Playwright Peter Quilter finds the pot of gold at the end of Garland's gay rainbow

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Hollis Resnik as Judy Garland and Thomas J. Cox as Anthony in The Rep’s production of 'End of the Rainbow.' –PHOTO: Michael Brosilow

In 1975, I had dinner with Judy Garland’s fourth husband Mark Herron at the sagging Hollywood bungalow he shared with his partner — veteran character actor Henry Brandon. The invitation came via my boyfriend du jour, who’d appeared with Herron in a summer stock production.

Gerold Frank’s biography of Garland, titled simply Judy, had just been released. As Herron grew increasingly drunker over the course of the evening — clearly a nightly ritual — he fell into a darkening rage. Frank, he shouted, had unfairly dismissed his marriage to Garland as little more than a footnote to her life.

Herron certainly seemed to have enough anecdotes about Garland to fill a book. In fact, Garland anecdotes seemed to be all that was left of his life. The most interesting one that I can remember was his story about  having an affair with Liza Minnelli’s first gay husband, Peter Allen, while he was married to Garland. He recalled having sex with Allen at a Singapore hotel while the men’s mother and daughter wives were out shopping.

My boyfriend and I escaped Herron’s pity party while he was sobbing over the heartbreak of walking past bookstore windows where the face of his one true love stared at him from the cover of a book that barely mentioned him. The five months that Herron and Garland spent together before separating clearly had a disproportionate impact on his life.

Born with the gay Garland-worshipping gene, I left Herron’s home that evening deeply troubled that the world’s most brilliant performer had married such a maudlin loser. And why was a man who appeared to be a Kinsey six — at least —still pining for the woman who got away?

It wasn’t until The Milwaukee Rep’s mesmerizing production of Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow that I felt some insight into the strange intimacy and sense of ownership that passed between Garland and her gay fans. The play dramatizes the final unraveling of Garland’s legendary career during a six-week appearance at a London cabaret. In a scene toward the end, the character Anthony (Thomas J. Cox), a fictional gay music director, asks Garland (Hollis Resnik) to marry him. It’s a last-ditch attempt to save her from the ruinous end that she’s rushing toward at full tilt — the full tilt of pills and booze.

Anthony plants a tender kiss on Garland’s lips. The kiss is less than passionate but more than brotherly. Then they stare at each other with the wonder of two people who have magically forged a connection that’s soul deep but utterly impossible. 

Watching this connection enacted with such honesty and commitment by two immensely talented performers, I finally understood  how essential her gay fans were to Garland, and she to them. The connection defies all conventional forms of love. But it is, if anything, more powerful and alluring than romantic love.

I can’t describe the feeling of this connection in words, except to say that I felt as if someone had dropped a house on my heart.

Born on a cruise ship

Ironically, the writer responsible for this epiphany never set out to write about Garland. In fact, Quilter avoided collecting too much information about her and Mickey Deans (Nicholas Harazin), Garland’s fifth and final husband, who was her fiancée and manager at the time the play unfolds.

“When you’re creating drama, the worst thing you can do is have too much information,” Quilter told me. “If you’ve gathered all this information, all you’re trying to do in each scene is accommodate the situation, and what you’ve got isn’t real drama. You have to create the characters and let them breathe. Real, live people don’t sit around discussing facts and dates and (personal anecdotes).”

Quilter, 48, was a toddler when Garland died. Prior to penning the play, he knew little about her life. So he’s amused to find his name now on Garland’s Wikipedia page.

“What I wanted was to have enough information so that I felt I knew Judy and Mickey well enough to write them as characters and make them breathe and make them real. You do have to have a picture of her and the sound of her voice and the feeling of what she would say. (But) I didn’t give a shit where Mickey Dean was born and what his mother fed him for breakfast. I was making it up. I was taking these characters and making up what might have happened.”

End of the Rainbow actually evolved from an earlier play that he’d written titled Last Song of the Nightingale. Quilter conceived it while traveling with his partner, who was performing on a cruise ship. Another performer on board — a male singer — was a raging alcoholic, Quilter said. Every night the performer’s wife struggled to sober him up enough to appear onstage. An explosive fight offstage preceded every performance. Some nights the singer was unable to go on. He desperately wanted to retire, but his wife said the couple needed the money to survive, Quilter said.

Nightingale opened in a 90-seat London fringe theater. “People would come to me afterward and say, ‘This is very Judy, isn’t it?’ The critics said, ‘Peter Quilter has his eye clearly on Judy Garland.’ So I researched and found that what I had was very similar to Judy’s (final act). Once every 10 years as a playwright, you stumble on an idea and you wonder why hasn’t anyone done this before?” 

Quilter decided to start the play at the beginning of the very end by dramatizing Garland’s final professional meltdown as she attempts to stage a comeback with a six-week cabaret stint at London’s Top of the Town club. The play opens with Garland and Dean’s arrival at London’s Ritz Hotel. It then moves back and forth (seamlessly, under the deft direction of Rep artistic director Mark Clements) between the hotel suite and the Talk of the Town stage.  

Garland arrives with her 29-year-old boy toy in hand. She’s dried-out, cleaned-up and raring to go. Over the next two and one-quarter hours, the audience watches as Garland’s insecurities and addictions catch up with her, unraveling her career, her relationship with Dean and estranging her gay fans, as embodied by Anthony.

Quilter punctuated the play with some of Garland’s best-known songs, used strategically to illustrate the state of Garland’s mind at various points during the narrative. Resnik’s spot-on recreation of Garland’s unique vocal style provides the show’s strongest moments.

But the play’s humor also is central to its success.  Fortunately for Quilter, who’s a born comedian, Garland was famous for her quick wit and barbed repartee. “It was fantastic to discover that she was funny, because it meant I could make her funny in the show,” Quilter said.

The zingers that Resnik so skillfully bats around the Quadracci Powerhouse Stage make this Greek-level tragedy LOL funny with its character-driven gallows humor.

From Oz

As a veteran playwright who worked mostly with fringe theaters before Rainbow, Quilter was aware that only “one in 5,000 scripts get produced,” he said. So he was unprepared for the journey the play has taken him on. “The first time it was going to be performed in Sydney, Australia, in a small 200-seat theater,” Quilter said (coincidentally, Australia’s nickname is Oz). Caroline O’Conner, who was a big star Down Under at the time, was slated to play Garland. “About six months before it was to go on in 2005, I got a call from the Sydney Opera House asking me to do it there,” Quilter said, his eyes still growing wide with the memory. “Suddenly, I’m at the Intercontinental Hotel in Sydney, and the play was a real sensation — a real sellout and amazing reviews.”

Because the opera house is such an iconic venue, Quilter found himself besieged by producers.The play has since been done in 20 countries and translated into 14 languages. The London production was nominated for multiple Olivier Awards and won one for star Tracie Bennett. The Broadway production received three Tony nominations, but Bennett, who also starred in New York, lost the best actress Tony by 20 votes.Quilter, however, has been more impressed by the play’s worldwide appeal than its high-profile recognition.“When the show was in Krakow, no one there even knew who (Garland) was, but the play’s been there four years,” Quilter said. “It’s in year five in Germany. It’s been on in places like Bulgaria.” Even though it’s been all over the world, End of the Rainbow has not been seen in many U.S. cities. In fact, The Milwaukee Rep’s production is the first ever starring an American actress.

After Los Angeles, the play’s producers wanted to release End of the Rainbow in just a few cities before the film version, scheduled to go before the cameras this fall starring Bennett. 

“The producers said, ‘Where do you want to start?’ And I said, “In Milwaukee, with Mark Clements.”

Although Clements didn’t remember it until Quilter reminded him, the two go back about 20 years. “Mark gave me my first commission as a playwright. And he’d forgotten about it. This was when I was in my 20s, and I had just started out with being a playwright and he was running a theater called Darby Playhouse.”

Quilter said the women playing Garland have all been quite different, with each bringing distinct strengths to the role. Resnik’s Garland best captures the diva’s fragility in her final months, he said.

Owning Judy

Quilter believes the play’s universal appeal stems from the fact that “it’s the classic Hollywood story of the burned-out performer. It’s the Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston story as well. It’s Norma Desmond.”

It’s also the classic story of alcoholics and their enablers.

But for gays, it’s so much more. The play dissects the complex, impenetrable relationship that gay men have with their divas. Quilter brilliantly uses the character Anthony as an emblem for all those fans. But unlike the garden-variety gay fan, Anthony’s complex personal relationship with her, much like Herron’s, has a devastating impact on his life.

Dean embodies all of Garland’s husbands, and his conflict with Anthony reflects the fight for ownership that Garland’s gay fans waged with the straight establishment. In many ways, Dean represents the studio bosses who set Garland’s life on a ruinous course by addicting her to drugs in order to exploit her talent. Anthony’s belligerence toward Dean is the outrage of all gays toward Garland’s handlers.

Unsurprisingly, Quilter said that gays have been the play’s most unpredictable audience.

“The (English) gays were all over it like a rash, as we say in London,” Quilter said. On the other hand, “In New York, the queens are very protective of her. She’s untouchable in New York. They wanted the Meet Me in St. Louis Judy.”

Los Angeles gays were more like their English counterparts. “In L.A., the gay community was all over it and celebrating it,” Quilter said.

Garland’s daughters Lorna Luft and Liza Minnelli have not commented on the play. “They don’t like anybody doing anything about Judy that they’re not involved with,” Quilter said.

It’s understandable. Of all the collateral damage left in the wake of Garland’s storm, they have to be the most wounded. At least her fans still have the rainbow. 

On stage

Milwaukee Repertory Theater’s production of End of the Rainbow runs through Feb. 9 in Quadracci Powerhouse Theater. For details, please visit www.milwaukeerep.com. WiG is the production’s media sponsor.