A friend who’s particularly passionate about music once asked me, if I could sing like any vocalist of my choice, who it would be? Without hesitation, I answered, “Judy Garland.” With a knowing look, he responded, “Do you not get enough attention from gay men?”
OK, I know Judy commanded the love of gay men, and there are numerous gay men on the list of my favorite people in the world, but that’s not the primary reason I chose her. Mainly, I chose her because of the indescribable beauty of her voice and the intense emotion she put into every song. “Over the Rainbow,” “The Man That Got Away,” “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” — they and many others give me chills. As a child, I never missed the annual TV broadcast of The Wizard of Oz; as an adult, I was thrilled when Judy’s version of A Star Is Born was restored and re-released to theaters.
So yes, I’m a Judy fan, and not just for her singing, as I think she was a damn fine actress too. There are many more obsessive Judy fans than I, those with bigger collections of her recordings, those who’ve seen every one of her movies (I’ve missed a few). But I am, definitely, a fan.
Therefore, I was eager to see End of the Rainbow, playwright Peter Quilter’s dramatization of Judy’s later life, currently onstage at the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles, and I had a little trepidation too. With Judy’s performances still available to us in films and recordings, how can any other singer-actress hope to compare? But I knew Tracie Bennett had won acclaim and awards for portraying Judy in London’s West End and on Broadway, so I went with fairly optimistic expectations.
I’m happy to say Bennett exceeded those expectations. Like Garland, she’s small in stature, huge in voice and personality. She doesn’t imitate Garland, which would be nearly impossible to do well, but rather interprets her, displaying the energy, presence, and vulnerability we associate with this great star, without trying to be a carbon copy. Her singing voice is not exactly like Judy’s — no one else has a voice like that — but she acquits herself well performing beloved Garland standards including “The Man That Got Away,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “When You’re Smiling.”
The play is set in London in 1968, just six months before Garland’s death. The setting alternates between the posh hotel suite that Judy can’t afford and the theater where she’s giving a series of concerts in hopes of revitalizing her career and replenishing her bank account. She’s reluctant, often fearful, about performing, and she can’t resist going back to the drugs and drink she had tried hard to give up.