What can I say about an event that moved me tears, that got me in touch with something deep inside that I didn't even know was there? That's what happened this past Saturday afternoon when I experienced the Broadway show End of the Rainbow at the Belasco Theater in New York City. It was about Judy Garland's life in 1968, when she performed at "The Talk of the Town" in London, England several months before she married her fiancé, Mickey Deans (played by Tom Pelphrey) and subsequently died in 1969 from a barbiturate overdose.
For the past two years, I have been an ardent Garland fan, delving into her films, recordings, and biographies and discovering her in a whole new light that I never knew growing up. I had seen her in 1939's The Wizard of Oz and a few TV shows in the 1960s but I hadn't realized that she was a goddess of the Golden Age of Hollywood musicals in the 1930s and 40s. I never knew she was considered the "Entertainer of the Century" by many of her famous peers. Now I do and I agree wholeheartedly. And as Susie Boyt, the author of My Judy Garland Life wrote: "When Judy gets you, she gets you for life." That has been my experience.
So it was with some skepticism that I decided to check out this show. It got good reviews and the star, Tracie Bennett, a Tony nomination, so I thought why not? My underlying thinking though was: How can anyone even attempt to portray the great Garland? How can anyone recreate her singing? Judy Davis did a decent job in the TV movie, "Life With Judy Garland: Me And My Shadows," (written by her daughter, Lorna Luft) but they dubbed in the real Garland's voice for the music.
I was pleasantly surprised by Tracie Bennett's portrait of Judy. Her gestures, facial expressions, even her singing made me feel I was watching the real star. Obviously, Tracie did her homework. But it was more than just capturing her mannerisms. I received a sense that Tracie was actually channeling Judy's spirit. It was a performance that reminded me of Cate Blanchett's Oscar winning depiction of Katherine Hepburn in The Aviator, the 2004 biopic about Howard Hughes, played by Leonardo DiCaprio. Both Cate and Tracie caught the essence of the stars they portrayed.
I have often wondered what it must have been like to hear and see Judy perform live. (Judy's recording of her 1961 Carnegie Hall concert gives us some insight to what a transcending experience it was.) On Saturday I felt I got a taste of how it exciting it must have felt to be at a Judy event. We were in the front row and when the scene transformed into "The Talk of the Town" stage, we were part of the show, becoming the audience for Judy's nightclub act. It was thrilling.
The songs "Come Rain or Come Shine," "The Man That Got Away," and "By Myself" were particularly moving. I most enjoyed the scenes with Scottish pianist, Anthony, (representing every gay man's fantasy to get to know Judy), which was played by Michael Cumpsty. When he applied makeup on her, Tracie showed the depths of emotion while expressing poignant lines like "when I look in the mirror I see my mother." The expression on Judy/Tracie's face when Anthony/Michael states: "You're beautiful. To me and everyone that's ever watched you. I see Esther in "Meet Me in St. Louis" and Vicki Lester in "A Star Is Born" says it all. It is a look of sadness, vulnerability, longing, and resignation as though her whole life were passing in front of her eyes.
So much negative press has been written about Judy's final years when she was in the last phase of her decades old amphetamine/barbiturate addiction (forced upon her by the MGM studio), where she was losing it physically, emotionally, and mentally. Through her portrayal, Tracie shows the human, vulnerable, damaged side of Garland and what she must have been going through in those frightening times. I was glad that this play, written by Peter Quilter and first performed in the UK at the Royal & Derngate Theater in Northampton, displayed the dignity of Judy Garland as one who always gave her heart and soul to the audience in every performance despite what was happening to her behind the scenes.
Garland had that fascinating mixture of female strength matched with desperate vulnerability. You see it in her performances, hear it in her recordings. To sing as she did, she really had to be the person that she was - pursuing hope and happiness even as she was pulled short, slammed down by the addictions she couldn't control and the people who squeezed every drop they could get out of her. This was the Garland that played the 'Talk of the Town'. This is the Garland I've tried to capture in End of the Rainbow.
And capture it he did with tremendous help from Tracie Bennett. I have written several articles on Judy featured by The Huffington Post, but I like best the one in which I speak of Judy as being an empath. I believe this is why she is still beloved to this day. Her movies and her singing were healing for all who got to watch and listen. Word is that in the 1940s, people attending her films would break into spontaneous applause after her songs. That doesn't happen in today's movie theaters.
Since I wrote the article I have come across more evidence to support my claims about Judy as a healer. I saw her in 1963's A Child Is Waiting with Burt Lancaster in which she starred as a teacher for special education children. The role was a natural one for her because it allowed her to explore her true empathetic nature in working with these real special needs kids (not actors.)
Also, all three of Judy's children (Liza Minnelli, Lorna and Joey Luft) share that they felt very loved by their mother, despite her personal travails.
Then I read a true story about her in her biography, Get Happy, by Gerald Clarke. After her suspension from Annie Get Your Gun in 1949, Judy was being treated at Peter Brent Brigham Hospital in Boston. There was a children's hospital next door where Judy had been sent for a brain test. When word got out about her presence, many of the small patients requested to see her. Judy obliged by making the rounds each day to visit them, many of whom were retarded or brain-damaged. Judy later declared: "If I was cured at Peter Brent Brigham, it was because of these children. They were so brave, so darling."
Judy was drawn to a dark-haired girl with eyes so frightened that she turned away as Judy approached her. This young patient had been treated so badly by her family that she hadn't spoken for two years. This did not deter Judy who was not at at all bothered that the girl did not break her silence as she constantly visited her and shared stories of Liza, The Wizard of Oz, Clark Gable, Mickey Rooney and the Gumm family's vaudeville act.
After a few months when Judy had recovered her weight and energy, it was time to say good-bye. Her last day in Boston she paid a final visit to the children's ward where each of the patients held a tiny bouquet of flowers in her honor. To the girl who had refused to speak she said: "Well, my friend, I am going now and I want to thank you for all you've done for me. I'm going to miss you." As Judy leaned over to kiss her, the girl reached out and held her tightly while she screamed: "Judy, I love you! I love you! Don't leave! Don't leave!" Everyone witnessing this poignant drama began to cry including Judy. When her escort warned her that they may miss their train, she said "Well, we'll just have to miss it. I'm not going to leave this child right now while she's talking." And she remained for the next two hours listening while her little friend babbled excitedly. Judy later shared that it was one of the most gratifying moments of her life. "I didn't give a damn how many pictures I'd been fired from", she said. "I had done a human being some good. She helped to make me well, and I had helped her." Those who were there felt they had witnessed a miracle.
I am sure they did because Judy's life was a miracle. Every time she got knocked down, she came right back up. She never gave up, even at the end. This quality is what still draws fans to her today. Even though she had a drug and alcohol dependency, was divorced many times, had money problems, and developed a reputation as unreliable, those that "get" Garland don't care. Even with her unrealistic negative opinion about her looks (told that she was an ugly duckling by the studio when she was a 'tween), she had supreme confidence in her singing, dancing, and acting abilities. She was lucky in that she did what she was born to do: be an outstanding entertainer and heal those who allowed her in. If only she could have healed herself.
I feel blessed having become a Garland fan who is able to watch her old films, listen to her CDs, see clips of her TV show, and now experience a stunning portrayal of her by Tracie Bennett in End of The Rainbow. By getting in touch with the vulnerable Judy, Tracie displays her empathetic side.
I had the good fortune of meeting Tracie when she came out to sign autographs after the show and then in as she sat next to me and my friend at a counter of the Bistro across the street from the Theater. I told her she should have won the Tony and she laughed while thanking me. Tracie isn't the only one who robbed of an award. Judy should have won the Best Actress Oscar for A Star Is Born.
Judy had always wanted to star on Broadway. She had planned to leave MGM when her contract was up in the mid-1940s and pursue a second career on the stage. Marriage to director Vincente Minnelli changed all of that as they moved back to LA and signed new contracts with the studio.
Years later after leaving MGM, she had her own show as she single-handedly revived the Palace Theater in NYC before embarking on a concert tour. Now she has finally gotten to star in a Broadway play, thanks to Tracie Bennett and Peter Quilter and all of the producers, directors, actors, musicians, and patrons that have made this show possible. It's no wonder I was overcome with emotion at the end of End of The Rainbow. But it is not the end but a new beginning and this is not a "comeback", for Judy has never left us and her spirit lives on through Tracie Bennett.