Through the Mill, a new play about Judy Garland at three different points in her life, is currently in its premiere season at London Theatre Workshop. The theatre’s dramaturg Carolyn Scott-Jeffs interviews author (and artistic director) Ray Rackham about the writing process and how it compares with his acclaimed 2014 musical Apartment 40C…
When did you first have the idea of writing about Judy Garland and what drew you to her?
I didn’t really know much at all about Judy Garland until a few years ago. Naturally, I greatly admired her talent, particularly as a singer, and had seen all her classic movies at least a dozen times over. But the most significant reference I had was The Wizard of Oz. It was one of the films l grew up on. It held an enormously special place in my sub-conscious, and I wasn’t even aware of it until I started to explore Judy’s life and go beyond Dorothy Gale.
The idea to write the play came from a dinner I attended, sometime in 2011, where I met this wonderful and interesting person who had worked on Judy’s last film, I Could Go On Singing. They recounted some pretty tense and difficult moments, many of which were Garland’s doing; and that seemed at odds with the woman I thought I knew from the movies. Of course I was aware of the drink and drugs, but it was more the accounts of her behaviour that I found so interesting. That dinner conversation started a year or two of reading, watching and listening to everything I could get my hands on. And I fell head over heels for this complex and conflicted woman; an almost filmic character of contradictions.
Why did you choose to show us three different points in her life?
The more I researched, the more I found three particular moments of her life not only truly fascinating, but also there was an almost macabre synergy and interdependency between them. Judy was the original comeback queen, with tremendous highs followed by devastating lows. What was interesting with the three periods that eventually made their way onto the page (the 1930s, 1951 and 1963) was that the stakes were always high. The difference between success and failure was a fine line, and it fell to Garland herself to either reach that triumphant high or land on skid row.
But also the periods enabled me to explore Judy’s relationships with those around her, and explore the very human condition of needing to be loved. Be it a dysfunctional and often destructive love or moments of love that almost demonstrated unique and positive clarity. Also, rather importantly, it enabled me to explore the relationship Judy had with her audience.
Judy’s life can also be seen as an allegory of the disintegration of the American Dream; the white picket fence, put-the-show-on-in-a-barn mentality of the 1930s being slowly diminished by the joyous excesses of the post-war, pre-sexual revolution. Judy encapsulates a Dream that never truly existed, and when we see her desperately trying to please the small screen, well it’s more poignant than tragic.
The structure is very complex. What were some of the problems you encountered writing it and how did you overcome them?
This is probably the most complex piece I have written, from a structural point of view. Apartment 40C shares a similar conceit, in that a number of actors play the same husband and wife over one evening and there’s an intervening period of thirty years separating them. The difference with Through the Mill is that the time periods are so different.
We’re exploring a number of years in the 1930s, a couple of days in 1951, and a six-month period in 1963. Understanding the passage of time in each narrative, and making it believable was probably the greatest structural challenge. At times, one of Judy’s narratives can be travelling through years, whereas another may only be travelling minutes. It’s a bit like Narnia, without the lions and fawns!
Why did you decide to have actor-musicians?
I did think the actor-musician idea was a last-minute decision; however, the wonders of Facebook reminded me the other day that, almost four years ago, I’d asked my actor pals if any of them could play. I think the exact words were ‘I’ve got the beginnings of a Judy Garland play and I want the supporting roles to be supporting players’. Music features so heavily in Garland’s life, it felt fitting that those who shared her life should also share her signature; a complete, unmitigated and devoted passion for the song! There is something very beautiful about an actor who plays an instrument; it becomes almost an extension of character, and for me the instrument then sings.
Judy is often viewed as a tragic figure. Was it important to you to show her strength as well?
When I started writing the piece, I began with the premise that Garland was a tragic hero. A virtuous character, destined for and achieving some form of greatness, who was ultimately destined to then fail. But that was tricky with a starting point of drink, drugs, depression, exhaustion, multiple suicide attempts and an untimely death at 47 years old. I started to ponder, ‘How on earth did she keep going?’ and then it hit me that, in asking that very question, I’d answered it! She kept going!
At the age of 28, Garland has already enjoyed a career most actresses could only dream of. She then reinvented herself many times over, winning both critical acclaim and the love she desperately needed from millions of people. Her wickedly naughty sense of humour was infectious; and she made a mark wherever she went. She had a tenacity to trivialise her demons and theatricalise life around her. It was so important that we didn’t spend two hours in the theatre watching her descend from one tragic drama to the next. I wanted us to champion the capacity for survival.
Through the Mill continues at the London Theatre Workshop until 19 December 2015.