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Rewriting Judy Garland

Date: Mar 26, 2012


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Peter Quilter started writing End of the Rainbow in 2001, and now that it's in previews at Broadway's Belasco Theatre, he's on draft number 33.

The play is about Judy Garland (Tracie Bennett), but it isn't traditionally biographical, chock full of facts and figures. Instead, Quilter focuses on a single night in 1968.

As he's honed the script, he's relied on feedback from audiences around the globe, including Australia, Scotland, Poland, and Finland. "People in those countries particularly had to be able to go and see the show with no knowledge of Judy Garland and no particular interest in Judy Garland, but they had to be satisfied by two hours of storytelling," he says. He adds that keeping them engaged often meant cutting historical information.

In November 2010, End of the Rainbow opened on London's West End, where it played for six months and earned several Olivier nominations. It all happened so fast, Quilter says, that he didn't make many changes to the script. Those would come when the show landed at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis---Garland's hometown.

Guthrie audiences were surprised to see the star portrayed as pill-popping, vulgar, and at times, violent. "I think we had to earn them in Minneapolis," Quilter says. "I think when we started each performance, particularly early on in the run, there was a sense of: 'What are you doing to our Judy Garland? We don't want to see her at her worst. We only want to see her at her best.'"

The play, which chronicles Garland's final concert series at the Talk of the Town in London, is certainly frank about her fraught relationship with addiction and fame. "But seeing the whole person is what makes you love and admire someone," Quilter says. "If you're just told somebody's great for two hours, I don't think that changes your feeling about them at the end of the show."

Still. Minneapolis audiences taught him to add fragility to certain scenes. When would Garland lose her confidence, for instance, and what might that look like?

Recently, Quilter has also focused on supporting characters like Mickey Deans (Tom Pelphrey), Garland's fiancé in End of the Rainbow and eventual fifth husband in real life. Pelphrey, who joined the show in Minneapolis, happens to be the same age (mid 30s) as Deans was in the late 1960s, and they both hail from the same place in New Jersey. Quilter savors the coincidences.

"We actually have someone who, from the first rehearsal, knew exactly what Mickey Deans' attitude and accent and way of holding himself would be," he says.

After eleven years, Quilter's content to keep tweaking Mickey, Judy, and the rest of the script. "It's that one more draft that you force yourself to do," he explains. "Can I make this 10% better? I think playwriting is a craft in the way that carpentry is a craft. It's little details; it's chipping away; and it's layers."