She's been dead more than half a century, but Judy Garland is bigger than ever.
Renée Zellweger is a lock to earn an Oscar nomination for playing the legend in the movie, "Judy." Showtime debuted a documentary, "Sid & Judy," this fall. And two plays that grapple with her legacy are on stage now.
Mixed Precipitation's docudrama "Hit the Wall" is by South High School graduate and "Fosse/Verdon" writer Ike Holter. It places theatergoers in New York's Stonewall Inn on the night in 1969 that, grieving the recent death of Garland, drag queens, lesbians and others launched the gay rights movement. And "Beyond the Rainbow: Garland at Carnegie Hall" uses the singer's epic concerts as a lens through which to examine her 47-year life.
"I was born at the age of 12 on an MGM lot." — Judy Garland
Ron Peluso, who directed "Beyond the Rainbow," figures there are three entertainment icons who hail from Minnesota: Prince, Bob Dylan and Garland. That's one reason to return "Beyond the Rainbow" for its fourth engagement at History Theatre since its 2005 premiere.
"I thought it'd be a good time to bring it back, with the 80th anniversary of [the movie] 'The Wizard of Oz.' I didn't even know ['Judy'] would be coming when I planned this," Peluso said. "We all grew up with 'Wizard of Oz.' The optimism of it. And I think it's interesting, especially now, that a teenage girl stands up to this horrible wizard and defends her wacky, diverse friends against a big bully. Even as a kid, I thought, 'She's got courage.' "
"I was always lonesome. The only time I felt accepted or wanted was when I was on stage performing." — Garland
Garland is such a showbiz legend that it takes four people to play her in "Beyond the Rainbow." William Randall Beard uses the 1961 Carnegie concerts — a recording of which earned Garland a Grammy Award for album of the year — as a framing device, with Garland played by Jody Briskey. In flashbacks, three other actors tackle the role: Nicola Wahl as Little Judy, Lillian Carlson as Teen Judy and Elena Glass as Judy. Although her life ended in tragedy, the concerts and memories of happier times assure that "Beyond the Rainbow" shows both the good times and the bad.
"We see the little girl, the teenage traumas, her adult traumas and the marriages, the abuse she took over the years. Liza [Minnelli, Garland's daughter with director Vincente Minnelli] said her mom had her ups and downs but she loved her life," said Peluso.
The show has changed over the years. Once performed by a five-person cast, it now features nine actors, including Norah Long. She has played a Judy in previous "Beyond the Rainbow" productions, but now she's Garland's mother, a former vaudevillian and archetypal stage mom. Songs such as "Old Folks at Home," now considered racist, have been replaced. Beard is tweaking the script.
But one aspect remains the same: Briskey.
"When we first did this, she walked in to auditions and as soon as she opened her mouth, we said, 'That's the end of the story. She's hired,' " Peluso recalled. "We're all really proud of this thing and we love Jody, who tears those songs up. Judy really attacked her songs. There was no middle ground. She went after them aggressively, emotionally and I think that's one reason she stood out, among all the other performers of her time. I think that's why we still love her."
The new plays and movies, plus dozens of biographies, back up that contention. And with the centennial of her birth only 2½ years away, it seems clear that Garland's star will continue to shine bright.
"I am still Judy Garland, a plain American girl from Grand Rapids, Minnesota, who's had a lot of good breaks, a few tough breaks, and who loves you with all her heart for your kindness in understanding that I am nothing more, nothing less."