Judy Garland’s slow, sad slide into oblivion is one of American entertainment’s most tragic stories. Her death, at 47, from an overdose of Seconal, was stamped from a familiar template for stars overwhelmed by the pressures of fame. Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Anna Nicole Smith, Margeaux Hemingway, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, and dozens of others—all died from ingesting various drugs taken to slay the demons of celebrity, be they anxiety, terror, guilt, insomnia, regret, loneliness, or some other toxic form of psychic distress.
The last year of Judy Garland’s storied life is the subject of British playwright Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow , an import from London making its American premiere at the Guthrie Theater, after which it heads straight to Broadway. “End” is the operative word in the title. The play is set in 1968, during Garland’s five-week run at London’s Talk of the Town theatre, one of the last public appearances of her life. Attended to by her youngish fiancé, Mickey Deans (played by Tom Pelphrey), and her gay pianist/friend Anthony (Michael Cumpsty), the play chronicles the final unraveling of Garland’s tortured psyche as she struggles to meet her professional obligations while losing the battle with her other, less reliable self.
This is no loving tribute full of warm, happy nostalgia; rather, it’s a disturbing, candid, frequently appalling look at a woman addicted to drugs, alcohol, and applause. As played by Tracie Bennett, Garland is a maddeningly mercurial diva consumed by pharmaceuticals and narcissism. She knows the show must go on, but she has run out of vices to give her the courage and stamina to perform. Exhausted, but deep in debt and committed to a long, punishing run of shows, Deans—acting as her manager—keeps pushing her and pushing her, beyond the breaking point, until she can take no more.
All of this is well-documented Garland lore. But knowing Judy’s story is one thing; watching it unfold is quite another. End of the Rainbow is really a splendidly performed, two-hour suicide—one that invites you to witness the harrowing downward spiral of a life sucked dry by the constant need to live up to a spectacularly high level of artistic expectation. Equally devastating is the gaping emotional hole that Garland’s career cannot fill, an aching abyss that swallowed five husbands and who knows how many other friends and suitors.
As advertised, Bennett’s performance is both spectacular and nuanced. Her Judy Garland is a fascinating cross between Katherine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story , Elizabeth Taylor in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? , an abused cocker spaniel, and a spoiled five-year-old child. One minute she’s a deliriously brazen diva, the next she’s a cloying, needy little girl begging for forgiveness and affection, then she’s an angry addict on her knees begging for some pills—any pills—to help her survive the next few hours. Her self-destructive capriciousness clearly drives her friends and fiancé crazy, but they put up with it because they love her—and she is, after all, their meal ticket.
Bennett infuses Garland with a frighteningly manic amount of energy, but you’re never quite sure if it’s the benzedrine talking or the hyperactive nervous system of a person blessed/cursed with “star power.” Either way, it makes for some tremendously compelling theater. The action shifts between an elegant hotel suite and the Talk of the Town stage, where Bennett transforms into Judy Garland the star, replicating the singer’s contralto vibrato with chilling accuracy. But Bennett also layers into her performance Garland’s growing desperation as the diva realizes her magic is waning and her bag of show-biz tricks almost empty. I don’t think she ever sings a complete song in the whole show—mostly it’s bits and pieces of such hits as “The Trolley Song,” “Come Rain or Shine,” and the inevitable “Over the Rainbow”—but this fracturing of the songs works because it mirrors the fragmenting of Garland’s own delicate soul.
Those hoping for a Broadway revue may be disappointed with End of the Rainbow . And there are fans of Judy Garland who, I’m sure, won’t appreciate seeing their idol portrayed in such an unflattering light. Of all the parts of Garland’s life, her last year is probably the one Garland herself would have least liked to have dramatized onstage. But it is also a period that gives us some valuable insight into the toll life in the spotlight took on her. It’s an old story—the public as succubus—but it is also one that’s alarmingly relevant in a world where fame has become a kind of global prison and substances ripe for abuse can be ordered with the click of a mouse. Judy Garland never got the intervention she so desperately needed. But maybe the shadow side of her story will save someone else’s life—and maybe, just maybe, add some additional sparkle to her already brilliant legacy.
End of the Rainbow runs through March 11 at The Guthrie Theater.