In the winter of 1968, Judy Garland was on the ropes personally and professionally. Plagued by addictions, drowning in debt and just entering her fifth marriage, she desperately hoped that a six-week engagement at London’s Talk of the Town would revive her dying career. She planned to recapture the energy of her 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback performance, which had catapulted the former star from obscurity back into the limelight.
But in show business, lightning rarely strikes twice. On June 22, 1969, the fading chanteuse was found dead in her rented London home. Authorities said her death was the result of “an incautious self-overdose” of barbiturates.
She was 47 years old.
Garland’s untimely demise coupled with her enormous talent sealed her legend. The final months before her star finally fell forever are chronicled in Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, which opened on The Rep’s Quadracci Powerhouse stage on Jan. 10.
Rainbow is a snapshot of a period that, for Garland, was most certainly the worst of times. Set in a suite in London’s Ritz Hotel and the nearby Talk of the Town nightclub, Quilter’s musical drama dissects the disintegration of Garland’s massive talent. Each day depicted in the play is overladen with the suspense of whether Garland is too strung out on alcohol and pills to perform
In the play, Garland, portrayed by Chicago-based actor Hollis Resnik, is propped up by new husband Mickey Dean (Nicholas Harazin) and gay, Scottish-born pianist Anthony (Thomas J. Cox). Both are fighting a losing battle against Garland’s growing appetite for Stoli and Seconal. What they don’t realize is the erratic nightclub performances, far from her best, would be among her last.
“At its core, this play is a moving story about a woman fighting through her difficult life with incredible passion and attempts by the people who loved her to help her,” says Rep artistic director Mark Clements, who also is directing the production. “With this story and the powerhouse songs woven into the story, this will be a great production for Milwaukee.”
Quilter was drawn to the material by Garland’s legendary status and the drama of her final years. Garland, who first became hooked on barbiturates fed to her by MGM studio executives during the rigorous filming schedule of the Andy Hardy series with Mickey Rooney, was an enormously complex character who truly was larger than life.
“She was both ferociously difficult and incredibly loved, financially broke and yet world famous, married several times but still searching for love, capable of singing beautifully one night and terribly the next,” Quilter says. “Those final years of her life were incredibly dramatic and compelling, and I was just fascinated by the kind of car crash of emotions and situations in her life.”
The narrative is not without its lighthearted moments, however, often in the form of zingers spoken by Garland, who was known for her wit. Still, the play’s main draw for Garland fans will be the music.
Rainbow contains some dozen or so of Garland’s greatest hits, including “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “For Me and My Gal,” “You Made Me Love You,” “The Trolley Song,” “Get Happy,” “Come Rain or Come Shine” and, of course, “Over the Rainbow.” The combined musical and dramatic demands of the role place enormous pressure on the actors who fill Garland’s shoes, Quilter says.
“You need a performer with a great singing voice, the ability to play a huge range of emotions, plus a terrific sense of humor,” Quilter says. “Garland was very funny, even when things were falling apart. Playing tragedy while being funny at the same time is a real tightrope walk and requires a brilliant performer. Hollis Resnik has all the necessary qualities.”
Garland’s greatest post-mortem role may be that of gay icon. Theories abound as to why she has attained iconic status in the LGBT community, but several themes are consistently cited, Clements says.
“Many people say that, in addition to her incredible talent, her appeal to gay men is as someone with an incredible public life but also hidden secrets,” says Clements. “Many of her personal struggles at the height of her fame relate to the personal struggles of gay men in America.”
Quilter agrees. “The LGBT community always recognizes people that have that extra star quality,” he explains. “And that voice! She brought huge pain, joy and emotion to a song.”
Some historians point to her gay fans’ anguish over Garland’s funeral on June 27, 1969, in New York City as the flashpoint that led to the Stonewall riots, which are considered the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. Others, including gay historian David Carter, refute the theory, saying the rioters were not the type to moon over Garland records and mourn her demise.
But End of the Rainbow doesn’t delve into the historical implications of Garland’s death. Instead, it captures the dying gasps of a dynamic career and a life that may have been lived too fully.
“She died tragically before her time and that gives celebrities more of an iconic status,” Quilter says. “Plus, of course, her performances at the Carnegie Hall concert, in A Star Is Born and The Wizard of Oz are still regarded as among the best ever given. That doesn’t fade. Time makes her bigger, not smaller.”
Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of End of the Rainbow runs Jan. 10-Feb. 9 in Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For details, please visit www.milwaukeerep.com. WiG is the production’s media sponsor.