Interview with
Tommy Femia

by Jonathan Frank

If your idea of a female impersonator is the tired stereotype of a poorly lip-synching drag queen doing a bad Cher or Liza routine, then you'll be in for a big surprise if you go see the incredible Tommy Femia perform. Since 1992, Tommy has been wowing audiences with his dead-on impersonation of Judy Garland (and yes, Virginia, he is singing live, sounding eerily like the real thing), winning three MAC Awards in the process. I had the pleasure of seeing Tommy perform Don't Tell Mama in New York last November and was utterly amazed and captivated. Not only does he have the look down, he embodies Judy from head to toe, voice and mannerisms intact, and does it all without a trace of malice or parody.

Jonathan:   Welcome to Talkin' Broadway, Tommy. I tried to dress appropriately for the interview, but I'm afraid my "There's no place like home"T-shirt is still packed away for the winter.

Tommy:   (Laughing) We're on the phone! Who's going to see??? Just throw on a Balenciaga sheet with a jacket and you'll be OK!

J:   Let me say again how much I enjoyed seeing you perform as Judy when I was in New York last November. It really was one of the highlights of my trip ... and as you know, I had to decide between seeing you or Rita Moreno ... the lady or the tiger ...

Tommy Femia as Judy

Tommy Femia as Judy

T:   (Laughing) Well, thank you! So, which was I? The Lady or the Tiger?

J:   I'll never tell!

You're doing a new show at Don't Tell Mama. What's it called?

T:   Judy Garland Sings Broadway, and every song is from a Broadway show. Some are Garland classics that were from Broadway shows. "Swanee," for instance, is from a 1918 musical called Sinbad, and "Come Rain or Come Shine," which I am performing for the very first time, is from a 1944 show called St. Louis Woman.

J:  And I hear that you are doing "Fifty Percent" from Ballroom, which is one of my favorite numbers. I would love to hear 'Judy' sing that!

T:  I think she would have, had she lived to hear it. It has that masochistic tone to it, and Judy identified with songs like that. "Fifty Percent" is kind of like "As Long as He Needs Me" in terms of theme, and I think Judy would have done it if she had heard it.

J:  How long is the show running at Don't Tell Mama?

T:   It's going to run through the end of July and I have the option to run through the summer.

J:   What are the dates and times for the show?

T:   Through the end of May I'm doing the 8pm show every Saturday. I'm not doing May 13th or Memorial Day Weekend. I have just extended my show through the end of July, and starting June 3rd, I will be performing at 11pm. I won't be performing at Don't Tell Mama on June 10th, as it is Judy's birthday and I'm performing with the Lehigh Valley Gay Men's Chorus in Pennsylvania. And I'm going to be performing at Odette's, located on South River Road, New Hope, Pennsylvania, June 30th through July 2nd, so I won't be doing a show at Mama's that weekend either. Reservations for Odette's can by made by calling 215-862-3000, by the way.

The shows are doing well, and I have fabulous guest stars lined up. I have Karen Mason this weekend, and Baby Jane Dexter next weekend ... I know this will be in the past when the interview goes up, but ...

J:   It at least gives a sampling of the fabulous performers who will be appearing with you!

T:   And Richard Skipper will be ... or I guess I should say was ... my guest star May 6th as Carol Channing.

J:   Oh my God ... Judy and Carol together again for the first time! I shudder to think what will occur on that stage that night!

T:  God only knows! I never know until I get up there. I know what I'm going to sing and when I'm going to sing it, and I know when I'm going to talk, since cues have to be made for the pianist and lights, but I never really know what I'm going to say until I'm up there ... it always just comes to me.

J:   So you're almost channeling up Judy up there!

T:   Yeah ... well ... it's more like inhabiting. Channeling sounds a little too Shirley MacLaine! I get into Judy's head. I work best improvisationally.

J:   So somebody could go to your show every week and see a different show each time.

T:   Completely different, except for the songs, which I change about every two months.

J:   You won three MAC Awards performing as Judy, although the name of the category keeps changing.

T:   It depends on the year. Some years they call it Impersonations, some years they call it Characterizations, and this year they called it both. It depends on how many people are qualified to be submitted in either category. If there are too many in one and not enough in the other, they will clump them together.

J:   What is the difference between Impersonation and Characterization?

T:   Characterization is creating a truly original character. Impersonation is being somebody who really exists or existed.

J:   So Dame Edna would be Characterization and you doing Judy Garland would be Impersonation. That makes sense.

What drew you to performing as Judy Garland?

T:   I loved her since I was a little kid. In high school I discovered that I could imitate her, and it kind of evolved. It took many years before I had the guts to do it on stage, though, and I owe it all to a friend of mine named Hal Simon. He and I went to Performing Arts High School together, and he does a mean Ann Miller. We talked for years about doing a show together as Judy and Ann, and he was the one who finally said, "What the hell! Let's just write the thing and do it!" We developed it for a year and we performed Tuesdays at 8:00. We only planned on doing two performances, and the damn thing ran for nine months! It became a cult hit! He had to leave because he got a job choreographing and I said "What the hell, let's do a show with Judy by herself." That was back in 1992 and I haven't stopped since!

J:   Did you perform as female characters before that?

T:   No, not before Judy. But since Judy I did the musical Tallulah, I played Nancy Reagan in Whoop-Dee-Doo Off-Broadway, and I've done a lot of original characters. Doing Judy gave me the courage to do everything that came afterwards, and now I'm not afraid of anything.

J:   Do you perform male characters as well?

T:   I have, sure. Before Judy I did ten years of dinner theater, summer stock and Off-Broadway. Since 1992, however, I've been primarily doing Judy. One job has been followed by another, and the Off-Broadway work I've gotten since doing Judy has all been Judy-based or original drag characters. I guess I do it really well, or they wouldn't keep asking me (laughing).

J:   Well you certainly have spoiled me ... I can't stand to see local 'talent' that tries to get by on lame lip-synching anymore!

How did you prepare for the 'role of a lifetime?'

T:   The first few months before I opened the first show I kept watching the tapes of her TV show. I found that to be the best research, because that's when she looked and sounded her best. I also personally like her look in the early sixties more than in any other period. I like the hair, the length and sleekness of the dresses, the high heels; it's all very streamlined and I think it's a very chic and timeless look. And it allows for no distraction, really, from the music.

J:   Are there any other Impersonations that you have been dying to do?

T:   Not really. What I would love to do it take Judy one-step further. I would love someone to have the balls ... no other way to put it ... to cast me as Judy in a musical. Judy as Mama Rose or Mame, which was written with Judy in mind. I'm hoping that some day some one will get permission from Jerry Herman to let me play Mame as Judy. Most critics have found that my Judy isn't about drag; they forget that I'm even a guy after the first two minutes.

J:   What's really nice is that you aren't being mean spirited in your portrayal of Judy.

T:   I try to be self-deprecating the way Judy was. She was the first one to make jokes about herself and that's what made her so funny and honest.

I also want to get more concert work, because I love playing in the bigger venues and using bands. But playing her in a role would be wonderful. That's what I love about doing the new cabaret act, because it's all numbers from Broadway, like "Some People," and "With One Look," all with these Garland-esque arrangements. I'm doing a version of "Some People" that she did on her TV show, and it's a tough chord buster of a song.

J:  I don't think I've ever heard that version.

T:  She did it on her TV show once, and she did it at the Manhattan Civic Center. There was supposed to be a Judy Broadway album released in the early sixties, which finally got released on CD this past year. There are parts of it that are good and parts that just aren't.

You know, she tried to get the rights to do Gypsy on TV, but Jack Warner was punishing her. She was supposed to do three films when she did A Star is Born, but she only did the one, and as punishment, she didn't get to do Gypsy, Rosalind Russell did instead. That should have been Judy. It was her idea to do it on film with Liza as Gypsy Rose Lee.

J:   Have you ever fantasized about doing a number with Liza?

T:   Liza and I are friendly, but the Judy thing is a little unnerving for her ... she tells me that I hit a little close to home, although she appreciates what I do. Liza has been very generous with me in and out of print.

J:   Did you see Liza at The Palace?

T:   I was there opening night.

J:   As you or as Judy?

T:   As me! I would never (laughing)! Number one, that would screw up her head for too many years, but also I never go out in drag. When I do drag characters, it's for a theater piece, and when the show is over, I'm in my dressing room and within five minutes I'm out of that stuff! It's a chore! For me it's a character thing. If I was playing Jekyll, for instance, I wouldn't be walking around as him on the street either! They'd lock me up in Bellevue!

J:   Where you'll be put in a special ward of people who think that they are Judy Garland!

Now, do you come up with the song ideas, or do you have a writer/director?

T:   Most of them come from me, and some come from either my music director or my partner, David. I've managed to successfully direct my Judy shows myself. I kind of know how Judy breathes, and I find she self-directs. There are certain characters that you just allow to do their thing.

J:   Do you see yourself ever getting tired of playing Judy?

T:   Not yet! In fact, I'm doing material now that I wouldn't have done when I started doing Judy. "Fifty Percent," for example, is a tough number and you have to work hard to keep the song from becoming parody. You've got to keep that song honest with all the pathos locked in. It's a tough number to do ...

J:   Next show ... Judy does Marie Christine!

T:   Yeah right! (laughing) Call Cameron Macintosh, I'll hold!

J:   Now, you are doing all of this while performing in a show Off-Broadway.

T:   Right! I'm doing the Off-Broadway show The Dressing Room.

J:   Where is that happening?

T:   It's at the SOHO Playhouse on Mandan Street. It's open-ended and we're performing Tuesday nights and Saturday matinees. The producer says that it can run for at least a year with no reviews, so ...

J:   Really?

T:   The show is being majorly backed and has some names in it.

J:   Drew Barrymore's mother is in it, right?

T:   Jay Barrymore, and of course me and Sydney, and we're packing them in.

J:   Sydney Myers is in it? Oh, he's a stitch! What is the show about?

T:   It's about these nine people who have been in this play for three years. It all takes place in the women's dressing room, and there are only three guys in the show. I'm always using the women's make-up tables, and Sydney plays the director/playwright who is constantly barging in to give notes. It's a very modern, tough, hard-edged musical. It's not your average musical comedy.

J:   Who wrote the music?

T:   A young man named Matt Gandalfo composed it. The books and lyrics are by Mimi Scott. I play the lead of the play within the play, and we're always having these fights throughout the show, and there are lots of big numbers. It's a mixed bag (Laughing!) That's all I'll tell ya!

J:   What's your character like?

T:   I play a drag character. The person in the play plays a dominatrix in the play within the play called Yes, You Can Take It With You. So I'm playing the part in this one-piece black vinyl dominatrix outfit with seven-inch spike heels and a magenta wig!

J:   What would Judy say???

T:   (Laughing and slipping into Judy Garland) It's the furthest thing from Judy you could ever get! Judy is America's sweetheart, and this character is this in-your-face, nasty, theatrical bitch.

I don't care if it's a drag character or a straight character. If it's a part that I can't push over the edge, I don't want to play it. I get bored easily and I need challenging characters. And Judy Garland is one of the most challenging characters anybody could ever attempt to play, and that's why I've been able to do it for like seven years now. And the character Sugar in Dressing Room is a very hard-edged, over the top, neurotic character. I need a lot of places to go, if I'm going to be doing it eight shows a week!

Well, I better go rest the pipes, honey ... I'm fried! It's a bitch when you are doing two voices with totally different placements.

J:   Well go take care of them. It was a pleasure chatting with you as always, and best of fates on your two shows!

T:   Thanks!

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