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Rewriting Judy Garland

A playwright crafts Broadway’s “End of the Rainbow”

Peter Quilter started writing End of the Rainbow in 2001, and now that it’s in previews at Broadway’s Belasco Theatre, he’s on draft number 33.

The play is about Judy Garland (Tracie Bennett), but it isn’t traditionally biographical, chock full of facts and figures. Instead, Quilter focuses on a single night in 1968.

As he’s honed the script, he’s relied on feedback from audiences around the globe, including Australia, Scotland, Poland, and Finland. “People in those countries particularly had to be able to go and see the show with no knowledge of Judy Garland and no particular interest in Judy Garland, but they had to be satisfied by two hours of storytelling,” he says. He adds that keeping them engaged often meant cutting historical information.

In November 2010, End of the Rainbow opened on London’s West End, where it played for six months and earned several Olivier nominations. It all happened so fast, Quilter says, that he didn’t make many changes to the script. Those would come when the show landed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis—Garland’s hometown.

Guthrie audiences were surprised to see the star portrayed as pill-popping, vulgar, and at times, violent. “I think we had to earn them in Minneapolis,” Quilter says. “I think when we started each performance, particularly early on in the run, there was a sense of: ‘What are you doing to our Judy Garland? We don’t want to see her at her worst. We only want to see her at her best.’”

The play, which chronicles Garland’s final concert series at the Talk of the Town in London, is certainly frank about her fraught relationship with addiction and fame. “But seeing the whole person is what makes you love and admire someone,” Quilter says. “If you’re just told somebody’s great for two hours, I don’t think that changes your feeling about them at the end of the show.”

Still. Minneapolis audiences taught him to add fragility to certain scenes. When would Garland lose her confidence, for instance, and what might that look like?
Recently, Quilter has also focused on supporting characters like Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), Garland’s fiancé in End of the Rainbow< and eventual fifth husband in real life. Pelphrey, who joined the show in Minneapolis, happens to be the same age (mid 30s) as Deans was in the late 1960s, and they both hail from the same place in New Jersey. Quilter savors the coincidences.

“We actually have someone who, from the first rehearsal, knew exactly what Mickey Deans’ attitude and accent and way of holding himself would be,” he says.

After eleven years, Quilter’s content to keep tweaking Mickey, Judy, and the rest of the script. “It’s that one more draft that you force yourself to do,” he explains. “Can I make this 10% better? I think playwriting is a craft in the way that carpentry is a craft. It’s little details; it’s chipping away; and it’s layers.”

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9 comments

1 Arnold Weintraub { 03.28.12 at 3:06 pm }

I saw End of the Rainbow on March 19th and was very disappointed. I felt that Traci Barnett over acted and didn’t capture Judy Garland’s vulnerablity or style of singing. My wife and our friends couldn’t figure out why the play was nominated for an Olivier award. The T-V version of Judy Garland’s life written by Lorna Luft captured so much of what this play lacks. It will be interesting to read the professional review when the play officially opens.

2 Mark Blankenship { 03.28.12 at 4:56 pm }

Hi Arnold — Thanks for adding your thoughts on the show. I’d be interested to hear from others who saw it, too. (I haven’t seen it myself—yet—but one friend told me he thought Tracie Bennett was strong in the lead role. I’m always interested when people disagree on things like that.) — Mark (TDF Stages editor)

3 Chris S.- New Jersey { 03.28.12 at 8:21 pm }

I saw the play Saturday evening at the Belasco. I think it’s obvious that the playwright was going for shock value and then tried to back-peddle a little bit for sympathetic overtures. So it was a little muddled in terms of clear dramaturgical purpose and intent. I think the smarter way to play it would be to take all focus off of “behavior” and put all exploration into “mindset”. That’s the thing that stays a mystery in all Garland biopics to this day but what truly fascinates everyone. Also, the need for the shock value of behavioral episodes is used here to build the drama but what the writer forgets is that the audience comes to the play with the suspense and drama built up already being her iconic status and well-known story. Judy comes off as messy instead of fragile which is close but crucial to her story. Another side point- Judy was a little too talkative in this and was well-known for being a sophisticated raconteur so that was a slip-up. From a performance standpoint though, much respect to Tracie for the ridiculously demanding role, the skill sets she had to juggle simultaneously, and the serious attention she gave the craft.

4 Camille { 03.30.12 at 10:45 pm }

I saw the play at the Belasco this past Wednesday and thought it was just fantastic. Tracie truly captured Judy’s persona and her voice was magnificent, singing with a vulnerability that Judy portrayed at this time of her life (the end of her career and shortly her life). The audience went wild with standing O’s. Bravo, Tracie!

5 Susan koestler { 03.31.12 at 10:08 am }

End of the Rainbow was wonderful theater. We went to a preview last week and the stars got a standing ovation. I have told at least a dozen friends that its a must see.

6 Beverly Myers { 03.31.12 at 4:23 pm }

The performances and echoes of Garland’s life still remain with me a week after seeing this amazing show. Her life wasn’t pretty at the end or maybe never was. Her fans want her as they want her ..that was the problem her whole life. No one cared what she had to go trough to be GARLAND…Gimme Garland..! She could not anymore…..Nor could she quit anymore…the dilemna that killed her.Kudos to the whole cast and writer. So well done..
Really a must see event.

7 Bill Solly { 03.31.12 at 9:39 pm }

I thought the show was terrific & Tracie Bennett a knockout. I was in London at that very time, even worked at the Talk of the Town, even met Judy briefly at a David Frost party, so I can assure you the details were right. I also thought Michael Cumpsty’s was a Tony Award performance, along with Ms Bennett’s.

8 Ileana Infante { 06.10.12 at 9:35 am }

I saw the show last night, 6/8, and I thought Tracie Bennett’s performance as Judy Garland was phenomenal. She nails her mannerisms, vulnerability, complexity, and complicated persona. I would be very surprised if she does not get the Tony for this AMAZING performance. Tracie Bennett is a MUST see!

9 Gary Smiler { 06.19.12 at 5:55 pm }

I saw the eotr twice and thought Tracies performance was unforgettable and memerizing. That works her a** off and is tireless as well. Both times the people I was with were astonished by her peformance. The play is ueven at times and probbaly not completely factualbutlike Judys life as much as I adore her the last part of her life was indeed full of bumps. My heart goes out to her for being so inconsistent in her behavior but it makes one hell of a theatre piece

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