In the washed-out documentary from 1969, Judy Garland reaches out with her shockingly thin right arm and gently brushes singer Johnnie Ray's face.

The scene is a dinner party, with Ray coaxing Garland to join him in a chorus of "Am I Blue?" She searches his lips for clues to the lyrics and then starts unsteadily, the merciless camera tight on her worn face. But as she locates the words, her voice swells with that unmistakable Garland timbre, and the guests applaud for more. Another triumph.

This is Garland in her final chapter -- a period that biographers and journalists have labeled tragic. Poor Judy was exhausted, her finances a mess and her career balancing precariously on midsized club dates in European cities. But look closely at the scene with Ray at the piano, shot three months before her death at age 47. Evident is the curious paradox of public Garland: Though her body is frail, her spirit is buoyant, optimistic, her voice happy and her big laugh eager.

She had been an international star for more than two decades, yet still retained the thrill of a Midwestern girl who couldn't believe where she was.

"She did not think of her life as tragic," said Minneapolis writer William Randall Beard, who several years ago created the stage play "Beyond the Rainbow." "She had a wicked sense of humor and a passion, so that if someone had told her, 'You had a tragic life,' she would have looked at them with great perplexity."

Beard based his play on Garland's triumphant 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. This week a very different play, "End of the Rainbow," has its U.S. premiere at the Guthrie Theater. Featuring British actor Tracie Bennett, Peter Quilter's show finds Garland eight years after Carnegie, singing at a London club.

Bennett's performance was praised during the show's West End run. After it closes at the Guthrie, "End of the Rainbow" moves to Broadway, with an April 3 opening scheduled at the Belasco.

"The play is about the price of fame and how certain performers deal with their gift," Bennett said. "She was questioning who she was and what was Judy Garland and what had it become, deep down."

Midwestern girl

Yes, how did little Frances Gumm of Grand Rapids, Minn., become Judy Garland? American icons are built on fictions that defy reality and realities that defy fiction. Was Garland just a simple girl brimming with innocence and "golly gee" enthusiasm? Of course. But she was also a 12-year-old child supporting her family, a teenage actor who used pills to keep up with her crushing work schedule. She escaped a desperate and demanding mother by going each day to the film studios, where desperate and demanding bosses belittled her appearance, equivocated on what they wanted from her and then drove her relentlessly.

"She basically didn't have a childhood," Beard said.

Even Garland's greatest triumph carried a bitter aftertaste on the other side of the rainbow. The baby boom generation overwhelmingly saw her as Dorothy, the small and meek girl whose honest and vulnerable journey came into homes every year. Garland became a captive not of her own desire to stay young, but the public's desire to preserve her that way. And network TV's annual broadcasts of "The Wizard of Oz," made in 1939 when Garland was 16, created a shared experience from which she could not escape.

Director Peter Rothstein, who grew up in Grand Rapids and won the Judy Garland talent contest as a teenager, recalled how "The Wizard of Oz" became a community event.

"Everyone knew the night that 'The Wizard of Oz' was going to be on," Rothstein said. "You talked about it that morning and then you talked about it the next day."

Garland chafed when, at 22, she was pushed into playing a teenager in MGM's "Meet Me in St. Louis." That the movie succeeded only confirmed the public's perception and the studio's firm belief that she did best as a youngster. Meanwhile, rival Deanna Durbin was doing glamour shots for magazine covers by age 24, and 25-year-old Lana Turner smoked through the celluloid in "The Postman Always Rings Twice" in 1946, two years after Garland had played young Esther in "St. Louis."

Even though Garland's most accomplished film work would come as an adult -- particularly in "A Star Is Born" and "Judgment at Nuremberg" -- this serious actor would win only one Academy Award: for outstanding juvenile performance in "Oz."

Controlled by the studio and badgered by her mother, Garland rebelled at being pigeonholed and ran into one-sided love affairs with men who frankly saw in her a woman that the public could not or would not appreciate.

"It's absurd and unfortunate," said actor Norah Long, who portrayed Judy in Beard's play. "Look at the pictures -- she was an absolutely stunning woman. She was a thin, glam Hollywood girl."

Constant reinvention

Garland had bad luck with men -- in romance and in business. Some of it was of her own bad taste. You don't marry two gay men (Vincente Minnelli and Mark Herron) and come away unscathed. Sid Luft, who for a brief season brought stability and rebirth to her career, revealed himself as the former boxer he was. David Begelman might have been the worst man in her life, managing her career with one hand and stealing her money with the other. By the mid-1960s she was "homeless broke," as her daughter Lorna Luft wrote in "Me and My Shadows: A Family Memoir."

She might have seemed neurotic in media interviews, but as Long pointed out, she had good reason for being neurotic. People were taking advantage of her. Too, the constant diet of pills and alcohol began to change her.

Yet even in desperate straits, Garland possessed astonishing strength and courage. After MGM sacked her, she rose from the ashes like a phoenix, with 19 sold-out weeks of concerts on Broadway at the Palace Theater. She stunned Hollywood with "A Star Is Born" and in 1961 reminded the world of her brilliance at Carnegie Hall. Some fans feel the finest example of Garland the performer was her brief but celebrated TV show: at ease, ad-libbing, funny and charming with her guests, tender with her children.

By the mid-1960s, Garland's sense of duty and need for cash had her singing in gay bars in New York for $100 a night. Her 1963 performance in "I Could Go on Singing" is regarded as a transparent representation of what her life had become. Portraying "singing superstar Jenny Bowman," Garland spits out angrily in one scene: "I can't be spread so thin. I'm just one person. I'm just me. I belong to myself. ... I have hung onto every bit of rubbish there is in life and I've thrown all the good bits away. Now can you tell me why I do that?"

She certainly must have questioned what she had become, but Garland held onto a bedrock belief in her brand. Bennett said that a friend told her a story from Garland's club days in London. A booking agent was urging Judy to make sure she wasn't late in arriving on stage.

"She looked at this wine glass and she said, 'Honey, they don't pay me to be on time,'" Bennett said. "They pay to see the drama."

No place like home

Judy Garland felt safest onstage, regardless whether her voice was great or she had lost her place. People loved her, and the energy pulsed both ways.

"That's my feeling about the Carnegie Hall concert," Beard said. "It wasn't that she was just performing. She was giving everything she had and sacrificing herself in the process."

Singer/actor Jody Briskey captured that amazing empathy in Beard's play. Briskey, who shared the role with Long, sang the Carnegie concert in one of those rare moments when technique and gesture arise from a compulsion deep inside the actor.

"You feel her vulnerability, her wish for that unconditional love that she was looking for all her life," Briskey said. "She was in a safe haven when she was onstage and she could let everything she was feeling out. It was like her therapy."

Sadly for Garland, the concerts had to end. Each night, she would walk backstage and there she was, alone with her demons. This is where she was in 1969, those fearful moments in Quilter's play, in which actor Bennett rummages through the realities and myths of Garland. Did her inexhaustible energy finally give out? Certainly when you look at her physically, the question of why she died young gets turned on its head: How did she last this long?

Had the spirit of Frances Gumm begun to sag under the burden of being Judy Garland?

Only she knew the answer. We can read books, look at washed-out interviews and listen to sad tapes where a rambling Garland tries to tell the story of her life. But hers was an existence that could not be told; it needed to be felt. She lived with the contradictions, the exposure, the adulation and humiliation, the vise-grip of reality while she continued to pursue her myth.

"To be a legend, to be adored by millions all over the world and keep that up from 'The Wizard of Oz,' must have been a nightmare," said Bennett. "What does any of us know about being a legend?"