Hollis Resnik faces her greatest challenge as Judy Garland in ‘End of the Rainbow’

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Actor/singer Hollis Resnik portrays the legendary Judy Garland in The Milwaukee Rep’s 'End of the Rainbow.'

Acclaimed Chicago actress Hollis Resnik resurrects Judy Garland at the Milwaukee Rep through Feb. 9 in the Tony-nominated play End of the Rainbow. Taking a leave of absence from the national tour of Sister Act (in which she portrays the Mother Superior), Resnik adds Garland to the long list of real people she has portrayed onstage over the years, including Edie Beale (in Grey Gardens), Patsy Cline (in Always Patsy Cline) and Eva Peron (in Evita). A familiar face to theatergoers from her many national tours, as well as the recipient of multiple acting awards, Resnik spoke with me about Garland, her career and gay fans in November 2013.

Gregg Shapiro: Hollis, what are the rewards and challenges of playing a historical figure like Garland?

Hollis Resnik: That’s a big question. I’ve played a lot of real people — Edie Beale and Patsy Cline, Eva Peron, Edith Piaf — and I’ve found the rewards to be immense. The challenge, of course, is to emulate them in some way. That takes an extra amount of work. For instance, when I played Edie Beale, I was watching that movie (Grey Gardens) and constantly clicking and backtracking and clicking and backtracking and imitating that voice, because that voice is so distinct. With Judy Garland, she is probably my greatest challenge. In terms of rewards, I can’t speak on that yet (laughs). I’m just now learning the text. I’ve watched her and listened to her and I am extraordinarily different physically from her. Vocally, it will probably be my biggest challenge, because she had such a fat sound and I don’t have that at all. I can probably get her speaking voice a little bit better, more than I can the singing. You have to understand that when she died she was 47. Even though her voice had been ragged because of her history, she hadn’t gone through things like menopause yet. I’m past that age. I am dealing with changes in my body and everything associated with that as I grow older. Your singing voice changes. I don’t have the same singing voice I had at 47. It’s going to be a super challenge.

Is it more of an acting challenge to play a historical figure such as Garland or to put your own stamp on a familiar character, such as the Mother Superior in Sister Act or Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire?

I don’t think it matters if it’s a real person or not. It all depends on the text and the situation.

Are you learning new things about Judy in preparation for this role? What have you learned?

I think she never had a chance to be an authentic human being. I think she was doomed from the get-go. It’s a really sad, sad story. This woman had a divine gift. This woman was connected to everything she sings in an honest way. It was what she connected to the most. Unfortunately, she was raised in a time — vaudeville — she had a stage mother, all that stuff, from the time she was very young. She never had a chance to be herself, be a kid. I think that’s such an enormous challenge as someone grows up to adulthood.

Do you have a favorite Garland song?

I don’t really have a favorite. I haven’t listened to a whole lot yet except for what’s on the concert years’ video. I’m impressed with her arrangements and the guile with which she sings. I love “The Man That Got Away.” That’s the one Judy Garland tune I’ve been singing for a while in gigs. But I honestly don’t have a favorite. The arrangement of “Come Rain or Come Shine” is out of this world.

Do you have a favorite Judy Garland movie role?

I just saw the movie I Could Go On Singing, which was her last movie. She was amazing in this movie.

You are in the midst of the national tour of Sister Act  and with End of the Rainbow, you are returning to the Great Lakes Region where you live. With that in mind, after your years on the stages of Chicago and your upcoming Milwaukee Rep run in End of the Rainbow, do you think there is anything that sets audiences in this area apart?

No, I can’t say that I do. I think that everybody that comes to the theater — 80 percent of them — really enjoy it. They do. They leave the theater, whether they’re thinking about something artistically or intellectually or just enjoying the comedy and the music, then we have done our job. There are certain groups of people, certain demographics of people, who prefer certain kinds of theater. But in terms of Sister Act, it’s a huge hit. Everybody’s up on their feet. They love it. But not all of them want to see Streetcar (laughs). I, however, want to do everything. I’m very lucky.

Like Judy Garland, you have a large and devoted gay following.

They’re such a supportive and wonderful demographic to the theater. It’s amazing. I’ve done many interviews and benefits and things like that for the gay community. They are hugely supportive of the arts. For that, I am eternally grateful.