MR. WOW Sees Judy Again–Dead as Ever, Alas.
As some of you know, Mr. Wow did not become an admirer of Judy Garland until he saw her laid out, dead as a doornail, at Frank Campbell’s Funeral Home in 1969. To better understand this—for those new to this site—please click on TO COME. Read it now, or come back to it later.
But on to more recent times. Turner Classic Movies ran two Garland faves—“Easter Parade” and “Summer Stock.” In the former Judy is skinny and strung out. In the latter she is plump and strung out. In both she imbues her cardboard characters with humanity, realism and neurotic tension.
In “Easter Parade” her musical high point arrives when she serenades Fred Astaire with “It Only Happens When I Dance With You.” In “Summer Stock” she soars plaintively on “Friendly Star,” mourning the (temporary) halt to her romance with super-hot Gene Kelly. (I know—we all love the raucous “Get Happy” from that movie. But for me, Miss G. was at her best turning the volume down, just a bit. Intimate ballads are the peak of her artistry.)
If you question the adoration Garland inspired, look at these two numbers. Hell, just look at her MGM movies, period. She brought something unique to American filmgoers. And later, to live, rapturous, audiences. As an actress who sang, or as a singer who acted—you choose!–she was nonpareil. It was total involvement. Visceral performing. She was The Method before The Method, wrapped up in silly musical comedies. Judy was the cheerful girl next door who might cut her wrists at any moment, because of the callous boy next door.
With those movies—and so many others—in mind, I was wary, approaching Broadway’s “End of the Rainbow.” This deals with Judy’s decline, indeed with everything that immediately preceded her death.
But…I recovered. (As Miss G. famously asides in “A Star Is Born.”) And I saw “End of the Rainbow.”
And this is what I thought.
“IF I am such a legend, why am I so alone?”
That was a familiar refrain from movie queen and live concert phenom, Judy Garland. She always liked to imply she was alone, friendless, powerless. It was a good story. She came to believe it.
The reality of the situation was that Judy was never alone. She was almost always surrounded by people—adoring friends…brilliant co-workers…bewildered but besotted children…an ever-present on-tap entourage. She was one of the most famous, worshipped and honored entertainers of the 20th century. She had it all.
If, toward the end of her life the crowd around her thinned, it was she herself who had done the winnowing. Garland was never quite the victim of her own self-generated legend. (“Sympathy is my business” she told her daughter Liza Minnelli. And those who were not sympathetic were out. As Liza herself would learn.)
It is the dark, white hot/ice cold finale of Judy Garland’s life that is captured in the new Broadway show “End of the Rainbow.” This is Judy in extremis, circa London, 1969. Her voice shattered (again) her career on the precipice (again) involved with an inappropriate man (again), fighting with agents and musicians and nightclub owners (again)
Those who are old enough to remember, still recall the tremulous wraith who impersonated Judy by this point in her life. There she was, encased in her glittering pantsuits, still trying to give her all onstage, sometimes achieving a miracle, more often openly asking (expecting) her audiences to forgive their long-lost Dorothy Gale.
Hmmmm…forget Dorothy. She had traveled far even from the paper thin, nervous woman—with a still glorious voice– of her 1963 TV series.
It was not a nice time, those months in London, and perhaps an odd, even unpalatable subject upon which to base a two-hour and ten minute play-with-music. But that is what writer Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson have done.
And if it is not appetizing for those with no appetite for a grisly wallow, it is fascinating theater nonetheless.
Garland is portrayed by Tracie Bennett. This performance begins on such a high note of near-hysteria and nerves—Garland arrives in England to appear at a supper club—that one feels there’s no-place to go but down. However to the contrary, Bennett raises the bar with every scene. She plays the latter-day Judy with all the familiar KayThomson inspired stances, the quirky facial expressions, the vocal oddities—coming down with particular emphasis on certain words. If she sometimes sounds more like Katharine Hepburn than Garland, one should remember that Garland herself adopted a rather Britishy, posh manner of speaking—as many of the MGM ladies eventually did. It’s an incredible performance, energy-wise alone. (Isabel Keating, well remembered for her Judy-turn in “The Boy From Oz” was more spot-on, but Isabel didn’t have to carry that show.)
Bennett does her best to give some meaning to Garland’s lurching, collapsing, neediness, bitchery, vulnerability.
But she can only work with her material, which offers precious little in explanation at how and why this rare creature, referred to during her lifetime, and without argument, as “The World’s Greatest Entertainer” ends up crawling around the floor of the Ritz Hotel in utter disarray, a hopeless addict. Brief mentions of Judy’s abuse at the hands of her mother and MGM don’t suffice. Especially when one knows that Garland never met a lily that didn’t require elaborate gilding. (Like her astrological sister, and personal friend, Marilyn Monroe, the truth about Judy is impossible to decipher or deconstruct. The ladies ladled out too much bullshit.)
But along with the grimy scenes of Garland at the dregs, there’s some wicked humor as well. Miss G was quick to find the ridiculous in her situation. In Judy’s heyday, time and again, people would recall “laughter, always around her there was laughter.”
Bennett also sings a number of Judy’s famous songs, delivered in the jittery Ritalin-infused energy of Garland’s last years. (Although I don’t think Judy ever became quite so tangled up in her microphone cord as Bennett plays it!)
Bennett is given nice support by Tom Pelphrey as her sleazy last husband, Mickey Deans, and Michael Cumpsty who portrays one of Garland’s musicians. Cumstry really functions as an amalgam of various people in Garland’s life, a Greek chorus of praise and condemnation, including certain aspects of her audience—the much-abused-and-mocked “gay clique” who never deserted her.
This is a niche play for a niche audience about a niche period in Judy Garland’s life. (To be perfectly honest, the audience with whom I saw it was comprised mostly of geezers and gays. Okay—I’m in there!)
It is undeniably exploitive, but let’s not pretend exploitation and curiosity about a great star’s fall is something new. Or something we are not curious about. Oh, so we turn up our nose after we’ve rummaged through the troth? How noble. How phony. Believe me, soon enough we will have “The Final Days of Whitney Houston” delivered to us in some manner.
Is it necessary or instructive to see Garland’s penultimate months ridiculously compressed, inevitably fictionalized and held up for display? No. Does it provide a surge of remorse and passion for that great talent? Yes it does. Does it make you want to rent one of her old films or listen to the Carnegie Hall album? Yes it does!!
Perhaps somebody young will happen upon this show and wonder—“what the hell was that? Who was this person? Should I go to YouTube and investigate?” Yes, young person—go. You’ll be amazed.
“The End of the Rainbow” spares us Judy’s death in the London bathroom of her rented house—an “incautious overdose” the coroner would state. She literally took one pill too many. As opposed to MM’s 25-plus.
Tracie Bennett concludes the evening singing Mort Lindsay’s tour de force arrangement of “By Myself,” best remembered from Garland’s final movie, “I Could Go On Singing.” It’s not a very good movie—a soapy, semi roman a clef. But it conveys a great deal of what Garland had become, and what she was till the end—a volcanic, indomitable survivor—feeding off her legend, feeding off her loved ones, feeding off strangers, feeding off her audience. Had she lived, she might have erupted brilliantly again. It would have been hell for her, and for those in the lava path, but it would have been glorious, too.
“End of the Rainbow” is by no means all of what Judy was, even at the end. But I think those who’ll go to see it, already know that. Judy Garland’s fans—straight and gay– didn’t “love” her unhappiness. That is a cruel myth. They accepted her played-to-the-footlights trauma as part of the brilliant package. When you have as much talent as Garland, and give so much of it, you have to take even more—from husbands, lovers, children, fans– just to survive another day.
Garland packed a thousand years into her 47—a miraculous testament to her strength and commitment.
If she ruined herself, doesn’t that seem appropriate? You can’t make or break a talent like Garland. The tornado must finally wind down, all by itself. Sadly, when it’s over, you never end up in Oz.
Oh, but Miss Garland—it only happened when I danced with you.