We went to see “The End Of The Rainbow” in Bath on Saturday. It’s a play with songs about Judy Garland’s final performances in London shortly before she died at the age of 47. It was a big hit in London, garnering huge plaudits for Tracie Bennett as Garland. I’m not about to write a review. I’m also decidedly not a Garland fan, but I could recognise that Bennett’s impersonation of her was impeccable and sensational, and she certainly ripped up the stage. She was extraordinary. And yet I found the whole experience curiously unpalatable, like watching a car crash in slow motion.
(If anyone says or even thinks “if you’re not a Judy Garland fan then why did you go?” can I swiftly point out that I’m not a fan of Richard lll but so far it hasn’t stopped me wanting to see the play.)
It’s an odd thing to watch a play about a famous person, especially when that person is a singer. If Bennett were doing a musical in which she played, say, Wallis Simpson she might impersonate her speaking voice to a degree but she would no doubt sing in her own voice, the better to express some inner feelings for which speech alone might be considered inadequate. I mean, that’s pretty-well the whole point of any form of music-theatre isn’t it? A song well sung lifts the mask of the character and let’s us into the soul of the singer. It’s not about realism. It’s about creating an extraordinary and vulnerable connection where the music touches the very sides of the singer’s core as it leaves her throat.
In this play, Tracie Bennett only gets to sing the songs that Garland sang, so it’s not the same as a conventional musical where a character sings in order to express something of her inner self. While she pulls off a faultless impersonation of Garland’s singing, it’s simultaneously fantastic and excruciating if, like me, you can’t actually bear the sound. Don’t get me wrong, she sings the songs with enormous passion but ultimately, for me at least, it means nothing if it’s not HER voice. I can admire an impersonation at that level of accuracy and devotion but I can’t love the experience. I don’t get it in the same way I don’t understand the allure of Madame Tussaud’s.
I’m not sure if many of the audience were there to see a play or, in the absence of the real thing, to enjoy an evening with a “tribute” Judy Garland. All-in-all it was a strange and unsettling experience. I wouldn’t go to an opera house to hear someone impersonate Maria Callas singing Tosca, no matter how good the mimicry (but I bet if someone did it they could sell plenty of tickets). I know this isn’t exactly the same but it’s close enough to bemuse me.
The moment that did stand out for me in the play was when Garland, desperate not to have to perform that night, says “It’s a terrible thing, to know what you’re capable of and never get there.”
Nobody likes to admit it in public but it’s a thought that plagues nearly every performer I know – at least the ones I like – and especially those like me who are starting to look down the barrel of the September years, if you’ll excuse the mixed metaphor. I’ve had many discussions about it in pubs and bars the world over, with singers of many creeds and colours. Well, it’s easier to be vulnerable after a pint or two. When you scratch a little at their veneer of self-confidence, those few who appear to be immune from these fears, and who are full of bravura and bullshit (I could name some big names), reveal all kinds of clues as to what they’re really feeling. And no matter how full of vim they may seem to be, you know for sure that one day they’re going to hit the wall of disappointment, when their body just won’t deliver what they ask of it anymore. Personally, I think it’s better to be prepared for that day rather than steam along in a state of denial, hoping it never comes. But that could just be me.
I guess it’s the belief that occasionally, just occasionally, you can “get there and deliver what you’re truly capable of” that keeps most of us performers going in the face of unspeakable fear and self-criticism.
That and increasingly short memories.