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Arts & Life

A Kansas City composer's tribute to Judy Garland is part concerto, part drag show

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Courtesy of Stacy Busch
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“I felt a bit like maybe I’m not queer enough, quote-unquote, to take on these characters,” composer Stacy Busch says of writing a musical tribute to Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli.

For a Judy Garland centennial tribute, Stacy Busch’s double concerto premieres with the Mid America Freedom Band and solos for two Kansas City drag queens.

Few performances are as iconic as Judy Garland’s Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz.” Garland, who died in 1969, would have turned 100 this year. To mark that occasion, Kansas City’s Mid America Freedom Band presents a tribute concert, which includes the premiere of a commissioned piece of music with a unique role for two particular soloists.

It’s no secret Garland struggled with addiction. So did her daughter, Liza Minnelli, who has been sober since 2015. That’s just one of the considerations Kansas City composer Stacy Busch had in mind when writing this new work, which is an homage to them both.

“I knew that the piece needed to be celebratory, I knew that it needed to include these references that would make people smile, that would make them feel that connection that they have always felt for these women … while also bringing my musical voice to the piece,” says Busch, co-founder and president of the arts organization No Divide KC. A graduate of UMKC Conservatory, she was named a Charlotte Street Foundation Generative Performing Artist in 2020.

Busch balances the joy and connection Garland and Minnelli bring to audiences with the darker side of their story: their struggles with addiction, the challenges of celebrity and the strains those factors caused on their relationship.

“I think she never was able to be herself,” Busch says of Garland. “I don’t think she was ever able to learn how to be a woman in her own right and a mother in her own right and she ended up putting a lot of that on Liza.”

For Busch, this part of Garland and Minnelli’s story is reflected in her own experiences. She struggled with addiction, undiagnosed bipolar disorder and depression during her college years, first in Boston, then Michigan. It took a few rounds of hospitalization and rehabilitation before she was able to get sober, nearly 10 years ago. She moved to Kansas City in 2014.

“I have a tremendous empathy for any person who struggles with addiction,” she says. “When I was learning about Judy’s struggles, I felt a tremendous amount of empathy towards this young girl who was thrust into the spotlight and forced into a lot of behaviors that are tremendously toxic and unhealthy, that set her up for a really destructive life.”

The piece she ended up writing is called “It’s For Us.” It speaks to the joy and the sorrow that besieged these women, the excitement they generated and the condemnation they endured.

It's written in three movements, each taking on a different element of their story. At times, the solo lines wind around each other lovingly. At others, sinister undertones rumble through the ensemble.

“It signifies this role of celebrity,” says Busch. “Celebrities are ‘for us,’ they are for the culture, for our society, but I think it also signifies that that comes at a sacrifice … to be ‘for us’ comes at such a high cost.”

The final movement, though, is about peace and healing, and the love Garland and Minnelli generated: for each other, for life and for their fans. Garland remains an icon in the LGBTQ community, and Minnelli followed in her footsteps.

“We knew we wanted a queer composer to write a queer story for a queer band,” says Lee Hartman, conductor and artistic director for the the Mid-America Freedom Band, an 80-member ensemble of LGBTQ-plus and allied musicians.

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Libby Hanssen
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KCUR
Lee Hartman rehearses the Mid-America Freedom Band at Central Presbyterian Church for their concert "Friends of Dorothy: Judy Garland at 100."

“Stacy was the first person that we wanted to write this piece. She was the only choice,” Hartman said. “Her music just immediately grabs you by the throat and doesn’t let go because it is so beautiful and so powerful.”

Busch had never written a concerto before, let alone a double concerto, and it was a step out of her comfort zone in more ways than one.

“I felt a bit like maybe I’m not queer enough, quote-unquote, to take on these characters,” Busch says. “I knew what they meant in the queer community and I knew the historical relevance of them. It felt very intense for me to represent that as one queer person.”

She did extensive research to write the piece.

“I found so much more complexity to these women,” Busch says. “And even the mother/daughter relationship, it just started to feel so much of my own experiences in them … and I found them so relatable and so grand at the same time.”

In this composition, Garland and Minnelli are represented by two award-winning performers as the soloists. But there’s a twist.

“We wanted to commission a new piece to be kind of celebratory and kind of cheeky, so we were like, well, drag queens!” says Hartman.

Bassoonist Keel Williams is Mrs. Jones as Judy Garland and clarinetist Michael Tolbert is Tajma Stetson as Liza Minnelli. Both are mainstays of the local drag community.

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Courtesy of Keel Williams and Michael Tolbert
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Keel Williams is Mrs. Jones (left), who performs as Judy Garland in the Mid-America Freedom Band's "Friends of Dorothy: Judy Garland at 100." Michael Jones is Tajma Stetson (right), who performs as Liza Minnelli.

“Judy and Liza are not only music icons but gay icons and breathing life into new music surrounding their legacies is quite thrilling,” says Stetson, who often performs on clarinet for talent portions of pageants and was crowned Miss Gay Missouri 2022 in March.

“I like the fact that I got to think of theatrical elements, that there are moments to clap and to snap and to sing, and to see people strut across the stage,” says Busch.

Even if it's taken to extremes, she notes, the Garland and Minnelli story is a real one that everyone can connect to.

Mid America Freedom Band presents “Friends of Dorothy: Judy Garland at 100,” 2 p.m. Sunday, May 1 at the Gem Theater, 1615 E. 18th Street.

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