Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub

"You have to think: if you don't do it, who will? And you have to keep going because you may not get it right."

By: Jun. 07, 2023
Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub On Monday, June 12th, Joe’s Pub will host the Eleventh Annual NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS, a much-loved and always-anticipated PRIDE event that doesn’t just honor the legendary actress, it honors the queer community of New York City and beyond, while raising much-needed funds for The Ali Forney Center, an organization working to fight homelessness in the LGBTQIA+ youth community.  The event has become one of the most cherished and sought-out productions of the year, always featuring exciting members of the performing communities of show business.

As Pride month begins and the preparations are underway, JUDYS creator, writer, and host Justin Elizabeth Sayre took some time out of their schedule for a chat with Broadway World Cabaret to discuss this year’s installment, the ongoing legacy of Judy Garland, and the need to keep fighting.

This interview has been edited for space and content.

Photos in this article are from last year’s production of NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS.

Justin Elizabeth Sayre headshot provided by Justin Elizabeth Sayre.

Hi, Justin.  It's Stephen Mosher with Broadway World.

Hi, Stephen. How are you? 

How are YOU today?

Oh, I'm doing well.

It's been a while. I think the last time we got to talk was in 2021 about the Judy show. How have things been?

Oh, great. Moved back to New York and working on a bunch of stuff, you know, very happy to be back.

Isn't it wonderful here?

Oh, no place like it. I love it. 

Before we go on to talk about Judy, how's it going with Assorted Fruit?

Great. We did a couple of shows at Joe's Pub and we're actually bringing back The Meeting this fall, so a bunch of new shows there.

Oh my gosh, you're so busy. When do you rest?

Surprisingly, I get by.

So, about this year's Night of a Thousand Judys, how's it going over there?

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Amy Jo Jackson

Oh, it's going really well. Dan Fortune, who I’ve worked with for a number of years, and Adam Rosen, my other producer, we're all busy working away and getting a really stellar cast together.  We're very excited. 

Is it your number eleven?

Yes, it is.

Boy, that went by fast.

Oh, it's true, truly.


When you've done something like this for 10 previous years, and you sit down to write your script for the show, how do you discover new things to tell your audience about Judy Garland?

I think what happens for me is (and I think it's true of any kind of great artist) when you have such a longstanding interaction with their work, the ability that they have within their work is that it changes with you as you grow. So the things I appreciated at 20 about Judy Garland have changed, in my current life, because I understand different levels of the maturity with which she sang, and how she expressed lyrics. I also think there are iconic classic artists that, their work evolves with the times, even though they're not here to change. So, for me, somebody like Judy Garland has come to represent so much of our natural abilities, our vulnerability, the importance of standing in front of a room and being so open and honest and human, in a time when I think that's becoming less and less what we're after, but more and more what we need.

I think that we've reached a point in our public persona relationships with our audiences where the audience prefers some more transparency from us.

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Nathan Lee Graham

And I think that's heightened by the pandemic. We wanna be in the presence of people again, we're really hungry for that. We're missing that. I've seen it from my own audiences, I've seen it in other performers’ audiences. We wanna be in each other's presence. We want to get back to what that means, and I think that an artist like Garland, who gave everything to her audience, is so evocative of what we can do with that. That becomes not only a challenge but a calling card to push ourselves further in that direction. How can we be more present? How can we be more vulnerable? And that’s really exciting to me, even 10 years in.

You just mentioned how Judy’s work is different, now, than it was when you were in your twenties. What are you discovering about Judy these days?

I think what I've discovered is that, for all the mannerisms (which kind of get overplayed when people are doing impressions), I continually go back to how much of a lyric singer she was. How deeply she was taking apart songs and putting her own unique understanding on phrasings - impeccable. I think, probably, only Billie Holiday, and probably Sinatra, have phrasing that is on par, but certainly not a power like she has. It's really listening: I think when I was younger, I was kind of done in by the showmanship and the big hands. But now I find myself listening to, even on the Carnegie Hall concert, how she picks apart that lyric, and how intimate she's making that space - a huge space is just a cocktail party, and she's singing for some friends. It's incredible. I think I am starting to look at the subtleties of what she was doing, and I also think I look at how she was navigating aging, when you hear her voice start to change, she's doing some things that she couldn't do before. Her voice gets deeper and richer, but she still has this really incredible grasp of lyric and story, and even if the voice isn't there, you're never going to hear somebody tell you a story so honestly as Judy Garland.

I find myself consistently drawn back to the Cottage For Sale performance.

Oh, absolutely.

To me, that's the ultimate one. 

That's storytelling. 

This show is a really big deal. How many months in advance do you have to start working to put this performance on?

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Frances Ruffelle

We start talking about it usually in December, just kind of setting up when we would want to do it, we book in advance of this with Joe’s Pub. We start booking acts as early as March because we want to always make sure the talent is evocative of who are some great performers right now. The show remains, not so much a kind of an imitation of Garland - we want performers that are going to bring their style to this canon of music. And we always try to make sure that we really pepper it with interesting performers who we haven't heard before, and some old favorites - we try to vary it as much as possible. So  it begins early in March

When you’ve got the cast in place, do you and Drew Wutke work with each of the artists on what they will sing and what their intention will be with their number? Or do you let them do their own thing?

It's a combination of both. We always want people to sing a song that they're really excited about. We try to make sure those moments happen. We try to make sure that people are coming to this event and are excited about participating within the Garland world. But because we know the (catalogue)  so well, now, we can really kind of be like, “Hey, do you know this song? Did you ever think about this song she did?”  There's always the fan favorites and the big hits - we try to keep those always present, but it's also nice to have little surprises and have songs that we haven't had before. And believe it or not, even after 11 years, there are songs we've never done yet, so it's pretty amazing.

We have all spent the last year celebrating the centenary, and there have been scads of  Judy Garland shows. Did you participate in any, did you go see some of them?

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Bonnie Milligan

I did go and see some. I saw Michael Feinstein's show, which I loved very much, I saw Marilyn Maye sing some songs for Judy. It is this consistent thing -  you see very young performers talk about what an influence she continues to be, and that's always very encouraging for me. I think our show takes on some of that mantle, as this is a tribute to her, but also a tribute to that kind of performance. I'm glad to see that the spirit of her is being celebrated, but also what she means to artists moving forward, as they create their own canon.

It always makes me happy when I see a young person, and I mean a young person, that knows Judy, knows her work, and wants to sing this music and carry that legacy forward.

I feel the same way. I do really feel like it is the building blocks of everything: if you can sing these standards, if you can really master what it is to tell these stories, you are just set for life. That's been proven - look how many pop singers have standards records. It continually tends to be the gauntlet of, are you really somebody that can lay down these tracks? And I'm glad to be part of that conversation and enable that conversation for other performers.

And how are things over at Ali Forney? Has the fundraising helped them in any specific ways?

Yes. They're opening a new drop-in center, and that's specifically what we're trying to draw attention to. We're going to be not only thinking of The Night Of A Thousand Judys as part of that conversation but ways in which people can contribute more to that - homelessness in the LGBTQ population continues to be high, and with all these retrograded laws all over the country, I think there's going to be a lot more kids, a lot more young people trying to get away and trying to come to New York. So, if we can help them and be a landing point for them, so they don't have their experience so much homelessness, so they know that there's support from a queer community to embrace - I feel continually proud of dedicating this show and making this show part of that mission. We're very specifically trying to raise money for the new drop-in center, I’m going on a visit there next week, and we're going to really try to rev up the fundraising this year, so that, specifically, money goes to that new drop-in center.

The political climate in this country is so harsh right now. There's so much bigotry, and I know that you keep young people around you. How are the young people in your life holding up? What are their thoughts and feelings right now?

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Nicolas King

I think, like most of us, they're angry.  I think that the people who are older, like myself… I expected a backlash. I waited for this. I knew something bad was going to happen, and I hate to be that kind of pessimist, but I've seen it happen far too many times before to turn a blind eye. I think what we're all upset about the way that it's becoming legally sanctioned, these kinds of continual attacks on not only queer people, but women and people of color - we have to see that those are all prongs on the same fork, and I think young people are, in a very smart way, putting that together and seeing that, to fight for LGBT rights, you also have to fight for the rights of women, the rights of women to healthcare, and the rights of people of color to not be killed by the police.  These are all part of a system that is driving these draconian laws into the rule books. I think that the dismay that young people have right now is that there are continual systems to keep them out of the conversation - we're looking at an abortion law in North Carolina. The governor tried to veto it, and the Republicans in the House put it back. I think young people are figuring out how to attack those systems that keep them out of the conversation. And I know that's a longer fight, I know that's a fight that we all have to support and get behind, but it means a real engagement with civil interaction - and I think they're finding their way to figure out how to do that.

I'm aware of a number of people in our community that are tired and losing hope and giving up, but that's not you. You're always at the front line. Where do you get that fortitude? 

I think so… (Justin gets choked up and takes a pause.) I always get emotional talking about it (Justin takes a pause)  but you have to think: if you don't do it, who will? And you have to keep going because you may not get it right. I may never live to see the end of these crazy laws. I may never live in a time where gay people aren't paying for everything from dirty books to hurricanes. But I'm going to keep going until I, at least, defeat what I can (Justin takes a pause, choked up) and, hopefully, work with young people and old people and people that have been through the fight and want to continue the fight to make sure that we're always heard. I think it comes so deeply from my own experience of growing up in the shadow of the AIDS crisis and the loss of all those artists and amazing people that could have been mentors for me being gone. We can't allow that to happen. We can't allow our history and our culture to be disappeared because people are uncomfortable. So you keep going because there's not much of an alternative.

Is that why you devote your time to mentoring the young queers of our city?

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Justin Elizabeth Sayre

Absolutely. I think it's because I want things, I want conversations to continue, I want them to know, more and more, that they're not alone, and that there's a whole host of art and work and people that are out there who have experienced what they have, and nobody's trying to tell them how to live, but certainly to guide them, and let them know they're not alone, I think that's the great gift of art. And I think it's also the great gift of a queer community. I've said it a couple times that our biology finds us because we don't have children naturally, but we create families, and queer people have, notoriously, always created families. I think that, in doing so, we continue to pass on knowledge, love, wisdom, and that's a great gift, you know? I'm very interested in that and I keep that as part of the mission. I don't wanna hold the keys. I'm just holding the door open. 

Let's talk about something really important. Do you have your outfit chosen for the show?

(Laughing)  No! (Laughing uproariously) That's always the last-minute thing, but I'm talking to some people today, so, hopefully, we're going to get some sparkles and we'll be ready. 

As long as there's glitter and sparkle.


Justin, I'm so happy we got to chat and I really look forward to seeing the show.

Oh, thank you so much. I appreciate it. 

Such a pleasure to chat with you again.

Absolutely. We'll talk very soon. 


All right. Bye-bye. 

THE 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS plays Joe’s Pub on Monday, June 12th at 7 pm.  For information and reservations visit the Joe’s Pub website HERE.

THIS is the website for the Ali Forney Center.

Justin Elizabeth Sayre has an Instagram page HERE.

The NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS will feature performances by Tony Award winner Lauren Patten (Jagged Little Pill on Broadway), Julie Benko (Funny Girl on Broadway), Nellie McKay (celebrated singer/songwriter), Telly Leung (“Glee,” Aladdin on Broadway), Alexandra Silber (Grammy nominee, Fiddler on the Roof on Broadway), T. Oliver Reid (Hadestown on Broadway), Carole J. Bufford (BroadwayWorld’s “Vocalist of the Year”), jazz vocalist Hilary Kole (Carnegie Hall, Blue Note), Jack Bartholet (Bistro Award winner), Elizabeth Ward Land (Scandalous on Broadway), and rising star Jae W.B. (Lincoln Center’s Festival of Firsts).

The evening is written and hosted by Justin Elizabeth Sayre, directed by Peter James Cook, choreographed by Jason Wise, and features Drew Wutke as the event’s music director. “Night Of A Thousand Judys” is produced by Dan Fortune and Adam J. Rosen, with Dan Fortune serving as executive producer.

Interview: Justin Elizabeth Sayre of 11th ANNUAL NIGHT OF A THOUSAND JUDYS at Joe's Pub
Photo illustration: Anja Slibar


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