An Interview with Writer/Director Ray Rackham...
We caught up with writer and director Ray Rackham to discuss all things Judy!
1) We hear you were introduced to Judy Garland at a very early age. Is this what made you want to write a play about her?
Truth be told, I didn’t really know who Judy Garland was when I was a child. Naturally, I was always very taken with the Wizard of Oz; it terrified me as a child as Margaret Hamilton (who played the Wicked Witch of the West) reminded me very much of a teacher I had a school. I knew Judy very much as Dorothy from that movie alone. However, I had the Judy Garland song book sung to me pretty much from the day I was born. My grandmother’s favourite song was “You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want to Do it)”. Now, this was an elderly East End lady singing these songs to me, so they had the definite twang of someone who may have appeared in ‘The Good Old Days’ (for those of us old enough to remember that television series) rather than the chanteuse herself. In fact, think Barbara Windsor with a tight perm and a twinset, and you’ll pretty much have the picture. By the age of eleven I could pretty much sing Judy’s Carnegie Hall album in its entirety. I only got to know Judy as a person very much later in life, when I attended a dinner party and got chatting to someone who had worked with her. This wonderful (again elderly) lady had me hooked from the first story; and my love of Judy, and eventually this play, came from that.
2) Judy! is unusual in that you have 3 different actresses playing Judy Garland. What were your reasons for this?
It sounds quite odd, but I am fascinated by the number 3. It was the number I always enjoyed being featured on Sesame Street as a child, but also is a marvellous tool when developing characters for story-telling to really get to the heart of a story from different perspectives. When I started to do my research, I was very taken with three particular moments in Judy’s life. The early years in the 1930s (being discovered by MGM and making her way toward that yellow brick road). A little later, in 1951, having been fired from MGM and starting a career as an international singing sensation. And then later again, in 1963, when Judy ventured into television. We find Judy had three pivotal moments in her career; where the stakes were high and tension was higher. These moments also celebrate the phenomenal talent Judy was, and her continuing legacy in the world of entertainment history. Finding three actresses who could play Judy over this 29 to 30 year period was the challenge; and I am delighted that in Helen Sheals, Lucy Penrose and
Belinda Wollaston we found not only three actresses who could sing like Judy, but also could believably play her in these very different time periods. When I explained to them that they would be playing Judy in these different time periods, but at the same time on stage, I think they thought I was joking, but as a story-telling device, it works really well.
3) Why do you think Judy Garland is still so popular even after her death?
I think Frank Sinatra said it best when he said something along the lines of ‘the rest of us will be forgotten, never Judy’. Judy has this incredible
capacity to make an audience fall in love with her. She was a phenomenally talented singer, an actress who played against type in a variety of roles throughout her film career, and through the television shows (however short lived) showed her complete vulnerability and normality. Unlike many singers and film stars of the time, Judy really connected with her audience. She was not aloof, or too distant from the fans; she was part of their lives, and part of their own individual journeys. Her troubles were reflected in their troubles. She also crammed an enormous amount of life into her forty seven years. Some might even say she lived three lives in one: the little girl lost, desperately trying to find her way home; the voice; and the survivor.
4) The show has had an amazing journey from its first incarnation at London Theatre Workshop and yet you still have virtually all the same
cast and creative. Why do you think that is?
I think, very simply put, it is because everyone who comes into connection with this show, and therefore the story of Judy’s life, instantly falls in love with her. I have never, in my career, seen a group of theatre practitioners so incredibly loyal to a piece; so incredibly willing to go that extra mile; and so incredibly able to create magic every time they come together. There is something very beautiful about us all starting our journey in that sixty seat theatre above a pub in Fulham in December 2015, a charting new territory with our show at the Arts this May. Judy has created this very talented family of actors, musicians and creatives who are committed to telling her story. I also think the songs are pretty cool, too. Each time we have re-mounted the show, we’ve added another song or two into the piece; and almost without exception that added number becomes that ‘company’ favourite for that run. It’s nice to hear those brilliant songs my Grandmother taught me being knocked out of the park night after night. I think Nan would have really liked that.
5) Judy Garland has often been portrayed as a victim throughout her life whether it be of her Mother, the Film Industry or the men in her life. What vision of her would you like audiences to take from you show?
First and foremost, I’d like the audience to respect Judy’s talent as an artist, as a woman growing up and working in very much a man’s world, and as someone who had this amazingly ability to look a multitude of potential disasters in the eye, and tackle them head on with a smile, a laugh and a song. So much has been written about the negative aspects of Judy’s life, but whenever questioned about her; her children very much remember the love, the smiles and the laughter. I genuinely hope we do those memories justice. Indeed, some of the nicest memories I have of the recent productions, both at Southwark and at the London Theatre Workshop, was of audience members leaving the show and wanting to find out even more about Judy Garland. I’m hoping that audience members unfamiliar with Judy’s extensive back catalogue of film, concert and television appearances will maybe watch one of Judy’s brilliant films (for the uninitiated, I would highly recommend her heart breaking performance in the 1961 film Judgment at Nuremberg, again playing against type to devastating affect); or maybe listen to an album (I’d definitely recommend the 1961 Carnegie Hall album). Clearly, 1961 was a good year for Judy when it came to her work. In her review of the Carnegie Hall concert, notorious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper said “we laughed, cried and split our gloves applauding”. I’d challenge any performer to not kill for a review like that!
6) What should people expect from the show and who do you think the show will appeal to?
I’m hoping they can expect a fascinating story, told well, by an exceptionally talented group of actors and musicians. Judy’s life was a constant roller coaster, exquisite highs matched by devastating lows; and we get to see shades of each throughout the play. The songs featured in the show were written by Broadway and Hollywood song writing royalty, and it’s great to have a live orchestra re-create that big ‘Garland’ sound night after night. I think my publicist would insist I say that the show will appeal to anyone and everyone; and for the first time in my life I would tend to agree. I definitely, however, think the show will appeal to anyone who appreciates that, sometimes, to achieve the exquisite highs, you have to be a survivor. Judy was exactly that, a true survivor. It’s why we’re still fascinated with everything about her, all these years after she left us. A star, most certainly, was born.