Guest writer: Ray Rackham
In Judy Garland’s last film, “I Could Go on Singing”, Garland plays Jenny Bowman. An aging superstar who visits London for one last concert. Somewhere near the end of the film, the character of Jenny nervously steps out onto the stage of the Palladium theatre, some hours after she was supposed to, and greets her increasingly impatient audience.
A lone voice, lost in the shadows of the theatre shouts, ‘where have you been?’ and Judy, as Jenny Bowman, responds ‘well, I’ve been having a hell of a time’. She then goes on, naturally, to knock the concert out of the park, and win that impatient audience back.
Interestingly, “I Could Go On Singing” is as much biographical as it is fictional. Filmed just before Miss Garland returned to Los Angeles to begin filming The Judy Garland Show (featured in my play), it is the nearest Judy ever got to portraying ‘herself’ on film. And the enduring memory of that movie is of the diminutive diva, stood alone on the stage of one of London’s greatest theatres, singing ‘I could go on singing ‘til the cows come home’.
Even in 2017, almost forty-eight years since the great Garland left us, it looks as though she might! Eighteen months after its original run (with a completely different title) at London Theatre Workshop, and almost a year to the day from its production on the London Fringe at Southwark Playhouse; my biographical play (now titled ‘Judy!’, rather appropriately) will open in the West End; at the Arts Theatre, on May 16th (Press Night May 18th). I am equally as nervous as I am exhilarated, as terrified as I am excited. Judy Garland has played a huge part of my life for almost a decade, as I researched, transcribed and wrote the piece; and more importantly got to know her.
So what makes this incredibly complex women enduringly popular? I think it is her complexity itself. Judy was a deeply insecure and nervous human being who seemed to exist perfectly in the cut-throat ‘studio’ world. A world where she had to be strong, loud, and confident. Her voice itself could both soar and stumble (often in the same number, but a few bars apart), hinting at the incredible highs and deep lows that accompanied the star throughout her life.
As for the highs, Judy’s fans often love her because of the ‘on-screen’ Judy they wish to remember. The “little girl lost” of Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz, who sings of ‘happy little bluebirds’ flying over the rainbow; the unassuming and aspiring singer Vicki Lester, whose career ultimately overshadows that of her on-screen husband in A Star is Born, as she sings ruefully of ‘the man that got away’; or even the desperately tired and lonely Jenny Bowman in her last film, who admits that she’s been having a ‘hell of a time’.
And boy did she have a hell of a time. Judy’s personal life was fraught with tragedy and trouble. The stories are endless: five marriages, four of which ended in divorce; alleged abortions, miscarriages, suicide attempts, breakdowns, addictions…the list goes on and on. Yet she seemed to get through it all, with a smile and a song. Her finances were always a disaster, she placed too much trust in too many wrong people, and she was abused on so many levels. Yet, her children only remember the laughter, the steely determination to put on a show, and her need to love and be loved.
That is the Garland I want my play to celebrate. Let’s not ignore the troubles she had, but let’s also not become solely transfixed by them. Because, just as Jenny Bowman did in the movie, Judy would always admit to having that ‘hell of a time’ but would then win us all over, yet again, with that voice; that ability to transfix us not by her troubles, but her talent.
I am incredibly lucky, as a writer, to have found three actresses who have the almost miraculous ability to portray Judy in three pivotal moments of her life. Lucy Penrose plays the Garland of the early MGM years, pre Oz, full of innocence, hope and vulnerability. Belinda Wollaston plays Garland some years older, having been fired from MGM, starting tentatively and nervously her first attempt at becoming the huge singing superstar that has since sold millions of records. Helen Sheals plays Garland older still, and venturing onto the small screen, for a weekly series of vaudeville and variety that was arguably always destined to fail. Why did I chose these moments? Because I feel they portray Judy at her most excited and scared, and her most exhilarated and terrified. Because, ultimately, the Judy we see can be any of us.
When the cast of the play “Judy!” took their final bows last year at Southwark, they invited me onto the stage to share that final curtain. Feigning modesty, I politely declined…for a millisecond…before running onto the stage to join them in a moment of ‘Judy Garland Love’. I specifically remember that moment, standing on the stage and taking my only bow of the run; and also sending every last applause up to Judy, wherever she may be. For without Miss Judy Garland, standing alone on a stage in a little black dress almost fifty years ago, the veritable industry that now surrounds this new production of “Judy!” would not exist.
We all of us owe a debt of gratitude to Judy Garland. She means so much, to so many, and I am honoured – in some small way – to continue in that celebration.