Judy and End of the Rainbow: Playwright Peter Quilter from Stage to Screen
End of the Rainbow was my first Broadway show and the experience did not disappoint. The London opening night, though wonderful, was a quiet glass of wine in the lobby of the hotel next to the theatre. On Broadway, however, there was a red carpet, camera crews, Joel Grey and Elaine Stritch in attendance, and a massive party in the ballroom of the Plaza Hotel. They certainly know how to open a show in NYC.
The review in the New York Times comes out during the course of the party. You know it’s happening because all the producers and investors stop talking and suddenly look down at their phones. We got lucky — the review was great, and the party kept on swinging. We spent six months on Broadway at the Belasco Theatre. Tracie Bennett (who was Tony nominated and the favorite to win) was sensational during the run, never missing a performance.
The Broadway experience is so intense, so colorful and glorious, unpredictable and dangerous, that you don’t easily forget about it. You certainly know you’re alive. You don’t really think about what will happen afterwards. And that has been, I think, the greatest gift. The show has been produced throughout the world, with runs in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Melbourne, Mexico City, Lisbon, Madrid, Rome, Berlin, Amsterdam, Moscow, and Tokyo, to name but a few. It has also played in Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, Minneapolis, St Louis, Montreal, Vancouver, and more.
I remember being told by a producer at the beginning of the journey that the big problem was going to be finding an actress who could play Judy Garland. But as it turns out, there are many dozens of actresses who have now taken on the role and, without exception, they have all had spectacular reviews. We underestimate sometimes how many performers, especially women, are a triple threat — able to act, dance, sing. In End of the Rainbow we depict the downfall of a great Hollywood star with her many problems. The acting required is incredibly demanding. But she also has to sing, belting out great song standards of the era. And if that was not enough, she has to be able to mimic Judy Garland, too. Yet here we are, with actresses throughout America, across Europe and the Pacific, and even as far as Asia, each of them making the part their own and wowing audiences.
What also helps the show get produced so widely is that it is quite small in the sense that it has a simple set and only requires four actors. This is helpful to companies. There is a band, of course, but this also varies in size and some productions have used pre-recorded backing tracks instead. The performers carry the entire show, but it never feels unambitious. If cast well, they can take you through every emotion. The play is tragic but also very funny — and this is because Garland herself was hilarious, even in her darkest moments. You mix that rollercoaster of emotions with all those great concert sequences and you have the potential for one hell of an evening.
The song rights now come as a package with the show, so there is no licensing headache for producers. We have permission to use “The Man That Got Away,” “The Trolley Song,” “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” plus many others. Audiences love these songs, especially “Rainbow” — a song which still seems to have the ability to break everyone’s heart.
The next stage in the journey was the movie version. This went into development eight years ago. As so often happens with independent movies, it was a precarious voyage involving different directors, screenwriters, and producers. But when it all finally came together, it happened quite suddenly. One day I woke up to an email saying they had the director, the investment, the distributor and the star – Renée Zellweger.
Renée is going to blow everybody away. She is quite incredible as Judy. She doesn’t try to do an exact impersonation. The aim was to make the character real, make the songs feel natural for her. You have to capture the essence of Garland – that’s what we’re all looking for. There’s a stunning supporting cast, too: Rufus Sewell, Finn Wittrock, and the legendary Michael Gambon. The movie has a simpler title – Judy. It will be released in North America on September 27, 2019, which happens to be my birthday! How’s that for being at one with the universe? Plus, I have the personal bonus of walking down another red carpet. I expect nobody will know who I am and I have every expectation of being shoved out of the way the minute Renée appears. But I have no objection to that. She’s a real star and, like Judy, she is the one that belongs in the spotlight.
Fortunately, the movie release does not in any way hinder the stage productions. So companies can go ahead and program the show for 2020.
The movie is obviously going to create a lot of new interest in Judy Garland and, I would imagine, will also bring a resurgence of interest in the stage show. That’s the great thing about movies – it opens you up to the entire world, reaching millions and millions of new people.
(Photo: Pathe UK)