“There is no innocence.”
This story first appeared in the May 29, 2012 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That, says Tracie Bennett, is the point at which she takes on Judy Garland in a performance of gut-wrenching intensity in “End of the Rainbow” at the Belasco Theater on Broadway. Bennett’s tour de force portrayal of the final stages of Judy’s lifelong addictions and resulting manic behavior has made her the favorite to claim Best Actress in a Play at the Tony Awards on June 10.
The work is so emotional, the portrayal of a severe addict near the end so frenzied, it’s difficult to imagine anyone performing the role eight times a week. For a civilian theatergoer (myself), the process of developing the character in the first place fascinates. In a recent conversation in her small dressing room tricked out with a portable bar and ample Judy imagery — from Dorothy on up — I asked Bennett to discuss the arduous process of becoming Judy, her actor’s journey from casting to opening night, and her daily one, reinhabiting the character for each performance. The transformation becomes all the more interesting after meeting her, Bennett’s thick working-class British accent, from Manchester by way of 30-plus years in London, more than an ocean away from the speech of her volatile Judy.
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Several hours before curtain time, Bennett still looks like herself, which is to say, not a bit like the character she’s to play, and for whom, in a few hours, she will appear a ringer. Now, a headband pulls her straight blond hair from her face; her clothes work the artsy side of separates — rumpled blazer, boho top and pants rolled at the ankles atop a pair of printed Converse sneakers.
“I’m frightened of everything, yet I don’t like fear, so I would prefer to call it a challenge,” she says of accepting the role when “End of the Rainbow” was first produced in London’s West End. Her performance, she points out, is not an attempt at imitation, nor is the play pure tribute to Garland. “It’s a celebration of Judy’s legacy,” she offers, “but it’s also about how people deal with the price of fame, how gifted people deal with their gift, badly or greatly.”
Bennett’s approach was to first ignore Judy Garland the icon, focusing instead on a nameless person of the era, a woman of incredible talent whose constitution and life circumstances had led to severe addiction. The era’s political climate, the role of women, how they dressed and accessorized themselves, how they moved, stood, sat, Bennett researched it all. She left dealing with the phenomenon of Judy herself until the end of her research. “I’m not an icon. I’ll never know what that’s like,” she says. Still, she felt a basic professional connection, “because we do the same thing for a living-ish. I don’t do movies like she did, I’m not a stage concert artist like she was, I don’t do things as me. ‘Tracie Bennett at the Palace’ – no! I’d rather eat my own ovaries! Put a wig on, I’ll do anything, but as me, I’m not a singer. I don’t have that ego, and I don’t mean ego in a bad way. I just don’t know what that is.”
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In the play, Judy is in London in 1968 for a concert series called Talk of the Town. Bennett found preparing those in-concert segments particularly challenging. She credits director Terry Johnson — “please say he’s a genius; he totally is, and I don’t say that lightly” — with leading her through. Even a fake concert situation felt “way out” of her comfort zone, a feeling born out by early rehearsals. At one point, Johnson told her to “stop, you look embarrassed.” “I was like, ‘I am embarrassed.’ Even though I’d studied [Judy] by this time — every DVD, the television shows, her interviews — you have to put it all into practice and the first time I did it, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Terry said, ‘It’s all in the eyes. You have to be fabulous and insecure at the same time.’ He was, what’s the word? — loving about it — drawing it out without mocking me.”
Bennett says that typically, in the first dress rehearsal, “you go up a notch.” Still, at that key moment she stunned the room. “I don’t know what I did, but they were all, ‘Where did that come from?’ You’re paid to take on that pressure. Don’t moan, get on with it, do your work, show them something.”
Once she got into researching her famous subject, Bennett became, and remains, a connoisseur of all things Judy, relishing opportunities to meet with people who knew her. Lord Michael Grade, a nephew of Bernard Delfont, who booked Judy for the Talk of the Town concerts, saw “End of the Rainbow” first in London and again a few weeks ago in New York. He knew Judy near the end of her life, when she was involved with Mickey Deans, her younger, out-of-his-league lover/manager who would become her fifth and last husband. Tom Pelphrey plays Deans in the show; Bennett wanted him to hear Grade’s stories about the real Deans.
“[Grade] said [Deans] was shady, and didn’t say much because he was frightened of saying things wrong,” Bennett recalls. He did, however, sense genuine attraction between Judy and Deans. “I wasn’t in the bedroom; they probably had great sex,” he told Bennett, “and he probably did care about her.” He also discussed Judy’s chronic lateness. When implored to go onstage on time “for your public,” she responded, “Honey, people don’t pay me to be on time. They pay to see the drama.”
For her part, Bennett arrives at the theater early each day, keeping to a tight routine. She eats three hours before curtain — “salmon, watercress, broccoli, soups, chicken, avocado, all the good stuff” — interrupted by the rare chocolate or other indulgence. “I’m playing an addict, so I can’t be fat. There are no fat addicts, trust me.” She plays music from across a broad spectrum — “Northern Soul, Motown, funk, Stevie Wonder, ‘Once Upon a Time in America,’ ‘Concerto Number Two,’ disco” — until it gets on her nerves, and settles in to apply her own Judy makeup, a precise, multistep process. If she gets bored in the middle, she’ll break for a phone call or e-mail check.
Bennett uses the preshow time as well to review the previous performance, for “danger points,” something she’d gotten wrong, a tricky sentence that didn’t roll properly off her tongue. An actor goes through phases during a long run, she explains, and can crash. “I’ve done about 25 different versions of scripts, so I go in and out of various scripts in my muscle memory. I have to work hard at not going to script number six because we might have dropped a sentence that was superfluous.”
In one highly emotional scene, an increasingly manic Judy gyrates seemingly randomly back and forth on the stage while singing “Come Rain or Come Shine,” getting completely tangled in her microphone cord. That scene was complicated to stage for a number of reasons: It had to be choreographed to perfection to allow for the required lighting; as the play has no choreographer, Bennett, a trained dancer, did it herself. She then had to train the stagehands to handle the cord offstage, a not insignificant task since everyone working in theater is too young to have experience with corded mics. For Bennett’s Judy, the lead must be held and adjusted constantly, with just the right amount of slack and at exactly the right level.
In a recent performance, a too-tight lead caused a misstep which caused an ashtray to fall which caused a water glass to spill. Bennett runs through all the thoughts that competed for her concentration while singing: Would she have to pick the ashtray up? How would she avoid slipping in the water in her next song? And even, what if the water hits the raw wiring? Pelphrey came to the rescue, during one of his speeches using bed sheets to wipe the floor, as if Judy had vomited. As it turns out, he didn’t quite get it all. Bennett slipped anyway, but, as a dancer, was able to recover. “That’s what an actor’s job is,” she says. “To go over a mistake and come out of character but stay in it at the same time. It’s bizarre.”
With so much to think about in the moment, does she ever fall out of her stage accent, especially given how different it is from her own? “Yes, at first, because your muscle memory isn’t in your tongue yet, and in your soft palette and your hard palette and your cheeks. Once you get that muscle memory in your mouth, it sits there. That said, if I’ve had a tough week, certain things can slip. The trick is to not let it affect you. You have to go, in your mind, ‘S–t, lost that one, better concentrate more because I’m tired.’ You start sweating a bit but you have to leave that mistake behind and carry on. This is the joy of theater: You can try to be better the next night.”
Most people who have seen “End of the Rainbow” would wonder how Bennett could possibly be better the next time around. She is quick to share credit with the show’s other actors — Pelphrey; Michael Cumpsty as Anthony; her devoted pianist, and Jay Russell, who provides the “outside element” via a series of uninvolved characters — while stressing the ensemble nature of the play. She refuses to attribute her own performance to rare talent, noting instead traits inherited from her parents: “I’m grounded, I’ve got a commitment, and a willingness to learn.”
She’s also got the role of a lifetime. It carries huge responsibility, which only grew when the show migrated from London to Broadway. “I know you [Americans are] protective of your icons, and I’m a Brit,” she says. “I had to be brave and think, if this opportunity is coming and people have faith in you, seize it, try your damned hardest given your training and your life experiences and your background. Take care of it, put it in your heart with a red ribbon around it, put it in your pocket, look after it, water it, tend it, nurture it like a garden. I’m not gifted. So I have to work harder than most at things. I don’t find anything easy.”
In the category of things not easy: celebrity. Not that Bennett whines about her newfound fame, she’s just still getting accustomed to it. She turns emotional talking about her Tony nomination and the proverbial thrill of seeing her name in lights, although she refused to look at the theater marquee until her mother and sister came from England for a visit. “Even now, [I pretend] I’m in a pub, or it will freak me out,” she says. “The prize to me is even thinking I could be on Broadway, never mind play [Judy] in America.…It’s too much to think about. I’m a chorus girl. It’s thrilling.”