Being both one of nature’s bachelors and ‘of a certain age’, Judy Garland has been a fixture in my consciousness for as long as I can remember. The Wizard of Oz was an annual television event when I was a youngster. There were also A Start is Born, Judgment at Nuremberg, Easter Parade, and all those films with Mickey Rooney. As I got older, in addition to her work, I became aware of her public persona; the divorces, the drugs and alcohol, and the suicide attempts. She died in 1969 at the age of 47, I was 13. Garland has been dead nearly as long as she was alive and yet, on some level, the legend endures.
End of the Rainbow
Englishman Peter Quilter’s 2005 musical play, End of the Rainbow, is set in London during what would turn out to be the last weeks of her life. Broke, ill, unsuccessfully battling addiction, and desperately in love with the younger man who would become her 5th and final husband, Garland was booked for a 5-week run at the Talk of the Town nightclub. Interestingly, the play includes relatively little exposition. Aside from a few humorous nods to ‘Oz‘ and a couple of references to two of her ex-husbands, there is not much back-story offered. The playwright assumes the audience will know who she was and what came before she arrived in London in 1969. He’s not wrong.
The play has an interesting provenance. It premiered at the Sydney Opera House in Australia and had successful, often award-winning, runs in Scotland, The Netherlands, the Czech Republic, Finland, Poland and New Zealand before coming to England. After a regional run it opened in the West End in November of 2010 where it was critically acclaimed and ran for six month. After productions in Spain, Germany, and Brazil, End of the Rainbow had its American premier at the Guthrie in Minneapolis before opening on Broadway in March 2012. It ran for 176 performances and garnered 3 Tony nominations.
I have only seen one other play by Quilter, also a musical drama. Glorious!, a biographical piece about Florence Foster Jenkins also premiered in 2005.
The title of End of the Rainbow, of course, refers to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow“, from The Wizard of Oz. In many ways the song served as the leitmotif for Garland’s career and life. Everyone who remembers her knows the song but Garland fans know there are actually two of them. There is the version Dorothy sings near to beginning of “…Oz” which is yearning and optimistic. Then there is the version from Garland’s later-in-life concert performances where the song is darker and fraught with irony. Yearning was replaced by regret and optimism had morphed into desperation. The young Dorothy’s dreamy hopefulness becomes heartbreaking when viewed from the other end.
The local production is tight and well executed. The set is representational and very effective. The costumes successfully conjure the 1960’s as well as Garland’s on-stage style.
The actor (female) portraying Garland gives a well-crafted performance in, what must be, an exhausting role. Not only is the characterization an emotional rollercoaster fueled by equal parts of desperation, drugs and alcohol but, in a couple of scenes she transitions from emotional peaks directly into singing. I thought the dialog performance were (just) slightly uneven but the vocal performances were spot-on. The onstage mannerisms, the phrasing, and the open-throated vibrato are the Garland I remember.
I joked about it before seeing the performance but it was surprisingly difficult for me to suspend my disbelief seeing Garland portrayed by a female. I’d seen her portrayed on television, notably by Judy Davis in the 2001 made-for-television biopic; Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, but all the times I’d seen performers ‘do Judy’ onstage it was by female impersonators and drag performers.
So what is it with homos and Judy Garland? The play acknowledges the link, going so far, at one point, as to suggest the idolatry of the gay community may have contributed to the dysfunction in her personal life, but it offers no theory as to the root of the undeniable connection. I wonder how this play speaks to younger generations of gays? Is the story familiar to those whose icons were Barbra and Bette, …or Madonna and Gaga? I’m not sure. For that matter, does the story resonate for younger straight people? Does it speak to people who, if they remember Garland at all, remember the perceived bookends of here career, “Oz” and “Witness” but know little of what came before, between, or after? Again, I’m not sure. In the end they likely find relevance in the ultimately tragic story of a gifted artist whose life was larger than life. She had great successes and great failures. She struggled and survived, until she didn’t. End of the Rainbow evokes all of that. It was a nice evening in the theater.