Music history isn’t a musty relic of the past at Carnegie Hall. It’s being revitalized every season as contemporary artists pay tribute to the stars who inspired them on the venue’s storied stages. That’s what Broadway favorite Jessica Vosk and Grammy winner Ledisi are doing in solo shows that honor Judy Garland and Nina Simone, respectively—two blazing talents who delivered career-defining concerts at the Hall in the 1960s.
“They’re bringing these icons to a whole new generation,” says Kathleen Sabogal, director of Carnegie Hall’s Rose Archives and Museum. “Over the years, we’ve presented lots of tribute concerts focused on the music of an artist or a composer, but usually there are multiple performers. So these concerts are definitely going to be special.”
An incandescent entertainer who captivated audiences with her throaty, passionate belt on stage and screen, Judy Garland made her Carnegie Hall debut on April 23, 1961 in an instantly mythic performance that featured many of her signature songs, including “Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” Captured for posterity on a two-record set that has never gone out of print, the live recording won five Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year, making Garland the first woman to earn that accolade.
While Rufus Wainwright famously recreated that momentous evening at the Hall in 2006, Jessica Vosk’s Get Happy: A Judy Garland Centennial Celebration on December 12 aims to evoke the legend’s lifework, not just that landmark night. Acclaimed for playing Elphaba in Wicked on Broadway, Vosk will croon classic Garland numbers accompanied by an orchestra against a backdrop of rarely seen performance footage and interviews with the diva herself.
“While the show is very much tied to her concert at Carnegie Hall, it’s also about the entire history of who she was and what she did,” says Vosk. “We all grew up with The Wizard of Oz. It’s the gateway drug for Judy fans, but it doesn’t encapsulate everything she could and did do. She is often misrepresented solely by her tragic end instead of all she accomplished before, starting at age 3. I find her life to be so inspirational.”
Audiences shouldn’t come expecting an impersonation. “It’s not that kind of campy thing,” she says. “It’s the beautiful story of this powerhouse performer and businesswoman,” with nods to Garland’s singular style. “I’m using a corded microphone like she did. That was a Judy staple. Also, she was very well-known for her vowels and her vocal placement. So I’m trying to bring some of that into the piece. Truth be told, her songs are difficult. But they’re also badass to do live. Judy had this thing where she made everybody in the audience feel like she had them in her living room. That’s what I’m trying to do with this particular performance—give the impression of being at a Judy Garland show without taking anything away from the boss on screen behind me.”
Unlike Garland’s one-off performance (which she reprised later the same year), singer-songwriter-pianist Nina Simone performed at Carnegie Hall more than a dozen times in both individual and group concerts. But her searing 1964 solo turn established Simone as a powerful voice of the Civil Rights Movement with her anguished anthem “Mississippi Goddam,” a blunt, no-holds-barred reaction to the murder of Medgar Evers, the bombing of four little girls in Alabama, and all the other racial violence plaguing the United States.
Ledisi was introduced to that song by her mother, who sang it to her kids every morning. “I thought it was something my mom wrote,” Ledisi says with a laugh. “We couldn’t stand that song because she used it to wake us up. But I didn’t understand any of Nina’s music when I was younger.”
Ledisi connected with Simone on a personal level in her 20s. “I was newly divorced and going through a lot,” she recalls. “I was exhausted and depressed and not sure how to move forward. Then Nina came on the radio doing ‘Trouble in Mind.’ It was like someone speaking my heart. It woke me out of this phase of planning my death. She gave me strength.”
Over her almost four-decade career, Ledisi has conjured Simone many times, especially recently. She cowrote and starred in the 2019 Simone bio musical The Legend of Little Girl Blue in Los Angeles, recorded the 2020 PBS TV special Ledisi Live: A Tribute to Nina Simone, and released the 2021 album Ledisi Sings Nina. Now she’s bringing her celebration of Simone to Carnegie Hall on February 23.
“Her 1964 Carnegie Hall concert was epic,” Ledisi says. “Something happened there that was different from all her other concerts.” Since Ledisi started her Simone journey, she says she’s been “dreaming” of coming to Carnegie Hall, though she does not plan to redo that milestone performance. Instead, she wants to honor all facets of the complicated artist, advocate, and human being.
“We all know Nina as an activist. But what about the other sides that we don’t talk about?” Ledisi muses. “Nina was a woman trying to survive and feel loved in a world that didn’t want her. I don’t just see her politics. I’ll touch on that, but I want everyone to see all the parts of Nina we don’t discuss. That’s what I can’t wait to show. Doing her music helped me to become my full self. It’s changed me as an artist.”
Both Ledisi and Vosk take the responsibility of commemorating these groundbreakers very seriously as they bring music history to life. “It’s so important for this generation to understand that we walk on others’ shoulders,” says Ledisi. “They help lift us up.”
Vosk agrees. “Innovators like Judy Garland are why we artists feel like we can push boundaries today. Without them, we wouldn’t be here.”