Role Playlist: How Andréa Burns Transformed Into Judy Holliday for 'Smart Blonde'

Emilio Madrid-Kuser
Andréa Burns

The glamorous, romantic and ultimately tragic life of the 1940s and '50s music, stage and film star Judy Holliday is at the center of Smart Blonde, a just-wrapped play based on Holliday's life, starring In the Heights and On Your Feet! alum Andréa Burns in the title role.

When it comes to playing Holliday -- known for her "dumb blonde" characters despite her multidisciplinary talents and 172 IQ -- Burns says she's "not there to do an impression of her, but an interpretation of her energy and life.” Besides keeping a mini-shrine to Holliday, where she lights a candle and asks for the late star’s blessing every day, Burns listens to the below playlist of tracks each day to capture the mood of the show (which played at New York's 59E59 theater before wrapping April 13) and its subject.

“This is a playlist I put together to listen to while putting on my makeup and getting ready,” she says. “It’s a great honor to play Judy and I’ve humbly taken it on.”

“Lulu’s Back in Town,” Mel Torme
“I love Mel Torme and I think this song is so evocative of both the time and of Judy,” says Burns. “She was a serious and private person, but was a showman when she stepped onstage. She has early roots in cabaret in New York and Mel was a master at that. This song brings me right to New York, being a performer, and getting your game on to go out and kill.”

“Anything Goes” Stan Getz & Gerry Mulligan
Burns chose the Cole Porter classic since it was featured in Holliday’s breakout Born Yesterday. “There’s an iconic scene of a gin game with someone who’s basically her sugar daddy and she’s just slaying him at gin,” says Burns of the scene. “Since her character’s a former chorus girl, to distract him she starts humming and singing that song to the point of total annoyance and ends up completely throwing him off his game.” According to Burns, the Gerry Mulligan version has special significance: "He actually became Judy’s lover and partner for the last few years of her life.”

“I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
Aside from her personal affinity for this classic, Burns notes it was a key track in Holliday’s career. “When Born Yesterday became a Hollywood movie, they dropped ‘Anything Goes’ and she instead sang ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ for that gin scene,” Burns explains. “The song definitely gets me in the mood for the play. And because I’m also an actress in the year 2019, with Tony Bennett and Gaga, it helps bridge the two worlds.”

Overture from On the Town, Original Broadway Recording
“This song really takes you back to Manhattan in the 40s,” she says. “The lyrics were written by two of Judy’s best friends, Adolph Green and Betty Comden. They all started out doing a comedy act with Leonard Bernstein at the Village Vanguard. Adolph and Betty’s big break was On The Town with Leonard, and it was a huge success. So the source material here was a happy memory for her.”

“Let’s Fall in Love,” Diana Krall

“I love Diana Krall, and this song appears in the Judy movie It Should Happen to You," says Burns of the bubbly tune, which was also recorded by Frank Sinatra. “It was Jack Lemmon's first film and he was very nervous, so she protected him on set. Because he played the piano, she requested to director George Cukor that he play in a scene and they sing this song together.”

“It’s Bad for Me” and “Loving You,” Gerry Mulligan featuring Judy Holliday (Holliday With Mulligan)
According to Burns, Holliday wrote both songs Mulligan, her great love. “I think they’re symbolic of her finding happiness, ease and fun in the later part of her life,” she explains of the romance. “When they met they were absolutely crazy about each other. She had always wanted to write lyrics, so they collaborated on two albums together. Both exemplify their relationship: playful, sexy, fun and witty.”

“The Party’s Over,” Judy Holliday (Bells Are Ringing Original Broadway Recording)
A legendary Holliday cut written by Comden and Green, the song is a tearjerker. “She starred in the Broadway musical and later the movie, and not only did this song become a huge hit, but it really connects to our play — you get to experience the story of her life,” says Burns. “She was diagnosed with breast cancer and became ill and it makes the lyrics really poignant: ‘The party’s over, it’s time to call it a day.’ In the musical, I loved how the ensemble gathers around her in a Greek chorus way, singing around her and supporting her.”

“What a Wonderful World,” Louis Armstrong
A poignant choice reflecting on Holliday's too-short life. “She had so much more music to give, but we realize at the end of Smart Blonde  that regardless of if we get to live all the years of our lives or not, there comes a moment where we can stand in our shoes and say ‘You know what, I’m just so lucky to have been here,'” says Burns.