Wow – the Broadway play “End of the Rainbow” was absolutely fantastic. Tracie Bennett did an unbelievable job portraying Judy Garland. I was completely immersed in her character acting.
Her Tony-nominated performance has already garnered her rave reviews in London and New York so it was a treat to watch the play here at the Ahmanson Theater in downtown Los Angeles. The show runs from March 12 through April 21 so I recommend getting tickets if there’s still time.
For movie musical lovers in general and gay men of a certain age in particular, Judy Garland represents the alpha and omega of stardom. So it was with some trepidation that I knocked on the apartment door of Tracie Bennett, the English actress who has been uncannily transforming herself into Garland in “End of the Rainbow,” Peter Quilter’s musical drama about the final chapter of Garland’s life.
Garland died tragically in 1969 at age 47. Bennett, just over the half-century mark yet still vibrating with pixieish vitality, is the next best thing to a fantasy meeting with the icon. In my 20 years of interviewing stage luminaries, this was the first time I considered ditching the tape recorder for champagne and roses.
Bennett’s magnetic, Tony-nominated performance — more theatrical X-ray than piano bar knockoff — has already made her the toast of London and New York. Los Angeles will no doubt raise a glass in her honor when the show opens Wednesday at the Ahmanson. To say that I was blown away by her virtuoso turn when I saw “End of the Rainbow” in New York last spring in what was the West End veteran’s Broadway debut is an understatement. After the matinee I wasn’t sure whether to take to bed or dance down the street. I think I did a bit of both.
Temporarily settled into swanky digs near downtown, Bennett was gamely showing off the Rubin Singer gowns that had been sent over for her Oscar night party-going. The photo shoot had gone into overtime, but the camera flash seemed to energize her. Her husky laugh echoed playfully down the hallway.
Short of stature like Garland, Bennett appears much grander when donning couture and rasping out repartee in her Northern English accent. Although she says she’s still a chorus girl in her mind — “a chorus girl with a little camp showbiz person somewhere inside” — she is every inch the star when the spotlight finds her.
Changed into sexy-chic exercise wear for the interview, Bennett wouldn’t give too much away about the glittering Oscar night soirees she had attended, but her feline expression left no doubt that she had a helluva time.
She sat down beside me on the floor, within striking distance of an ashtray. Trained as a dancer, Bennett has that habit oddly common to the terpsichorean tribe — smoking. But don’t question her lung power. She goes from frenzy to mania in “End of the Rainbow” without stopping to catch her breath. How does she summon the strength, physically and emotionally, to do this histrionic endurance test eight times a week?
“I’ve always had stamina,” she said. “It’s a genetic thing. Don’t forget, I’m from the era where we played outside, so there was no issue with weight because we were out running around the fields and playing hide and seek. So when you heard your mom going, ‘Tea is ready,’ you’d run back in, eat, and run back out again until it got dark. They say if you do a lot of exercise until you’re 15, your heart’s going to be quite strong.”
Bennett grew up in Lancashire. Her father, of coal mining stock, became a hotelier; her mother was a literary agent. The environment, she said, was solidly working class and teddibly English. Dinner was a sensible “meat and two veg,” the sky was sullen gray and stiff upper lips were the norm.
A tomboy with a taste for glamor, Bennett was cutting out photos of the Manhattan skyline at 2, immersed in ballet training at 10 and enthralled by movie musicals all through her adolescence, especially those starring Gene Kelly.
“He was gorgeous and danced butch,” Bennett exclaimed. “As soon as I laid eyes on him, I knew I was straight. Our world was Northern, black and white, so it was a great thing for my sisters and me to sit down at Christmastime and watch these fabulous MGM musicals. All that color, all those beautiful costumes.”
Bennett said she remembers watching Garland in “Meet Me in St. Louis.” “I thought she was cute — that profile! That fabulous voice! How could I ignore the voice? I really believed she was vulnerable. But I felt more of an affinity than any kind of destiny.”
Yet Garland kept cropping up in her life. When Bennett was a regular on a British soap opera, she was invited to appear on the celebrity version of “Stars in Their Eyes,” a TV program in which famous singers are impersonated in a contest format.
“I said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. I’m not playing a pop star.’ They told me, ‘You have a Liza-Judy thing.’ I laughed and said when I was 16 or 17, just starting out, my friend, a music supervisor I trained with at the Royal Northern College of Music, said that I have a vibrato like Judy’s. He said to me, ‘You’re a little deeper. She’s brighter.’ He wrote out “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” for me to do on auditions. I had forgotten all about that till then.”
Although her soap opera character was getting married — the acting equivalent of a five-alarm fire for a fireman — Bennett agreed to sing “Get Happy” on the show as Judy and won. More than a decade later, she still finds her victory faintly “ridiculous.”
“I’m not a singer,” she explained. “I’m a musician, which is different. I know about music. I play the piano. My standard is higher than my ability. All my friends, a great majority of whom are proper singers, laughed when they found out I was in ‘End of the Rainbow.’ They were like, ‘You’re playing who?’ Because they know I’m not comfortable with the singing even though I have an ability to hear it.”
How then does Bennett account for her two Olivier Awards, Britain’s equivalent of the Tony, won for her musical performances in “Hairspray” and “She Loves Me”?
“I go for the character first,” she explained. “I have to find the speaking voice, the timbre. So many times I see an actor with a low speaking voice suddenly start singing soprano and I’m like, ‘What are they doing?’ I come at it from the acting place.
“Now with Judy, someone so well known, you have to try to sound a little like her. I can’t be Judy. There’s only one Judy Garland, let’s face it. There’s only one Barbra Streisand. There’s only one of these stars because as soon as they come on the first note you know who they are. So to copy is a bit crap. You have to interpret as an actor rather than impersonate.”
Interpreting a figure as beloved as Garland, however, is a complicated matter. (Even Judy Davis’ heralded portrayal in the 2001 TV movie “Life With Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows” had its share of naysayers.) Bennett’s performance was ecstatically received by most critics, but some hard-core fans carped at mannerist excesses.
The Garland of Quilter’s play is in a wrestling match with her addictions, and Bennett magnifies the inner turmoil in both the dramatic scenes and the musical numbers. Directed by Terry Johnson, the production transcends being just another pathological case study of a celebrity by the theatrical assault of Bennett’s daredevil performance.
One minute a kitten rubbing against your ankle, the next a panther eyeing you as prey, her Garland is ever in motion, vamping, cajoling and controlling even as she’s being controlled. Overwhelmed with having to perform night after night at the Talk of the Town to pay down her debts, she nervously paces around the posh London hotel suite she can no longer afford — a queen locked up in a tower awaiting the guillotine.
Appealing by turns to Mickey Deans (Erik Heger), her studly new fiancé and demanding business manager, and Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), her loyal pianist (an amalgam of the supportive gay men in her life), she has become a prisoner of her fame, constantly in need of a fix of affection and other addictive substances.
Frances Gumm no longer exists. Judy Garland, the studio’s creation now a fancy middle-aged wreck, can only keep offering increasingly strung-out variations of her manufactured self — variations that throw into relief the naked wound that from her breakout performance in “The Wizard of Oz” drew the public’s adoration and protective embrace.
On a rehearsal break, director Johnson (a 2010 Tony winner for his staging of “La Cage aux Folles”) acknowledged that “there’s a huge vanguard of defensiveness about Judy,” some of it stemming from “the denial that she was an addict.”
The more fascinating part for him, however, has to do with the paranoia of being a star. He said he has rarely met “a celebrity who isn’t paranoid to some degree because their identity has been reinforced into something objective” and consequently “the subjective part can’t help but get a little fragile.” The problem in a nutshell: “These people know they are not that objective thing yet they have to play it.”
“Americans can be very protective of their icons,” Bennett said, humorously comparing the reaction to her performance to the way people feel about “Marmite spread,” a British comestible you either love or hate. “Some come wanting the Dorothy, not knowing what drugs do to a person, though the Michael Jacksons, Whitney Houstons and Amy Winehouses have been changing that.”
“It can be very confusing to play a confused person,” she said. “That was my challenge. The public has the right to say what they want. I just have to serve the piece as best I can and not worry about my own ego.”
Bennett acknowledges that Garland would never have done “Come Rain or Come Shine” the way she does it onstage. But when she offered what she considered a more exact copy of Garland, Johnson told her it wasn’t working in the context of the play. “We have to be hard at the beginning with the veneer,” she said. “But then we slowly strip away that veneer, saving the vulnerability for near the end.”
Phew. In all my decades of Broadway theater-going, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt so simultaneously wiped out and wowed by a performance. Plans for a U.S. tour of “End of the Rainbow” were postponed because of scheduling conflicts, though a film version, Bennett said, is “very high in development.” In any case, rest intervals for anyone playing Garland with this kind of intensity ought to be mandatory. This is a role that could run up the psychiatry bills.
“My mother was concerned with the level of physicality and with the erratic nature of playing funny, sad, painful, broken,” Bennett said. “I told her that it might have had me off-kilter when I was younger, but I’m grounded enough now and, thanks to her and my dad, have the work ethic to handle it.”
Laughing that smoky, infectious laugh, she added, “After the show, I might go straight home or out for one cosmo.”