 8 pm EST, Sayre will be joined online by Alan Cumming, Vivian Reed, Jose Llana, and a coterie of other famed artists who will celebrate Judy Garland, community, and the act of helping the young people who are the future.

As the days wind down to their online broadcast, Justin Sayre was gracious enough to take a few minutes out of their busy schedule to chat with a big fan who shares their love of Judy Garland, giving back to the community, and tabletops without water rings.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Justin Sayre, welcome to Broadway World! I should tell you before we start, the effect that you have had in my home: I was watching one of your Sodomite shows and something that you said struck a chord in me, and I have become the coaster Gestapo at my house.

(Laughing heartily) Oh GOOD! Good! (Laughing) As you should be! Good for you! I'm glad that I've allowed that anal retentiveness to come out in you! (Laughing)

So you are coming up on the ninth year of the Night of a Thousand Judys benefit - it's nine years, right?

Yes, it's the ninth year.

Put a picture in my head of the very first Night of a Thousand Judys and the very last one just before lockdown, so that we can give our readers a sense of the scope of how important and how big the evening has become.

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS The very first one was - I think we were at Joe's pub because we'd moved the meeting there and it was a great night, but it was early figuring it out. In the nine years - it would have been the seven years and now two virtual events - we've had everyone from Michael Feinstein to Martha Wash to Carolee Carmello - the names of the performers that have been through this show, and who continue to support this show, is just a cavalcade of stars and it keeps getting better. This year we have Alan Cumming after years of not being able to get schedules to match - it's a wonderful victory for us, and I know Alan's always wanted to do it for a long time. Sam Harris is doing it this year, Mary Testa, who I just worked with on a play, she's just wonderful. So it's, yet again, another kind of feather in a very feathered cap, thus far. And we've been - much through the work of Dan Fortune and Adam Rosen, my producers - able to continue to do the shows online even as theaters have been closed for the last year. So it's been a great privilege and it is something that I'm continually proud of each and every year.

Have you had to adapt your artistic vision for doing the show online as opposed to live?

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS There are certain things that are not plausible. A Lot of what I'm finding now in a year plus of being out of the theater is that we're used to online entertainment, we've gotten used to whatever that is, and it's fine for what it is, but you are missing the vitality of being in front of a live artist. So, while we are packing the show with such amazing talent, we used to do sketches and comedy bits and dance numbers that would be peppered throughout the show - that is harder to do when everyone's filming from their perspective living rooms. So, (Laughing) it's changed but, still, a lot is the same.

And in some ways, the Zoom has been a marvelous gift because you don't have to have all the people in the same place to do the show. People can be wherever ... we have people from Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, wherever they need to be, and they can still participate in the show. So that's a wonderful gift, but I think you do miss some of the stuff that we could do when we have people close together in the theater. I long for those days, cause I think that's a big part of what Judy Garland means (to me, certainly) but I think what is part of the show that I feel missing now?

I think that everyone has their own personal relationship with Judy Garland. Tell me about yours.

I loved her as a kid. I loved the movies, like the Harvey Girls and Meet Me in St. Louis. I just adored her. And then as an adult, I got into the live performances. I thought she was great on film and I still do think she's incredible on film, but as a young adult (and then as an adult) her live performances took on a different level for me. You hear how much she gives an audience, you hear the interplay she has with an audience and, and, again, the vitality that is just so present in everything that she does. My favorite Judy moments are mostly from the television show because I think that it's the closest we have to what a filmed live experience with Judy was like, which I think was phenomenal. I think it was Mike Nichols who said he saw two apocryphal talents in his life, and they were Brando and Judy Garland. I think it's true that to see her live and to be in the presence of something that is so otherworldly is an aspiration of what I think any life performer wants to be. You want to transport people, you want to shift the molecules in the room; as a live performer myself, that's what I concentrate on. I think that's where my relationship, now, with her really lies - she just was a phenomenon.

My husband knows if he ever hears the stereo on, and it's the song "You Gotta Have Me Go With You", that I'm in a bad mood (Justin laughs) and I'm listening to that song to make myself feel better. Do you have a Judy Garland song that does that for you?

If I need a good cry (laughing) or if I need a good kind of cathartic moment, I listen to her recording of "Old Man River" from the television show. If I need a pick me up, I listen to, "I Could Go On Singing" or "Hello Bluebird" - I love "Hello, Bluebird" (laughing). I think there's a lot, I think she fits more occasions than is often given her credit, you know?

When you first had the idea to do the Night of a Thousand Judys, was it something that hit you like a bolt from the blue, or was it something that sort of crept on you?

I will say that it just all aligned. The moment I thought about it, it all aligned, is the best way I can say it. The Night of a Thousand Judys grew out of my show The Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites. That show was so much about community that even at the end of the first season, the very first season where we were just really finding our legs, I thought that I wanted to end the season in June, Pride month, and I wanted to do a charitable event because I felt like if we're doing a show about community, we should give back to the community, that to make this whole experiment in theater worthy of what it was - that part of it had to be giving back to this community that we were in conversation with.

Every month we would celebrate a different icon. Judy was born and died in June. The Stonewall riots happened. It's Pride month. I kind of was like, "Oh, this is the perfect conflagration of all of these things!" Judy just seemed like the absolute way to go, and it's been successful ever since, it just makes sense. Once I said to folks, "What do you think about Night of a Thousand Judys?" everybody seemed on board. I hit the ground running and I was very grateful.

Community is very important to you.


On the subject of community, tell me about your relationship with the Ali Forney Center.

The meeting started because as a response of my own creation because I did come out of BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS Proposition Eight and marriage equality (era). We were in the marriage equality fight at that time and I was seeing that there were so many other issues that were being pushed aside for marriage to happen. I'm not opposed to gay marriage by any stretch, but I felt like there was more going on, and marriage was this political thing that was important, but there were all these other issues that needed to be talked about. And when I did have the idea to do the show and, and consequently to do this charitable event in June, I was very cautious about: do we do marriage equality? It was the fight of the day when we first started the show, so do we do that? Do we celebrate that? And I care very deeply about young people, I care very deeply about how we treat young people in the community because I come of a generation where... I moved to New York in 1999. I really saw the tail end of the AIDS crisis, and there were just so few mentors, there were so many people who were living with this post-traumatic stress of having lived through a decade of death and destruction. As a young gay person, I didn't feel I had access to a lot of that because I'd just shown up, 17 in New York, and that forever instilled in me that there was a generational gap and that it was part of my generation's job to figure out how to mend that.

So a lot of my work has always been about intergenerational conversations. And I think when, when we were talking about doing the show or talking about charities, I wanted something that helped and supported young people. The Ali Forney Center was a great fit. LGBTQ kids experienced homelessness, at a 40% higher rate than their straight counterparts. These kids are usually Trans, these are kids are often kids of color; they are marginalized, they are sectioned off so deeply. And while the gay community, as a whole, often praises the work and objective of heteronormative gay men, I felt like it was important to court support for an organization that was helping people who were not necessarily a part of that, but who were part of our community in a rich and vibrant way - people who were not getting talked about. So the Ali Forney Center has been a great partner to work with these last nine years - we've raised a lot of money for them, and it's something that I'm very, very proud of that we continue to raise money for these wonderful young queer people. I feel very passionate about it.

I think it's a wonderful thing that you're doing. I think that you are a hero to these kids and that the fundraising efforts are wonderful. What I want to know is have you done the really important thing and gone to the Ali Forney Center and taught them who Judy Garland is?

(Laughing uproariously) I haven't! I haven't, but I hope I can, at some point, as the world opens up. I think that will be the next step.

So we're vaccinated, we're getting back to business. What's next for you? Will we have another Meeting of the International Order of Sodomites?

Yes! I'm going to start doing shows at Joe's Pub in 2022, starting in January, for the full year. And over quarantine, I worked with a company of actors, a whole bunch of wonderful folks. , and I wrote nine plays. So we're doing one of my plays "Hot Flash" which is an unauthorized but loving sequel to "Female Trouble" here in Los Angeles in August. And I may be bringing a new play to LA Mama for the fall of 2021. So lots on the docket, lots in the works, but I think we're all anxious to get back, we're just making sure that we can get back safely and soundly.

I hope you'll keep us posted so that we can let people know where to come and find you. I'm so grateful that we got to talk today and I will be looking for you at the Night of a Thousand Judys!

Well, I'll be there! I'm glad you'll be there, too!

I would not miss it.

The Night of a Thousand Judys broadcasts on June 24th at 8 pm EST. For information and to make a donation to the Ali Forney Center click HERE.

Justin Sayre can be found on Twitter HERE.

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of June 24th NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

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