By Donalevan Maines
Lightly dusting Judy Garland’s face with makeup, her confidant Anthony says, “Just look straight ahead and don’t move a muscle.”
Judy replies, “That’s what Minnelli said to me when we were having sex.”
Minnelli? That would be director Vincente, father of Liza and one of Judy’s several gay ex-husbands, while Anthony is “an amalgam,” actor L. Jay Meyer says regarding the character he plays in the regional premiere of Peter Quilter’s musical drama End of the Rainbow at Stages Repertory Theatre.
Anthony shares the stage with two real-life characters, Judy and her “fifth and final” husband, Mickey Deans, who enters on her arm five years after a famously disastrous concert tour in Australia.
Did I mention that Judy met Deans at his . . . gay . . . bar, and that he gave her drugs that night?
Oh, Judy, Judy, Judy.
“She certainly surrounded herself with gay men—even married a few,” says Meyer, who came out on the first National Coming Out Day in 1988.
“Through Liza” is how actor H.R. Bradford came to learn about Judy.
“I must have been 15 or 16 when I saw Cabaret, on video,” says Bradford. “That performance. The sound and the look. The dancing! [Bob] Fosse got me. I loved it so much that I started researching Liza and her mother, Judy Garland. I am still learning things about her.”
It hasn’t escaped the attention of Bradford, who isn’t gay, how both Judy and Liza married gay men. “On one [online] forum, someone asked why gay men married Judy. The answer was, ‘So they could meet Liza,’” he laughs.
Meyer’s research reveals that Judy’s father was also gay, so apparently it runs in the family. It’s part of Judy’s herstory.
The show’s out director, Kenn McLaughlin, says, “No one, no one, no one gave as much of her soul to the audience. Judy was so unique and beautiful. The play is about the last months of her life, and her story is so incredibly painful to imagine. But then you get to her songs, and you see how she communicated beyond all of that. She really made a connection with gay people and the deep and secret things in our hearts.”
As Judy in End of the Rainbow, veteran Houston actress Carolyn Johnson is called upon to sing, among other tunes, the classic Judy hits “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby,” “The Man that Got Away,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Get Happy,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and, yes, “Over the Rainbow.”
Johnson, says Meyer, doesn’t disappoint. “Oh God, she’s brilliant. She’s stunning. Rehearsals are a master class in watching someone develop a character who is real, but not impersonate them. [Not only does] Carolyn embody so much of who Judy Garland was—her mannerisms (she has clearly done her homework)—but her voice is incredible. She is magical.”
McLaughlin adds, “Jaws have dropped.”
Johnson says her first reaction was to be “thrilled” at being cast as Judy Garland. “My second reaction was to be completely overwhelmed, because she is such an icon. You can count [our true icons] on one hand: Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Judy Garland. It’s a little daunting because of all the expectations. The first thing I had to do was let go of all of that. It has been an amazingly enlightening process.”
Johnson spoke to OutSmart during a break from rehearsing End of the Rainbow to reprise her role in Horton Foote’s A Coffin in Egypt last month at Lincoln Center in New York City.
The performance reunited Johnson with other cast members from Coffin’s premiere last year at Houston Grand Opera, plus the New York presentation added Isabel Keating in a nonspeaking role. Coincidentally, Keating played Judy Garland in the 2003 Broadway production of The Boy from Oz, opposite Hugh Jackman as one of Liza’s gay ex-husbands, the late Peter Allen. Jackman won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical, while Keating was nominated for Best Featured Actress in a Musical (along with Beth Fowler as Allen’s mother, the late Marion Woolnough).
Tracie Bennett as Judy and Michael Cumpsty as Anthony were nominated for Tony Awards when End of the Rainbow bowed on Broadway in 2012.
Stages bills the show as “a savagely funny and deeply moving portrait of the beloved American star. Showcasing Garland’s indomitable talent and wit, this musical drama captures the majesty of her fearless performances against the backdrop of her troubled life offstage.”
After Judy Garland died on June 22, 1969, an estimated 20,000 fans filed through the funeral home in New York City as she lay in state, and 1,500 mourners stood outside the chapel during her funeral service.
A routine police raid on the Stonewall Inn gay bar in New York City occurred on June 28, 1969—just six days after Garland’s funeral. The riot and protests that ensued are widely regarded as the beginning of the gay civil rights movement.
What: End of the Rainbow
When: March 2–April 10. OutSmart night at Stages will be held on March 9.
Where: Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway
Details: stagestheatre.com or 713.527.0123
Donalevan Maines is a regular contributor to OutSmart magazine.