Friday, June 13, 2014

Judy Garland at the "End of the Rainbow"

[Photo: Natasha Drena with Bill Newberry (]
Reflection on Judy Garland after seeing The End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, directed by Freddie Ashley, at Actor's Express Theatre, Atlanta, June 12, with Natasha Drena as "Judy," Tony Larkin as "Mickey Deans," Bill Newberry as "Anthony" the pianist, and Atlanta's local NPR radio personality John Lemley as "Radio Announcer."   I also draw from the New York Times obituary for Judy Garland, and the recording Judy at Carnegie Hall.

That Judy Garland believed her songs is what made her such a great artist.  That Judy believed her own lies when she promised her intimates to lay off booze and pills is what made her so impossible to deal with. 

We see both aspects of her in Peter Quilter's play End of the Rainbow, as the action alternates between songs onstage during her (final) engagement at a London supper-club and scenes back in her hotel suite. In every scene, she's manipulating her handlers, turning kittenish, pathetic, furious, or imperious in a split-second, with total sincerity. 

As my mentor Frank Boggs observed, "Judy Garland sang a lyric as if she were making it up in the moment." At Carnegie Hall around age 40, her voice husky and quivering, she seemed fresh and exuberant as a school girl when she sang "Zing zing zing went my heart strings," but was self-aware and heartbroken when she sang, "Every trick of his, you're on to / But fools will be fools... / And where's he gone to?" 

In performance at Actor's Express Theatre, Natasha Drena captured both Judy's voice and Judy's  quality of living a song.  I'd known Judy only through the recording from Carnegie Hall and video clips on YouTube; in the flesh, this "Judy" gave me shivers.

Judy's celebrated troubles added pathos and suspense to her singing, as the New York Times noted in her obituary back in June, 1969:  "Whenever she stepped on a stage in recent years, she brought with her, whether she welcomed it or not, all the well-publicized phantoms of her emotional breakdown, her career collapses and comebacks."  Quilter has Judy's fiancĂ© Mickey accuse her devoted fans of loving her more when she suffers more. 

By canny juxtaposition of scenes with songs, the playwright relates lyrics to her life.  Judy sings "I was lost... nowhere to go!" just after we've learned that her  young agent found her truly "Just in Time," so we understand the intensity that Judy, and Drena as Judy, give to those words.  Quilter places "Come Rain or Come Shine" after a close approach to failure and abandonment.   Good choice:  Judy (and her arranger) gave the song an erotic vibe, recreated in this production.  The singer's voice builds to a high-pitch, fever-pitch wail -- as if she's not just offering love, but clutching it. 

A day after posting on this blog about the toxic effect of public adoration (see "Fame Kills" about agent Shep Gordon), I found Judy Garland's story to be a prime example of how that works.  As the Times noted in 1969, "The other side of the compulsively vibrant, exhausting performances that were her stage hallmark was a seemingly unquenchable need for her audiences to respond with acclaim and affection."

Assured that her audience adores her, Quilter has Judy say, "I don't need that kind of love." It has to be personal.  The fiancĂ© Mickey offers sex and "taking care" of her career; the pianist Anthony offers a vision of chaste adoration in a cottage at seaside.

She can't love herself, so she cannot trust or accept love offered to her.  Her appetite for love is insatiable; her substitutes for love kill her.

No comments: