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End of the Rainbow: See Judy Crawl

No yellow brick road: Michael Cumpsty, Tracie Bennett, and Tom Pelphrey
Carol Rosegg

Yes, she crawls. She barfs over the back of the couch. She imitates a dog lifting its leg to pee. She tugs at her much-younger boyfriend’s pants leg, begging for booze or pills or a taste of what’s behind his fly. And none of this has any point as drama except that we’re supposedly watching the last days of Judy Garland. Isn’t there a law against trafficking in human corpses? I feel sure it contains some clause that might be enforceable against the perpetrators of End of the Rainbow (Belasco Theatre), allegedly a dramatization of Garland’s behavior during her ultimate, and ultimately disastrous gig at London’s Talk of the Town cabaret, in 1969, shortly before her death.

Presumably people exist—though I frankly wish they didn’t—who view the mucky details of celebrity breakdowns, tarted up with sufficient sensationalism, as a meaningful take on famous people’s lives. For those who actually care about Judy Garland, the person, or about her extraordinary musical gifts and what she achieved with them, this preoccupation with the final throes of her collapse can only seem embarrassing or stupid. It’s like saying you would rather watch a great ballerina twist her ankle, or a great actor forget his lines, than actually witness a great performance.

Yes, it’s dramatic: All live performances contain the suspense of potential disaster, the way all highways contain the potential of car wrecks. But that’s not what they’re there for. The notion of attending a show in hopes of watching the artist crash and burn gives off a stench of pettiness. The petty sensibility behind End of the Rainbow, along with its ineffectuality as a play, only makes its cheesy exploitation of gossip-mill material seem that much more depressing. Judy, in her final phase of physical frailty at the painfully young age of 47, got entangled with yet another seedy wannabe, this one an ex-disco manager named Mickey Deans, who tried to push her into yet another comeback, and couldn’t. The end.

Since the struggles and lapses implied by that one-sentence summary hardly offer more than a five-minute montage’s worth of stage event, playwright Peter Quilter and director Terry Johnson pad out the evening by interspersing numbers from the nightclub gig between the recriminative scenes. The five-piece band, led by Jeffrey Saver, does an excellent job. Tracie Bennett, the Garland impersonator on whose slender shoulders the evening rests, exerts an enormous amount of energy and flair to keep the show moving—too much energy, perhaps, for the role of a woman supposed to be in a physically debilitated condition, as Judy is said to have been at that point.

Bennett is effective. She has a big voice and knocks the familiar songs out hard. But she doesn’t have either Garland’s pathos or her innate musicality. The Garland phrasing sounds replicated rather than organic; compulsively repeated, the tick-tocky, arms-wide gestures look like a skilled nightclub impressionist’s caricature. Garland, by that point, may have become to some extent a caricature of herself—but the desire to memorialize her in that guise, when all her previous states of existence are already so well preserved on film, video, and audio recording, seems as ungracious as it is historically shortsighted.

The real question is what makes Judy Garland important. For the ghouls whose only interest lies in the schadenfreude of another famous career shipwrecked, Garland’s persona, like her music, may not signify much. That the gay liberation movement arose, precipitated by the Stonewall riots, out of the news of her death shows the opposite of a morbid interest: For the closeted gay men of that earlier generation, she had become a totem, not by wrecking herself, but by her repeated triumphant re-emergence from the wreckage. Neither A Star Is Born nor the 1961 Carnegie Hall concert finds her in a wrecked state. The will to preserve her memory, which has persisted for two generations, can hardly be attributed to a desire to shed *End of the Rainbow" brand of crocodile tears over her exit.

Yet about her artistic greatness, as easily accessible today on YouTube and iTunes as it was when The Wizard of Oz premiered in 1939, Quilter and Johnson have nothing to tell us. They busy themselves showing Deans (an ineffectual performance by Tom Pelphrey) as, alternately, a bully and an enabling sap, whose motives remain murky from start to finish. For contrast, they offer a sympathetic Scottish accompanist (sensitively played by Michael Cumpsty)—who’s gay, of course, but offers to marry Judy anyway in a lame attempt to rescue her from Deans.

But there was no rescuing her: The damage had been done long ago, in her adolescence, by MGM’s policy of working her to exhaustion for the sake of the box office. What makes Garland’s art memorable is the total directness and clarity with which she tackles each new song, each new scene, in the face of that impossible pressure—or, after her 1950 collapse and departure from MGM, while fighting off its continued aftershocks. She is a stage child, raised in vaudeville from infancy; when she sings, she does not inflict her griefs on her audience, any more than she conceals them. Her sorrows are presented in song, in her later recordings, with the same wide-eyed lucidity as her teenage imagination of the land over the rainbow.

You don’t have to be a gay male to be riveted by Garland’s art, nor does your admiration depend on how old you were when you first saw The Wizard of Oz. It’s purely a matter of admiring an artist who does something consummately well, with complete truthfulness. That she did it well, under painful circumstances which made the completion of every song a battle, should be a cue for deeper admiration, not for a half-snickering gawk at her final falling apart. As the best rebuke to the image of Judy proffered by End of the Rainbow, you can take what Aretha Franklin wrote about her, in the liner notes to a 1998 CD reissue of rare Garland recordings: “This woman was soul personified.” I don’t advise weighing what’s onstage at the Belasco against that sentence.


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