End of the Rainbow
by Peter Quilter
Directed by Terry Johnson
Featuring Tracie Bennett, Tom Pelphrey, Jay Russell, Michael Cumpsty
The Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street
April 2, 2012 — open run
production web site
Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
March 29, 2012
After a tour through Britain and a stop in a major city in Garland’s home state of Minnesota, End of the Rainbow has now landed with its blustery, breathy, often dissonant and out of control performance by lead actress Tracie Bennett, purportedly “as Judy Garland” on the stage of the Belasco Theatre. The semblance of Garland arrangements and the broadest details of Garland’s life in December 1968 are portrayed — her residence at the Ritz in London with the man who would become her fifth husband, an engagement at the Talk of the Town, and ever-present pills and alcohol. The rest of the details — people, places, how and why drugs were obtained and administered, vocal quality, personal qualities — are creations of the playwright. As Tracie Bennett, this lead performance demonstrates great energy. As Judy Garland, this portrayal is unconscionable.
The genre of movies and plays presenting, as fact, tales that are tangentially based upon or firmly suggested by real events is broad and full. (And getting too far afield of the facts in this theatrical genre can lead to issues when journalists and corporations pay close attention. See Mike Daisey.) Many of these movies or plays are crafted to capture a star at a pivotal moment in time by utilizing an earnest underling character or observant aide to provide a sense of the life on the other side of the tinsel and glitter, only to have the star return to her tumultuous life at the story’s end. My Favorite Year (1982) gives us Peter O’Toole as a wild-living guest star based on Errol Flynn on a New York 1950s Sid Caesar-style television comedy show (but see, names were changed) and youthful Mark-Linn Baker as the staffer set to watch over him. Baker’s Brooklyn family provides the star a look into elusive and temporarily tempting stable ordinary life, before he returns to his wild and fun ways. Similarly focused (a week in a movie shoot schedule, a pause in a career, a moment in a lifetime), My Week With Marilyn (2011) draws upon an actual memoir crafted by a young assistant to Laurence Olivier who observes filming and interacts closely with Marilyn Monroe during the creation of what eventually is titled The Prince and the Showgirl (1957).
End of the Rainbow follows in this tradition. It began its journey in 2001 as Last Song of the Nightingale with a lead character suggestive of but not actually Judy Garland. As End of the Rainbow, the play with music now includes fictionalized versions of Garland and her last husband Mickey Deans, observed by a wholly made up accompanist, our wise and caring observer, who dreams of rescuing our star from her chaotic life. The fictions rule in this case. This production wrings emotions, but the performance does not ring true to any sense of Garland the stage performer, as can be easily witnessed in her rich recorded legacy and in the published and unpublished memories of any who saw her perform.
The End of the Rainbow plot as it has evolved for this production is simple. Playwright Peter Quilter focuses on a few days at the beginning of Garland’s December 1968-January 1969 engagement at London’s Talk of the Town performance venue, just months before her death in June 1969. Scenes flip between the Ritz hotel suite she shares with her recently acquired boyfriend Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey) where she is visited by her engagement accompanist, playwright Quilter’s creation Anthony (Michael Crumpsty), and performances on the club stage. (A fourth actor, Jay Russell, serves as several characters including a BBC Interviewer and a Ritz hotel porter.) Anthony has known Garland for some time longer than her current beau — they discuss working together during her May 1964 Australian tour to Sydney and Melbourne. This detail provides a sense of history, and serves to introduce a past unsuccessful or the-worse-for-substances performance detail for those who understand the reference to the Melbourne appearance. During the few days covered by the play there are several segues into Bennett-as-Garland performances on the stage of the Talk of the Town. Anthony delivers a final litany of life details (heavily edited) that include Garland’s highly attended memorial events, and Bennett-as-Judy delivers two final Garland standards to send the crowds away humming.
In a 2010 interview with the playwright on a Garland-related web site, Quilter provides a view into his focus on character and emotions rather than research in preparing the play. “I didn’t research hugely because I wanted to keep the play focused on the characters and emotions,” Quilter said. “Bio plays so often get bogged down in facts and figures and a desperate need to be precise. I was more interested in a dramatic play that is inspired by these events rather than being a factual documentary of them.” He uses stories from Garland’s life from various time periods other than this stay at the London Ritz. These stories include Garland threatening, for fun, to jump out of the hotel window, Garland erratically withholding room payment to the hotel just to pester the manager, Garland saying of wheelchair-bound customers waiting for her at the venue when she is not interested in performing: “if they can wheel them in, they can wheel them out.” In addition to patching together facts from other years in Garland’s life, Quilter’s approach to the story is to make up what he needs for dramatic arc. Among these fictions are a Mickey Deans who has been trying to wean Garland off her prescription drugs of choice at the time — Ritalin — yet worries when his star demurs from performing one evening and feeds her drugs to get her back on stage. We also have a fictional Anthony who offers in the last moments, when Garland is clearly at her wit’s end, to take her away from all the craziness and take care of her, which she refuses for her familiar place center stage.
There are laugh lines, out of context events that did not happen in this venue, that all follow the same theme: Garland was unhinged at this point in her life, without connections, without family, without memory. The fact is that Garland was a mother of three beloved children who were back in the States, and a woman with connections to a range of people in London at the time of these engagements. There are moments that suggest the playwright might take us somewhere into the woman’s world: “I like when I’m not ready,” Bennett-as-Garland says at one moment prior to a performance, “when there’s still time to change my mind.” This rare quiet moment catches me yet is soon undercut by gymnastic shenanigans and Bennett-as-Garland being dismissive of the audience she famously and publicly defended and revered. When asked to be respectful of her waiting audience, Bennett-as-Garland snaps “It’s hard enough entertaining these people. You want me to be polite?” What is fact, what is fiction, what remains a good laugh line (usually at Garland’s expense) seems to be lost over and over in the reactions to this play. Audience members believe they are viewing biography. Nothing in the Playbill leads them to think otherwise. I overheard an audience member at intermission saying to his seat mate: “I thought this was going to be a concert. I had no idea all this went on.”
The current leading lady Tracie Bennett has been honing this performance on stages around the world and at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, earlier this year, and has been doing press all along offering insights into her take on the Garland persona. In September 2011, she appears in an interview published in WalesOnLine describing both the origins of the script and her way into the mindset of the character of Garland. In this interview she talks about the original focus of this play as at first “just about a diva from America. Peter Quilter didn’t even think about the Judy connection. But when we looked at it again, we realised this was Judy Garland at the end of her life. So we workshopped it and he rewrote it, then my producer Lee Dean bought the rights for me and we did it in London.” This fact is not often addressed in commentary on this play — Garland’s life was retro-fitted to the kernel of Quilter’s original story.
Bennett goes on in this interview to describe her approach to the character of Garland.”It was a massive problem for me to get into the head of a diva. I don’t know any. I don’t know Beyoncé. I don’t know Diana Ross. It’s a different mindset being a star with your name above the title. But Terry Johnson, the director, helped me out enormously with that. He kept saying, ‘You look embarrassed’ and I said, ‘I am embarrassed.’ So we went to see (Judy impressionist) Jim Bailey and Terry said, ‘I’ve unlocked the key. It’s about eye contact with the audience. Divas dominate the room. They are very aware of who they are.’ And I said, ‘How are they aware of who they are? What is the day you wake up and go, ‘I am famous?’ I can’t imagine saying it, thinking it even. But that was the key, being aware of Judy’s greatness as I was playing her. That’s where I started off.”
Where she ends up is in fact never once capturing Garland’s mastery of telling a story in a song, of communicating to individual members of an audience, human being to human being. Bennett skirts around the edges of each song she performs with her breathy harsh uncontrolled vibrato. A crazed performance of “Come Rain or Come Shine” during which “Judy” is supposed to be amped up on drugs, to which the audience creepily responded enthusiastically at my performance, “reads” no differently than any of the other singing sequences in the play. There are no performance layers or nuance here, just harangue and glare.
Bennett and Quilter have added to their observations about their approaches to the play in recent weeks. In an article in the April 1, 2012 New York Times we read of the plot points of pills, drugs, overdrive, and Bennett’s all holds barred performance while holding the star at a distance. “I’m not here to dis Judy’s legacy,” she says, adding, “But I’m not crawling up its thigh either.” The playwright describes in TDF Stages (an on-line publication by the Theatre Development Fund) his ongoing efforts to prune his multi-draft play that was born out of fiction, and re-stitched on the bones of the life story of a woman many feel is one of the greatest performers of the 20th century. Reflecting on his lessons learned during the Minneapolis run, Quilter notes how they had to “earn” the Minnesota audiences who wanted to know more about why Garland reacted as she does on stage. “Minneapolis audiences taught him to add fragility to certain scenes,” the TDF article notes. “When would Garland lose her confidence, for instance, and what might that look like?” Right. Perhaps these are questions for another play, and another playwright. Whatever tweaks are being made, with the leading lady engaged with a stare down with the audience, and a director and a playwright attempting to insert tenderness into a play crafted out of contrived dramatic moments rather than deep knowledge of Garland’s life, it seems the only result can be a fictional telenovela with occasional familiar music.
Details count. Garland’s hometown is Grand Rapids, Minnesota, a tiny town several hours from the city of Minneapolis continually referenced in the production as Garland’s hometown. Garland’s signature song is “Over the Rainbow” not “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as the press placards proclaim outside the theatre. Omitted from this story are the children Garland loved and who loved her and with whom she was in continual contact during the era described here and who were present at her funeral. She had friends and colleagues who were with her in London during the era featured here. Garland certainly was a woman who told the story in a song every time she sang, and never ever in the context of this misadventure do we hear any of those stories (despite several numbers blasted by Ms. Bennett), nor do we learn much about the woman behind the myth, the songstress at the heart of the story.
Some production details are worth positive mention. Costumes by William Dudley do in fact replicate several performance ensembles worn by Garland during this era (the red be-feathered dress, the black dress paired with a red neck scarf, and the sequined bejeweled slack suit). On stage musicians under the direction of Jeffrey Saver, utilizing orchestrations by Chris Egan and arrangements by Gareth Valentine, evoke the sound of the bootleg recordings I have heard from different evenings during this London engagement.
This is a play that moves people, judging from the ovating and emoting around me at my performance. But from the testimony of the playwright, from the evolution of the play itself as dramatic arc rather than fact-based, from the reflections of the actress on her route into the character (from artifice and impersonation rather than knowledge of the woman being portrayed), and finally from my admittedly subjective fan’s stance, this is not Judy Garland but a fictional superficially researched version of similar character. This is one more (mis)use of the Garland persona that some will defend because it moved them, that others will defend by asserting that a fiction presenting a woman crawling on the floor is truer than the gossamer (they assert) some Garland fans insist upon hearing. I speak up as a fan and a theatre professional who cares about the truth in these kinds of creations, and the disservice this piece of art does to the woman it purports to represent. The sound, the shape, the feel, the language of this play with music all belong to the playwright and this performer, certainly. But a show based on a search for a dramatic arc through fictional characters and fictional situations and character building through diva-study cannot legitimately claim to represent the woman whose name is on this marquee. This may be Tracie Bennett’s diva. But there is no reason, based on available research, based on the words of the playwright himself, based on the legacy of recordings and filmed performances and conversations, that we should see this performance as Judy Garland.
© Martha Wade Steketee (April 2, 2012)