TV host Jack Paar once asked Judy Garland what it was like to be a living legend. The word “icon” wasn’t being used to describe celebrities then, but that’s what she was (one of the first in the contemporary sense, I think), and that’s what he was asking her: what it was like to be the real person behind the unreal, iconic fame. “It’s peculiar,” she told him. “It’s lonely.” And surely it must have been both.
In later years, the star didn’t always manage that peculiarity and loneliness very well, and Garland’s struggles with addiction and the challenges of fame are now the subject of a new play by British playwright Peter Quilter, End of the Rainbow, which was a hit in London in 2010 and in New York in 2012 with English actress Tracie Bennett as Garland. The show is now getting a production at Actor’s Express through June 15.
End of the Rainbow is set in a London hotel room in 1968. Garland (Natasha Drena) is preparing for a five-week run of shows at London’s Talk of the Town Theater with the help of her pianist and longtime friend Anthony (Bill Newberry). She’s deep in love with her partly shady, partly earnest young fiancé Mickey Deans (Tony Larkin), deep into addiction and deep into debt: some of the play’s best and grimly funniest scenes involve Garland avoiding the hotel bill. The play is primarily a drama, but there are scenes of rehearsal and a few scenes on stage at Talk of the Town, so there are several full musical performances of Garland’s most famous songs.
Plays that center on famous figures, whose speech and mannerisms are known to millions, are always tough. Quilter is aiming to create a serious, weighty drama rather than a cheesy biopic or jukebox musical. But in a play, we’re too conscious of artifice, of invention. I occasionally found myself wondering if Garland really would have said or done such-and-such (Quilter’s Garland curses like a sailor and tells an acquaintance that she’ll do anything in the bedroom). If we’re not convinced, even if we stop and question, we’re taken out of the drama.
The part requires that the lead actress give a tour de force performance, and Drena certainly delivers. But on opening night, Drena’s speaking voice as Garland was too mannered, too studied, for the play to develop real dramatic heat or existential heft. It’s actually in the songs where Drena hit it out of the park, not just sounding like Garland, but diving into every line and squeezing out all sorts of surprising and genuine emotions; the small band sounds fantastic, as well. Hearing Drena perform “I Can’t Give You Anything but Love” is worth the price of admission alone.
But the play’s mix of drama and music is occasionally awkward. Toward the end of Act I, when Deans walks out (a heavily dramatic moment), there was a brief pause and I thought, “God, it would be really ridiculous if Judy started singing ‘The Man That Got Away’ right now,” and then she did. It wasn’t as awful or campy as I thought it would be. You sort of ease into it, and Drena’s singing voice is truly lovely and intimate, so she gets away with it. John Lemley of WABE 90.1’s City Cafe has a great cameo as a London radio announcer: the character hilariously tries to maintain a facade of obsequious affability, even as the drugged-out Garland rudely botches the interview.
It’s somewhat surprising that Garland’s superdramatic life — the constant, self-annihilating need for love and drugs — doesn’t always amount to fascinating drama. It’s tough to get inside a star’s hotel room, but Quilter does attempt, with moderate success, to give a personal, psychological portrait from the inside. But one wonders: Is it maybe more interesting from the outside? Isn’t that, in the end, the real nature of iconic fame?