The expression “gay icon” gets used a lot these days. It’s attached to entertainers, performers and divas – usually women – who carry the same characteristics labeled on LGBTQ people as they struggle for acceptance: fighter; passionate; survivor.
With every generation, a new group of these icons penetrate pop culture in different ways, affecting everything from fashion choices to drag performances, but one thing they all have in common is they are all living up to the original icon, Miss Judy Garland.
“Judy was well aware that she was a gay icon,” says Matthew McGee, the Outreach and Marketing Director of freeFall Theatre Company in St. Petersburg. “And that goes all the way back to when she did The Wizard of Oz in 1939.”
The freeFall Theatre Company is bringing the magic of Garland to the stage in the Peter Quilter play End of the Rainbow, opening April 28 and running through May 28.
End of the Rainbow takes place as a snapshot of Garland in the last year of her life, attempting to mount a comeback in London.
“The show takes place in the ‘60s around the time of her engagement to Mickey Deans, and she was having another one of her many comebacks,” McGee says. “It takes place on two sets: One in her hotel room and the other is the actual stage of her show at The Talk of the Town.”
End of the Rainbow is a part of freeFall’s season of plays and musicals inspired by true stories. The show is a two-act play with a four-person cast and a six-piece band all on stage, and while it isn’t necessarily a musical, the play features Garland singing some of her classic hits.
“It’s a play with music,” McGee says. “So you get to see this play about a particular piece of Judy’s life but you also get to see her sing and perform her favorite songs: Everything from ‘The Man Who Got Away’ to ‘The Trolley Song’ to ‘Over the Rainbow,’ just a hit parade of her most beloved tunes.”
Those hits are performed by Tampa Bay award-winning actress Melissa Minyard, who starred in freeFall’s The Light in the Piazza last season. Minyard says that playing Garland is different than most of the other characters she has played before.
“I started rehearsing a week before the rest of the cast and spent time looking at videos of Judy and her performances and her interviews,” Minyard says. “I want to adopt some of those ‘isms’ she’s so well known for because she is an iconic, real person. She had very distinct, certain ways of speaking and singing.”
Minyard wanted to approach the character of Garland with an understanding that she would incorporate those “isms” but that it would not be a caricature.
“I, personally, have never been an impersonator, and that certainly is not what I am setting out to do here,” she says. “My goal is to honor her while still being honest to where she was in her life at that time.”
The time in which End of the Rainbow takes place is Garland preparing for her five-week run at London’s famed cabaret and nightclub The Talk of the Town. She is engaged to Mickey Deans, the man who would go on to become her fifth and final husband, and Garland is already struggling with addiction, abuse and depression, demons she was dealing with for nearly all of her 47 years.
“Her mother started her off on pills when Judy was 15 or 16 years old,” Minyard says. “Her mother was a stage mother extraordinaire.”
Garland came to Hollywood during the time when stars signed lengthy studio contracts that locked them into grueling schedules and long commitments.
“When she signed on with MGM they essentially owned her. She made tons of movies for them, went to school right on the lot, and they were more concerned about her weight then her well-being,” Minyard says. “The studio had a doctor on their payroll and he would come in and provide her with uppers, barbiturates, during the day so her metabolism would speed up and it would decrease her appetite. The studio didn’t even allow her to eat all that much when she was on the lot. They wanted to keep her skinny and that’s how they did it.”
Garland would be given so many pills during the day that she developed insomnia and couldn’t sleep, so the studio doctors started giving her pills to help her get to bed at night.
“That’s the reality of her life from the time she was 16 years old – it was so grueling. It’s easy to see how she would become dependent on the energy the pills would give her,” Minyard says.
This kind of treatment by the movie studios was not reserved for just Garland.
“It was commonplace,” Minyard says. “Watching all the videos on Judy I saw that, at the time, she was there with Deanna Durbin and Lana Turner and Liz Taylor; those pills were available to all those girls. That’s how the studios kept them all thin.”
Garland achieved a level of success few in Hollywood had seen before, during or after her career. But if E! True Hollywood Story has taught us anything, it’s that the higher our stars climb the harder we pull them down.
Garland’s years of drug and alcohol abuse, very public marriages and love affairs, and long days of performing left her mind, body and voice beaten and broken.
“There is a section in the play where [Judy’s accompanist during her comeback tour] Anthony, who is played by Michael Ursua, tells her that some of the people who are coming to see her are people who want to see her frailty on stage, that they like to watch her fall apart, and he doesn’t understand why someone would want to come see that and why she would give them what they want,” McGee says.
With all of the ups and downs of Garland’s career while she was alive, her popularity has skyrocketed in the nearly 50 years since her death.
“I really think that she was identifiable to people. She was so honest and raw in her concert work and in her singing. She was just so good,” Minyard says. “First of all, her voice was just extraordinary; she was an amazing natural talent. I think that vulnerability she showed in her singing, as well as the storytelling she used, made people love her.
“Also, I really identified with what she was saying in her music, you just feel like she is singing to you. I think Streisand has it. I think they have that in common, that sort of broad appeal. They connect with what they’re doing and so the audience does, too. It doesn’t hurt that she was beloved from the beginning from the iconic role that everyone knows and loves.”
Look no further for proof of her undying popularity than the interest in End of the Rainbow at freeFall. The month-long run is already nearly sold out and will most likely be extended, and McGee says that is all on Garland’s star power.
“People love to see these stories of tough women in male-driven Hollywood and people can relate to a survivor, and that’s what Judy was,” he says. “She’s stylish, she’s passionate, she’s fragile. She was always glamorous and it all started back with The Wizard of Oz. She is pure talent, a diva and really quite amazing. Plus she’s the woman that gave us Liza.”
Check on Minyard as the one and only Judy Garland in the photo gallery below. (Photos courtesy of Thee Photo Ninja.)