Michael Hughes: A Star is Born

by maxmosher

Speaking of Mickey and Judy, I saw ‘Mickey & Judy’ on Friday night. Part of the Fringe Festival, the one-man musical revue stars Michael Hughes, a singer and actor who has worked in Canada, the US and Japan. Although he has played Tony in ‘West Side Story’ and Gilbert in ‘Anne and Gilbert’, he clearly wants to be Judy Garland. So, like Rufus Wainwright before him, he’s stepped into those legendary ruby shoes.

Accompanied by just a keyboardist and wearing a Dorothy-esque gingham cowboy shirt, Hughes presents his ‘pseudo-memoir’ alone on a blank stage, save for a framed photo of Garland resting atop an old fashioned trunk. His first number is ‘You Made Me Love You’ with an intro addressed to his idol, “Dear Ms. Garland…”, a modified version of the love letter teenage Judy sang to Clark Gable in ‘Broadway Melody of 1938’.

A series of Judy and Broadway-related non-Judy songs follows, interspersed with Hughes’ tragi-comic tales of growing up as a little boy who just wanted to sing, dance and dress up. His worried parents took him to a child psychologist, who eventually, based on his tendency to wear flowered dresses and pearls, broke the news to them that their son was inevitably going to become…an actor.

Come to think of it, the G-A-Y word was barely uttered all night. Perhaps it didn’t need to be: when Hughes describes being bullied in school we know the exact reason why. (The audience was an interesting mixture of middle-aged snowbirds and hip young queers with V-necks and tattoos.) Although he jokes about himself as a child loving watching himself cry in the mirror, he clearly needed the solace he found in heartbreak songs (his medley of ‘Do It Again’, ‘But Not For Me’ and ‘The Man That Got Away’ is quite moving) and claims, completely seriously, that Judy Garland saved his life.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. For decades queer writers have declared the death of camp and the end of diva-worship. Torchy renditions of ‘Over the Rainbow’ were not supposed to outlast the pre-Stonewall generation, who were thought to be self-loathing closet cases. Instead, Garland continues to be the fairy godmother of sensitive outcasts, who project their disappointments onto her trembling voice. And it’s not just gay men: writer and Sigmund Freud-descendent Susie Boyt claims that Judy’s songs got her through dark times in My Judy Garland Life. Take that, psychoanalysis!

Even if you’re not a Friend of Dorothy (or Judy, for that matter) you will enjoy your evening with Hughes. During his opening performance there were moments he seemed nervous (his parents may have been in the second row) but that only added to his achingly earnest charm. His smooth singing voice is better suited to the American song book than Wainwright’s nasal whine, and his mannerisms and inflection were enough like Garland’s to be a tribute but not an impression.

‘Mickey & Judy’ is like spending the evening catching up with that sensitive boy from your school who loved choir and hated gym, for whom even the threat of being pummeled in the face couldn’t prevent the show tunes. Thankfully, the boy is doing all right, especially with the help of George Gershwin and Harold Arlen. Especially for the older members of the audience, the ones more likely to know the words to the ‘Trolley Song’ than the hip queers in V-necks, it must have been interesting to see how hokey old songs from the studio era can be reclaimed by a new generation.

It came as no surprise that, after the standing ovation, Hughes said quietly into his microphone, “Alright, one more song.”

“Gee, I wonder which one it will be,” I said to my friend.

Hughes’ rendition of ‘Over the Rainbow’ was a fitting tribute to the simple little melody which unexpectedly became one of the theme songs of the 20th century. For Dorothy, the rainbow was an escape from the dreary sepia of Kansas. ‘Oz’ was one of the last Hollywood films shown in England before  WWII and British audiences embraced the hopeful song as a symbol of better times ahead.

Salmon Rushdie in his book about ‘Oz’ sees ‘Over the Rainbow’ as an immigrant’s song, significant for anyone who yearned to start life fresh in a new land. And, of course, gay people embraced it, adopting the rainbow as their movement’s symbol and never feeling closer to Judy than when she asked, “If happy little blue birds fly/ Beyond the rainbow/ Why, oh why, can’t I?”

Catch the show at Tarragon on Tuesday July 12 at 10:30 p.m., 
Wednesday, July 13 at 4:00 p.m., 
Thursday, July 14 at 1:45 p.m., or 
Sunday, July 17 at 3:30 p.m.

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