NEW YORK -- It is late on a Wednesday night, after the final bows have been delivered on Broadway. The applause has died down and the last audience members have sauntered out into the street.
There is still time for one last piece of Broadway magic: a special gathering of three actresses who share an uncommon role.
The last to arrive is Isabel Keating, who has graciously rushed from the stage of "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark" with a bottle of champagne to be here.
She pops her head into the small, elegant private room in the back of the Belasco Theatre.
"This is so wonderful! The other Judys!" says Keating as her companions turn and smile.
Though meeting Tracie Bennett and Tammy Blanchard for the first time, their lives have already intersected. All three have, at some point, played Judy Garland to wild acclaim. And all their lives have been changed as a result.
It is a sisterhood. A Judy sisterhood.
"Hi, I'm Tammy," says a beaming Blanchard, whose eyelashes are still caked with mascara from her role as Hedy La Rue in "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying."
"So nice to meet you!" says a radiant Keating, who settles in a wing chair and happily accepts a glass of bubbly.
"Cheers," says Bennett, who has home field advantage: She has just finished another brilliant, anguished performance in the Belasco as Garland in her final druggy days in "End of the Rainbow."
Keating raises her glass. "Here's to you," she says, clinking glasses with Bennett.
"And you," replies Bennett.
"Congratulations," says Blanchard, raising her glass. "You're the talk of the town."
"Oh, I don't know much about that," Bennett says, shaking her head as if to wave away the compliment. "I don't go out much."
All three crack up.
When Judy Garland died in 1969 of an overdose, she left behind a legacy we cannot seem to shake. A vulnerable, complex woman who grew from a starlet in "The Wizard of Oz" to a heroine in "Judgment at Nuremberg," and with a voice and magnetism that is still celebrated in her Carnegie Hall concerts in 1961.
Her tragic life and death led her to become an icon and launched a thousand imitators, both camp and cabaret. But the three women who met backstage at the Belasco on this Wednesday have been showered with praise for capturing the essence of Judy.
Blanchard, 35, won an Emmy Award for playing a young Garland in 2001's "Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows," a blockbuster miniseries based on the best-selling book by the superstar's daughter, Lorna Luft.
Keating, 51, earned a Tony nomination for playing the middle-aged Garland opposite Hugh Jackman in "The Boy From Oz" in 2003, and Bennett, in her Broadway debut, has just won a leading actress Tony nod.
"The innocence must have been harder because we played her later," Bennett says to Blanchard, who immediately demurs: "I can't imagine what you guys went through."
"I've got pain in me," Bennett replies. "I'm happy to risk opening that."
Bennett's work is all the more remarkable for her not being American. She's a 50-year-old from the north of England who has doggedly worked her way up, from dancer to soap opera actress to regional tours to the West End to Olivier Awards.
"I've played real people before, but never iconic or legendary. And so when they first offered it to me, I didn't really think of the legend part. I looked at the human being and the woman," Bennett says.
She looks at her companions and adds: "I think I look like her the least."
Set in a London hotel suite in late 1968, "End of the Rainbow" shows a feisty Garland at 46. She has arrived for another comeback attempt, a five-week set of concerts with her much-younger fiance, who is trying to keep Garland sober. The play, by Peter Quilter, could be maudlin and precious in other hands, but Bennett sings and inhabits Garland with such skill and fearlessness that the seams are hidden.
"In London, they were all going, `We never knew that was in you.' That's a little scary. Because you go, `REALLY? Didn't you think to look?'" says Bennett with a tight little laugh. "You can get bitter and twisted about that. But that's the nature of the industry and you've got to grow up. They say be ready for the opportunity when it comes and do it as best you can."
Though Bennett hadn't before met the other Judys, she had crossed their paths while doing her homework – watching "Life With Judy Garland" and listening to recordings of Keating singing "All I Wanted Was the Dream" from "The Boy From Oz."
"Honest to God, you didn't even try!" Bennett tells Keating, enviously.
"You know what the thing is? I think everybody looks at everybody else and says, `You don't even try!'" Keating replies with a laugh. "Seeing what you've done here is remarkable. I don't know how you can do that period of her life and so brilliantly."
"Well, thank you," Bennett says. "I don't know how to answer that."
"Because you're in it," Blanchard offers.
A ROLE OF A LIFETIME
Bennett will likely learn this later, but for Blanchard and Keating, playing Garland was life-changing.
The younger actress, who says her first ever solo was singing "Over the Rainbow" when she was 8, was a soap opera star in "Guiding Light" when she won the role of "Life With Judy Garland" as an innocent Garland. Judy Davis played the older Garland.
Blanchard won an Emmy and credits the role with the career she has now – starring parts on Broadway in "Gypsy" and "How to Succeed" and in films like "The Good Shepherd" and the upcoming "Union Square."
"I was 23 and just starting my career. I really was feeling that vulnerability and that desire to be a star," says Blanchard, turning to Bennett. "Ten years later, people still comment on how much they loved me playing Judy. You're going to go through it."
"Babe, I'm old and tired and ragged," Bennett shrieks. "I'll be doing this in a wheelchair on a cruise ship!"
Keating looks back at her time as Garland with fondness. She had already been on Broadway – at the Belasco, in fact, in the play "Enchanted April" – but playing Garland, she calls her "the Medea of our time," changed everything.
"I would like to think that I would have a career without having played her, but I don't know if that's the case," says Keating, who genially sent over a bouquet of yellow roses – Garland's favorite – to Bennett's dressing room when the English actress first landed on Broadway. "The roles are few and far between that a character like that can be written."
Both say they emerged more confident actresses. But Keating says Garland hasn't always been easy to let go. "Something about who she is takes you," says the actress, somewhat spookily. "She doesn't go away. She doesn't."
The actresses all also wrestle with being protective of Garland, a woman blessed, as Keating says, with "talent spilling out of every pore," but who nevertheless spiraled out of control.
"She's a constant reminder of what not to do," says Blanchard.
"A lot of gifted people in my opinion can't deal with their gift. They get lazy or self-destruct. You want to go, `Give it to me!' Why do they do that? I guess that's why they're legends or icons," says Bennett.
"I've played it and I've seen it and I still don't know why," says Blanchard. "I may never know why she couldn't come out of it. Why didn't someone save her from the life that she was destined to have?"
But, in the spirit of Garland, the three don't stay maudlin for long. Keating, tongue-in-cheek, proposes writing a play starring all three – tentatively titled "Judy! Judy! Judy!"
"Let's do it! I can still look 13!" says Blanchard, laughing.
"As long as I don't play the haggard one!" replies Bennett.