For the last 19 months, Lorna Luft’s microphone has been a hairbrush, and her audience has been her mirror at home. But now, the acclaimed singer, actress and cancer survivor describes herself as “excited, scared and invigorated” as she approaches her first two gigs since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. She will be singing for three nights, starting this Thursday at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York, and then she will travel to London to sing at Brasserie Zédel, which she describes as her “home base” in the British Isles.
As the daughter of Judy Garland and Liza Minelli’s half-sister, music is in Luft’s DNA. “When I grew up,” she remembers, “my parents’ friends included people like Humphrey Bogart. For us, The Wizard of Oz was a home movie. But nobody forced me to go into show business. I did it of my own volition, and I’ve always been glad I did.”
Luft has sung at venues as large as the London Palladium and the Hollywood Bowl, and while she loves to sing in those places, big venues present unique challenges.
“When you’re singing at the Hollywood Bowl,” she says, “some of the audience is in a different zip code from you. You can’t hear yourself, you can’t see the audience and the applause goes straight up into the air. You can definitely connect with them, but it’s not quite the same thing as singing in a smaller place like a nightclub.”
Not every singer welcomes the intimacy—and scrutiny—that nightclubs offer, Luft says.
“It’s just you and the songs and the audience,” she explains. “I love it, but it’s not for everybody. There’s really no place to hide.”
Luft is calling her new show Grateful, for a number of reasons.
“First and foremost,” she explains, “we have to be grateful that this health crisis we’ve been through for a year and a half is beginning to wind down. Throughout this time, we’ve all had to stop living normal lives. Beforehand, we were all going 100,000 miles an hour. So, the question is: What do you learn when you stop? You learn to see how the other person is feeling. You learn to reevaluate your relationships with other people and see the good in them. I don’t want people to forget that.”
Luft’s new show is also about expressing gratitude for her relationships with the composers and lyricists who have been her friends or who have written the songs she loves.
“I’ve got great stories about Johnny Mercer, Jerry Herman, Ellie Greenwich, and Peter Allen, whom I adore,” she says. “When I put a show together, it’s not just what I want to sing. It’s what I want to say. I met Peter Allen when I was 14, and he was the big brother I never had. For me, the show is about having people see Peter Allen not just as a musician and artist, but as a person.”
“I’m especially connected to lyricists, because when you’re on stage, you’re singing words, not just notes,” she continues. “So, the show is an opportunity to express my gratitude to the great lyricists who don’t always get the same credit the composers receive.”
While most connoisseurs of the Great American Songbook recognize the names of the three male composers Luft mentions, the name Ellie Greenwich may not ring a bell. But Luft says it should.
“Ellie was a dear friend who wrote all of the great girl band songs of the early 1960s,” she recalls. “She also composed for groups as diverse as Ike and Tina Turner and The Archies. I’m going to conclude the show with some of her songs, and if those don’t get you on your feet and singing along, I don’t know what will!”
Luft, famously, is a cancer survivor, who learned from her primary physician, Dr. David Agus, to wake up grateful and to recognize that recovery is based, to a very high degree, on the attitude of the patient.
Thanks to Agus, Luft visited the Lawrence J. Ellison Institute for Transformative Medicine in Los Angeles, where she saw a magnificent sculpture of an elephant in the courtyard. Why an elephant, Luft wondered. Agus explained that elephants don’t get cancer. At the Ellison Institute, Luft said she was able to look through the microscopes and see what the scientists saw.
“Your attitude is 90 percent of your healing,” she says. “My attitude is one of gratitude. That’s how I go through life. And that’s the focus of my shows starting this Thursday night.”