The music of Judy Garland celebrated at Weidner Center

Kat Kuehl

kat kuehl | february 2015

There are very few songs that are so widely popular and multigenerational that virtually every American citizen alive today could hum at least a few bars. Perhaps “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” or “The Star Spangled Banner” comes to mind. But, undoubtedly, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” is another one of those songs.

Hilary Kole will sing this timeless tune, along with many other Judy Garland classics, during “Over the Rainbow.” The musical performance, coming to the Weidner Center on Wednesday, Feb. 25, pays tribute to the musical career and legacy of Garland.

Kole is the centerpiece and vocal talent of the show that celebrates the outstanding career of one of America’s darlings. Much like Garland, Kole began singing at an early age. “I come from a very musical family,” shares Kole. “My father was on Broadway in the 50s and 60s, and he was also a voice teacher,” she continues, “So, I grew up listening to him give voice lessons. I really had no other choice but to become a singer.”

With music in her genes, Kole started performing on stage with her father in her younger years. Eventually, she knew she wanted to make music her career and pursued a degree in composition from the prestigious and competitive Manhattan School of Music. “I really wanted to learn more about all different types of music,” she adds.

Kole credits Garland as one of her largest musical influences, so it came naturally for her to create an entire show to pay tribute to one of her idols. “I wanted to become a singer because of Judy Garland, she was such a huge influence on me,” shares Kole.

In the efforts to preserve the legacy of such an important musical icon, Kole worked to put together a tribute show exclusively about Judy Garland. So, “Over the Rainbow” was born. “I had been involved in other tribute shows for Frank Sinatra and Fred Astaire, but I really wanted to pay tribute to a woman,” she explains. “When I started thinking about female singers, she was the first to come to mind, because she has been such a major influence on me.”

With this idea in mind, Kole began working to put together an entire show based solely on Garland’s legendary career. “It was important to me to do a lot of research for this show, and put together songs that are definitively hers,” Kole shares.

Once she had settled on a concept for the show, she needed to find her musical accompaniment. “There are actually two versions of this show,” explains Kole, “There’s the pops concert with a full orchestra, which I’ve done with the Colorado Symphony and there’s the show that I’m touring now with a jazz quartet.”

When asked how she got connected with the jazz musicians currently touring with her, Kole shares, “I am so lucky! I have four of the greatest jazz performers from New York City, and feel so fortunate to be able to tour with them.” The show’s quartet features Adam Birnbaum on piano, Paul Gill on bass, John Hart on guitar and Aaron Kimmel on drums. “I’ve known John and Paul for years, and they’re two of my dear friends,” Kole explains. “Adam and Aaron came to me through word-of-mouth,” she continues, “The jazz scene is small. So, if you’re really good, people will find out about you quickly. I found them and I wouldn’t let them go.”

Kole explains that she loves working with jazz musicians, because they never really play the same show twice. “We play the same songs every night, but, we’re doing them in a different way. We’re being fed by the audience, so every night there’s a little bit of improvisation and the show is a little different.”

Naturally, being on tour has created a tight bond between Kole and her band mates. “They’re all my dear friends. We’ve become like a family, so it makes the tour so fun,” she adds.

In regards to what audience members can expect when attending “Over the Rainbow,” Kole is careful to mention that she tries not to get into Garland’s personal life too much. However, she does touch on some personal aspects in order to put the music into context. Kole explains, “I’m really trying to tell the story of her life through music.”

The first act of the show features a lot of Garland’s early work, including classic songs such as “The Trolley Song,” “The Boy Next Door” and “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” The second act includes even more well known songs from later in her career, including “As Long as He Needs Me,” “The Man That Got Away” and, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” “I tried to form a really nice representation of her entire career,” states Kole, “Which was really daunting to do in one night!”

Kole’s crisp, timeless voice will undoubtedly draw comparisons with Garland herself, and Garland’s influence on Kole’s musical career is apparent in her tone and sound. However, Kole makes it clear that she isn’t trying to impersonate or replace Garland. “People have said since I was very young that I reminded them of Judy Garland, but I don’t want to be compared to her,” she shares, “Because I don’t think anybody could be compared to her.” Instead, the show is intended to pay tribute to the incredible legacy that Garland left. 

Kole also tries to avoid overwhelming comparisons by switching up the arrangements in the show. “I not only selected all of the songs for this show, but I also made all of the arrangements,” she shares. “I don’t try to sound like her, and I don’t do the arrangements the way she did them. They’re new and fresh arrangements, while still being reminiscent of her sound.”

Aside from naturally being compared to such a treasured musical icon, the show has its fair share of other challenges for Kole. “Every song she sang is what they call the 11’oclock hour song,” she says, “It’s the big, show ending song with full voice, as high as you can go and as loud as you can go. That’s incredibly taxing to do through a whole show.”

But, the feedback and audience reactions make it all worth it for Kole in the end. She shares that one of her favorite parts of performing is being able to interact with the audience following the show. “I love talking to people afterwards, because they all have Judy Garland stories,” she explains. “People have grown up with her and people are excited to hear this music done live in a way that’s really respectful of her.”

Kole also shares that she loves how multigenerational the show is, and she’s positively thrilled with the opportunity to pass these classic tunes on to the younger generation. “The older generation typically knows every song in the show,” she says, “But the thing I love is when I have younger people in the audience that have never heard these songs before, but they are still really moved by them.”

“Over the Rainbow” has brought Kole all over the world, including Asia, Europe and South America. But, no matter where in the world she’s performing, when she begins singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” the audience begins to sing along. Kole shares that she feels honored that this show is not only a tribute to Garland, but a tribute to the American songbook. “Everybody has a different experience at this show. Some are walking down memory lane, and others are hearing these songs for the first time,” she concludes, “But, I’m a believer in the power of music, and it’s so important to our heritage to keep this music going. I feel incredibly honored to be a part of that.”

“Over the Rainbow” will visit the Weidner Center on Wednesday, Feb. 25 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets start at $35 and can be purchased by calling 800-895-0071 or by visiting

Kat is a freelance writer living in the Appleton area. She received her B.A. in Communication with a minor in Journalism from UW-Milwaukee and spends her days crafting content for local publications, national websites and area businesses. When she's not behind her computer screen, she enjoys reading, babying her rescued terrier mutt and being a chronic blanket hog. Check out more of her work at or follow her on Twitter at @kat_kuehl.

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