Yeah, that’s me outside the theater, giving a high-five to Judy
I’ll be honest: The main reason I came to see End of the Rainbow, the Broadway play chronicling Judy Garland’s late in life tragic five weeks at London’s Ritz Hotel for a desperate concert series, was because I thought I should. I felt obliged. Judy is an icon for my people and I wanted to pay homage. So it came as a surprise to find that this play, and most notably the outrageous and raw performance from Tracie Bennett, who plays Garland, completely transcended camp fag hag-ory. This play was good, and good in its own right as a tragic musical tale.
The play opens at the Ritz, with Garland, hard on her luck and heavy coming down on pulls, already trying to hoodwink out of her hotel bill. Garland’s story is well known: At the end of her life, Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz and Esther from (my favorite) Meet Me In St. Louis had self destructed into a addict and alcoholic. Before Drew and Lindsay, she was the original child actress unraveled. This is where the play catches up with her, in her (often times comedic) downward spiral. Garland is wild, talented, frail and amusing. The play’s writer, Peter Quilter, gives her some of the best one liners in Broadway history. My favorites? “Every time I’m drinking water I feel like I’m missing out on something,” she drawls. “I think of all the tablets I could be taking.” Or later, “Skip down the yellow brick road? I could have flown down it.” These are references to her addictions. Like when she says, “You could have shoved cables in me and I could have powered Manhattan.” A few others: “I wanted to put on more foundation but I forgot my bucket and shovel,” and, “My chin and tits are in a race to my knees.”
The play is basically three characters — Garland, her fifth husband Mickey Deans and her pianist Anthony — all fighting for her survival, she herself included. There are tantrums and things thrown, all interspersed with knock-out-drag-out performances from Bennett. There were some annoying moments; I didn’t like how conveniently and stereotypically gay Anthony was. (One line that sticks out: “I did my Mom’s makeup every Saturday and she was still shocked when I became a homosexual.”) But the story is still there, the heart wrenching famous tale of an icon on the verge of collapse, and it’s so well done you can’t take your eyes off. The story of an addict that is so addicting.
A few words on Bennett’s performance: She was outrageous. Absolutely mesmerizing and overwhelming. I’m never the first one standing for an ovation. Truth be told, I typically only begrudgingly get up when whatever grey haired betty in front of me stands and I want a better look at the dancers. Not this night. I was on my feet before Bennett’s last note. She was tiny, loud, perfectly timed and sensational, much like Judy herself. And just in case anyone wondered what kind of pipes she really had, after the ovation she came out for an encore and killed it again. In the program notes we see that, in real life, Bennett is young, even pretty. But as Judy she is unkempt, downtrodden, even disgusting. It’s a total transformation. She is everything in this play. She could have done it in a white room alone, and I would have still been on the edge of my seat.
The play ends not too long before Garland dies in London at the age of, get ready for it, 47, in 1969. (Frank Sinatra would pay for her New York memorial, which 20,000 people would flock to.) She talks about being immortal, about still standing after all she had been through. Well, she did fall. But for a few more weeks, Bennett digs her up again. The show is on till August 18th. Go!
And shhh, this is a shot I stole during the intermission. (I hope I don’t get sued of this. But Bennett was that F-ing good.)