“Stardom came naturally. Life took work.”
Those are among the first words you read on the website promoting the new Broadway musical “The End of the Rainbow.” Perhaps there are no greater words to describe the life of Judy Garland, our subject and my new obsession. I have been waiting months for this to open on Broadway. In fact I couldn’t wait any longer so I got tickets while it was still in previews. I have been reading so many amazing things about the star, yes star, portraying Judy Garland- Ms. Tracie Bennett. She has won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress for this role in London and now had brought her talents to the USA to share with us. I watched a clip of her and that was it. I was sold, hook, line, and sinker. Now I have to confess I am not even really a Judy Garland fan. But I believe you don’t have to know the subject by heart if the story is told properly and by someone with so much talent you pray you don’t involuntarily blink and miss something. Such is the case with Ms. Bennett.
I was counting down the days until I saw this show, two days prior to its opening night. I knew I would love it, I just knew. I know myself, my likes, and my dislikes that well. I also know talent a mile away; in this case I know it an ocean away. Within the first five minutes, I kid you not, I was already panicking that intermission was too close. My brain knew it was an hour and a half away and that seemed right around the corner. I was running through dates in my mind of when I could come back. I was praying that by some miracle I had a giant DVR remote for the theater and could pause and rewind the performance so it never had to end. Mark my works ladies and gentlemen, Tracie Bennett will be nominated and win the Tony Award for lead actress in a drama this year. I knew that before I saw her, now I am actually terrified of her talent. I am pretty sure she is actually a drug addicted singer living in 1968 who gave birth to Liza with a Z!
Before this show even begins you can see what a treat you are in for. The set is gorgeous! It is the suite Judy is staying in and every last detail is perfection. As the show starts the lighting is like nothing I have ever seen. It actually makes her clothes appear different colors at different times without changes. It alters as the scene goes from a comedic moment to a dramatic moment. The set never completely changes, rather part of it lifts to reveal some secrets and allow for performances. I won’t ruin it for anyone, but it is beautifully crafted and a great use of space which I love. The costumes are a ideal replica and look like they may have come from an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum. Make-up and hair are also crucial and transform Tracie flawlessly. Lastly in this category is the direction. Direction can make or break a play. Of course the playwright and above mentioned all have to be in place, but the direction has to be correct too especially with only three main actors. It was as though it was real life and there was no direction, the characters were moving as naturally as possible. That is the highest compliment I can think to give.
The play centers around Judy Garland and her last attempt at a comeback in December of 1968 performing at Talk of the Town in London, England, about six months before her untimely death. At this time she is newly engaged to her manager Mickey Deans, portrayed here by Tom Pelphrey who is also making his Broadway debut. He is the perfect foil for Tracie’s Judy, he is young and strong and from a generation that cannot appreciation those that worship her in all her glory. Their dynamic on stage is intense and chemistry is undeniable. He is an excellent choice.
The other key player here is the man hired to be the pianist but as they say in the show, he was hired “to be Judy Garland’s pianist”, which apparently alters the job description a wee pit. Anthony is played brilliantly and with care by Michael Cumpsty, also a British actor with an amazing repertoire.
The play features many Judy standards all of them excellently carried out, so much so that when I hear the soundtrack or a Judy Garland album play I honestly cannot tell which is which. Tracie has her voice and manages all its idiosyncrasies down to a beat, from the raspiness of the effects of the drugs, to clear and strong sounds on sober days. All of those qualities are captured both on and off stage. It is incredible.
My favorite moments are the funny ones and there are many of those. Even when they are inappropriate, and Judy often was because of her poor habits. But she is laughing with you and so it feels ok. The different ways Tracie is carrying and playing with the microphone when Judy is sober or high is something that really stayed with me. Those minute details make or break a performance when portraying someone that was living. It is that kind of behavior that transforms an actor into a legend. That is not acting, that is a state of simply being. I believe for two and half hours each night, more on matinee days, Tracie is actually becomes Judy. It is the most amazing site I have ever witnessed. It will be the same for you too should you be wise enough to go before it sells out completely.
The show is mostly funny and entertaining but there are devastating moments as well. In fact, you get so lost in the humor and the concert within the play that you forget you already know how this story ends. What was worse than that, you start hoping for an alternate ending. You want Judy to put down the pills, learn to love herself the way the world does, heal the damaged little girl that lives inside her, and break away from the life that perpetuates a cycle of highs and lows that are her ultimate undoing.
Once the show is over you are filled with many emotions. You are equal parts: thrilled from the incredible live theater experience you have seen, curious how the actress has managed to do this over and over again, and sad how poor Judy managed to slip away from us so soon. And I don’t just mean dying at the young age of forty-seven. I mean actually from the Belasco Theater. It was as if while you were in the theater she had slipped back onto earth to share her talents again. So once she is gone, the lost must be mourned once again.
But before I could process any of these emotions fully, I was out the door to be the first one at the barricade. I needed to meet Tracie Bennett and I anticipated a long line and I intended to be the face she saw as she came through the gates. As I was waiting and setting up, there was an older woman and her daughter waiting outside the theater. They clearly didn’t see the show and they were looking at me like I was nuts as I reached for my camera, playbill, and back-up sharpie in preparation. But they stepped away as I braced the oncoming crowd emerged half-crying, half-squealing with delight. I knew it wouldn’t be too long of a wait since the cast was small but I was shocked when Tracie Bennett was the first one out. But I was more shocked by what I saw. I knew she would have a British accent and I knew she wouldn’t look like Judy Garland anymore but I guess after I got so use, and let’s face it, attached to her that way, it took more than a minute to catch up with her. She was talking a mile a minute in a heavy English accent I could barely understand. Her hair was bright blonde and wavy from being under a wig all day, but still had her fake eyelashes and stage make-up on. She was uncomfortable with all of the compliments and photos being taken of her but still so lovely and gracious. Then she started looking all around for her mom and her sister! Apparently those were the two women I had frightened off when I was setting up shop. She felt so awkward they were watching her sign autographs (so not a London tradition) but she finished and then took them back stage with her. She told the crowd she needed to go out and get a beer. Not even a pint. I guess two weeks in America was enough for her to assimilate. Damn she is a good chameleon.
Since I saw this show I have been trying to write this blog. I start and then stop. I keep thinking about it, listening to the soundtrack, and coming back to it. But something keeps stopping me, blocking me as it were from being able to truly convey my emotions about this performance. I have felt this way about other shows, most recently Wit. But after a few hours I am usually able to push through. Not this time. Something about Judy Garland has stayed with me and inside my head. I repeatedly listen to the soundtrack and look up video footage of both the play and the real concert. I can’t seem to wrap my mind around her life and death. It was all too good and sad. It is not the first time I have heard her story but it is the first time is has gotten to me.
This entire time now has me curious; maybe I didn’t want to be finished after all? I have been humming the music non-stop in my head and thinking about her. I have bought a biography (http://www.geraldclarke.com/judy.htm) and have even added movies both of about her and ones she was in to the top of my Netflix list. Maybe I don’t want to be done with this blog? Maybe I like having her close? Maybe I am not ready to say goodbye? I can’t seem to get this song lyric out of my head “You made me love you. I didn’t want to do it. I didn’t want to do it. You made me love you……………” it seems so appropriate now. It is even in a Home Goods commercial, spooky right?
Speaking of lyrics, I may never be able to hear “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” again. All of a sudden the lyrics were heartbreaking as Judy seems to beg “If happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, Why oh can’t I?” I can’t get her pain out of my head. The soundtrack seemed to sense my pain, when on shuffle on my IPod it went from this song to Get Happy which left me sobbing on the bus ride home. Don’t worry this is almost a regular occasion for one reason or another when some song gets to me. But I choose to listen closely to both Tracie and Judy and then I couldn’t help but heed their call “Forget your troubles c'mon get happy, You better chase all your cares away.” I will and hopefully Jude is up in heaven above the rainbow able to do the same.
Take it Judy.
For tickets and information:
For more reviews: