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BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

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BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

Today is my birthday. Like a gift from the universe, I got to start my birthday by covering three things about which I have a great deal of passion... ok, obsession: Judy Garland, Justin Sayre, and organizations that help others.

The 8th Annual "Night of A Thousand Judys" honors Judy Garland and benefits The Ali Forney Center - the largest organization dedicated to homeless LGBT youth in the United States. Created, written and hosted by Justin Sayre, Night of A Thousand Judys has become one of the highlights in each year, as performers vie for a spot in the lineup, as audiences dress up and, with excitement and anticipation, head to what is always a sold-out evening of glittery magic and wonder. Some of the greatest entertainers in the club and concert industry have appeared in Night of A Thousand Judys, and Justin Sayre wasn't about to let a little thing like a pandemic and social distancing stop their baby from blossoming in 2020. The benefit concert will be broadcast live on Tuesday, July 14 at 8:00 PM Eastern and then will be available to watch for at least a month after. Viewers can watch the event and donate at

This year's performance of Night of A Thousand Judys has a starry lineup featuring the previously announced Lena Hall, George Salazar, Eva Noblezada, Nathan Lee Graham, Alice Ripley, Adam Pascal, Beth Malone, T. Oliver Reed, Ann Harada, Spencer Day, Natalie Douglas, Bright Light Bright Light, Jessica Vosk, and recent additions L. Morgan Lee and Ann Hampton Callaway. The virtual concert will be under the musical direction of Tracy Stark with Justin Sayre in their usual hosting role (later this summer, by the way, Justin's podcast "Sparkle and Circulate" will be available for happy listeners, once more). Called "a rambunctious, uproarious, unpredictable all-star concert" by The Wall Street Journal, "Night of a Thousand Judys" is produced by Dan Fortune and Adam J. Rosen, with Fortune serving as executive producer.

"We are in a historical moment," says Justin. "A moment when people too long unheard, undervalued and underrepresented are demanding justice. We are speaking out for justice, and while our ire and our disgust at the abuses of the police is reaching a fevered pitch, we must remember that the fight for justice is a fight on multiple fronts. We must never forget that in New York, homeless LGBTQ youth are deeply at risk, and many of these brave young people are people of color. We are here to support this community at risk."

As the days grow closer to the July 14th online show, Justin Sayre was kind enough to answer a few questions for Broadway World Cabaret about the event, The Ali Forney Center and about what Judy Garland means to them.

This interview was conducted digitally and is reproduced here in its entirety.

Justin, we are talking today about Night of A Thousand Judys, which is in its eighth incarnation. As the writer and host for the event, can you use your Superpower of the Spoken Word to compel our readers to tune in to watch?

Night of Thousand Judys is an amazing event celebrating the life and legend of Judy Garland. We get a myriad of stars from Broadway and Downtown to take their own spin on a Garland classic. It's a wonderful evening of songs and stories. Lots of camp, lots of beautiful music, lots of good feelings of Judy, and giving back to the LGBTQ community.

This event is one of the most popular and thrilling ones we have in Manhattan - people look forward to it all year round. How much preparation do you think will go into keeping the magic and excitement in an online format?

Well, we always work hard on the show. Dan Fortune and Adam Rosen, my producers, easily put in hundreds of hours of work on the show. I think we're all trying to figure out the new format, but it's an innovation. It's a new opportunity to bring the show to people this year. So much of the show and so much of Judy is about intimacy, so we're trying to make a show that reaches out and grabs you. I think if we do that, we're doing right by Judy and doing right by our audience.

You created Night of A Thousand Judys as a benefit for the Ali Forney Center. There are a lot of LGBTQIA+ based charitable organizations to pick from when raising money. Was it a personal experience with the Ali Forney Center that made you choose them for your ongoing support?

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYSWhen I created the show over 10 years ago, the main charities that were getting attention were mostly tied to the fight for marriage equality, but I saw that as more of an economic fight. Not that I don't believe in marriage, I propose to people at least once a week. I just felt that we so often follow a very white money-ed agenda in the gay rights movement. I was more concerned about people that get left behind. People that get left out of the equation. Homeless LGBTQ youth are always left out of the conversation. To this day. Homelessness for young LGBTQ people is a crisis, and it's a crisis that far too few people are talking about. How we take care of our young people, our most vulnerable says something about our community as a whole, and I want to redirect the conversation there. Young homeless LGBTQ kids were on the street at Stonewall, haven't we grasped the power they have yet? (Photo by Ricardo Nelson)

This is your eighth year creating this show - is there ever any concern about the same songs from the Garland Canon being performed?

The trick is and has always been interpretation. When you come to Night of a Thousand Judys, you always want to hear the hits, surely, but you always try to encourage artists to take their own shot. This isn't a show about imitation or impressions, it's a show about how the legacy of Judy Garland lives on in these performers. It's about a legacy, and that legacy is ever-evolving and reinventing itself. That's the part of the show that always excites me. I always know there will be a version of "The Man That Got Away," but I'm thrilled to see and hear what this year's will feel like.

Do the artists choose the numbers they will be singing? What's the process like?

We make suggestions for sure. But we see it as a collaboration, so we're always asking and suggesting. We are very lucky to be working with Tracy Stark, who is one of the best musicians in New York, if not the country. I think her work shines through and she offers so much to each of our performers. She's the secret weapon and I think we're all thrilled to have her around.

Everyone who is a Judy Garland fan has a different story - what has been your relationship with the Judy Garland mystique?

For me, Garland is the gold standard of how to connect with an audience. How to be vulnerable. How to be awake, alive, and present with a group of people. I think much can be said of Judy, but no one has ever said she phoned it in. She was incredible in that way. As a performer, she's an inspiration. But as a person, she's someone I understand. Biting self-doubt, and yet ferocious ego. Wanting to be loved, yet unable to get out of her own way and allow that love to happen. She's someone I have so much real compassion for, someone with whom I travel down my own path. I don't always get into the tragedy narrative. I don't think making fun of her drug use is ever funny, I've even dismissed some people's interpretations because I saw them as making fun of her. I'm very protective of Judy in that way because she means so much to me. She's a great friend to me as an artist.

Night of A Thousand Judys is a flamboyant and festive happening, but the fun factor shouldn't overshadow the importance of the cause. During this wildly complicated and dangerous time in our history, what steps can people take to help the homeless LGBTQIA+ youth of America?

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYSI think people can learn the fight that those kids are up against. Look at the economics that are failing us all currently, and imagine if they can, what a young trans person of color, who's been kicked out of their home must be experiencing. All great works begin with understanding and compassion. Now you know, now what? Well, they can get involved with the Ali Forney Center. Not just give money, but give time and resources. They can get the organizations involved. All advocacy needs an ecosystem to work, so do what you can and involve yourself in the ways that fit best. There's lots to do and lots of different ways to do it. Start with compassion and turn that into action.

What was the moment in your life when you felt yourself become an activism minded person?

That's a hard one. I've always been interested in fairness. I don't really call myself an activist because I've never been arrested. During the pandemic, I've been mostly homebound due to my own medical problems, but I realize that activism takes many forms and that to get things done, many hands are needed in a multitude of ways. I guess when that became a bigger part of my life, was in the creation of The Meeting. I wanted to do something for my community and coming together to talk about politics and life, was a way of aiding them. There have been highlights in that journey for sure, but it all stems from a real longing for fairness, and perhaps that comes from the wound of feeling its opposite.

With all the unhappiness and upset in our lives right now, were you able to, personally, find a way to celebrate Pride last month?

Oh gurl, I always celebrate Pride. I'm a big proponent of joy. I take a great lesson from a mentor James Broughton, who was called Big Joy. We have to remember what we're fighting for. We have to stay focused on the fight, but any revolution that doesn't have room for humanity and joy isn't a revolution you want to be a part of. I've luckily been asked to do New Rulings for Joe's Pub's Instagram Live on a weekly basis, as well as some of my own comedy work, so I had lots to keep me busy. But for Pride this year, I took a moment to be proud of my community, for being out in the street, masked and responsibly protesting for Black Lives Matter. Solidarity is the greatest asset we have now. This Pride was very special for me, even though it was solitary. I was really proud this year.

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS

In his biography JUDY, Gerold Frank writes a story about Judy Garland campaigning for the role of Mame in a proposed movie version of the musical. Given your devotion to both women, have you spent any time daydreaming of what that might have looked like?

Oh my goodness, could you imagine? I don't know I think she would have sung it beautifully, but I think everyone had such an idea about her at that time. She had to be tragic. "Mame" would have been such a departure and probably one that could have turned her whole life in a different direction. Shown how funny and loving she was. How strong. There's a very tiny recording of her performing a snippet of "If He Walked into My Life" at the Westbury Music Festival in 1967 that gives you a little sample at the magic that would have been. Who knows.

If I can stray off-topic for one moment - I understand The gAyBCs is being released as a book this year - can you tease fans with any information on that, please?

Yes, Chronicle Books was very lovely to work with me on what became a tome on Queer Culture. I'm not a historian, and I believe culture is ever-changing, but I'm glad to have it out in May of 2021. It's so much work and I really hope people will enjoy it. It's funny and factual and trying to be as representative as possible. Lots of entries, illustrations, and fun. It's a great book to start you down the rabbit hole of Queer culture, which sounds filthy, but I'm fine with that.

Justin, do you have your outfit for the benefit picked out yet?

I'm working on it. Expected some sparkles, and not just from my wit.

See Night of A Thousand Judy's HERE on July 14th at 8:00 PM EST

Donate to The Ali Forney Center via Night Of A Thousand Judys HERE

Learn more about The Ali Forney Center HERE

Justin Sayre on Twiter is @JustinLizSayre

BWW Interview: Justin Sayre of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS
(Photo by Ricardo Nelson)

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From This Author Stephen Mosher