Terry Johnson Finds Gold at End of the Rainbow

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Tracie Bennett in "End of the Rainbow." Photo by Craig Schwartz.
Tracie Bennett in “End of the Rainbow.” Photo by Craig Schwartz.

For most baby boomers in the 1960s, Judy Garland was no more nor less than Dorothy in the annual television viewing of Wizard of Oz,  as she gloriously moved from black and white Kansas to black and white Oz (pre-color TV).  However, Terry Johnson was no ordinary child.

Growing up in England, he was very aware of the Oz film, but this youngster was interested in neither old children’s movies nor contemporary music — he was fascinated by the grown-up glamor of old Hollywood and its melodious music. His vision of Garland came from her later musical films and her legendary concerts. In his teen years he felt compelled to write a play about Judy Garland. He never followed the compulsion, but years later, after making a name for himself as one of Great Britain’s foremost playwrights and directors, the perfect Judy Garland project fell into his lap.

Terry Johnson
Terry Johnson

Opening this week at the Ahmanson, Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow celebrates the life and music of Garland, while mourning the excesses the led to her early demise in 1969. The project has been floating about the theater world for more than a decade, opening in Sydney in 2005 and playing the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2006. It finally fell into the hands of its current star Tracie Bennett and director Johnson in 2010 for a production at Northampton’s Royal & Derngate, followed by its American premiere at the prestigious Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis before moving to the Belasco on Broadway in 2012.

Though Johnson continues a remarkable career as director and dramatist, including his Tony-winning direction of the recent La Cage aux Folles revival and frequent international productions of his stage version of Charles Webb’s novel The Graduate, he remains remarkably close to End of the Rainbow.  Johnson is in Los Angeles anticipating the Ahmanson opening and intends to babysit the show for some time, while also checking out the local theater scene. Johnson took some time from his rigorous schedule in order to talk about this “play with music, not really a musical.”

Johnson had heard about Quilter’s play years earlier. “It flew past me about 10 years ago in a very embryonic state, like a little pop cabaret.” He explains that the Edinburgh Festival Fringe production was in a much different form. Quilter’s original concept was not literally about Garland, but it was inspired by her. Johnson continues, “Tracie went to Peter and said to stop hiding behind a fake character’s petticoat and make it Judy. She gave him the courage to say, “˜Yes, it is Judy.’ It came to me three years ago when it had been in abeyance for awhile. It needed a bit of work, so Peter and I sat down and bashed it out into the form it is in now. I did a bit of dramaturgy, as you do in most work with a playwright.”

Johnson and Bennett have been friends and colleagues for decades. They’ve worked together several times, including the British run of his revival of La Cage. “I always had a good instinct that the role of Judy was Tracie’s, even though I didn’t see it all those years ago when she was fooling around with it. I wanted to make it shipshape for her to sail in. The reason for doing this show is Tracie Bennett.”

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett.
Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett.

He can’t seem to offer enough praise for his partner in this production. “There are performers you keep a leash on and those you don’t keep on a leash.  Tracie is a perfectionist and she always works at the top of her game. Everybody around does as well, or will have to because she will call you on it. She is very taxing in every department, so I don’t have to do much of that. In that sense she’s a wonderful leading lady. She keeps all that going.  She and I have a shorthand and always have.  She’s done this show 700 times or more, yet I can still give her notes on a line, still pull rugs from out under her feet to keep it lively.  She just goes, “˜Yep, yep, yep!’”

Though he insists End of the Rainbow is not actually a musical, Johnson also promises that Garland fans won’t be disappointed. “You get the six great Judy hits.  It has some musical theater aspects because the songs are emotionally apt. Each number is done at a different time in the play and, in each of those times, she’s at a different pitch, on different drugs, on alcohol or not.  Each song is performed within an action within the story of the piece. The play is a very clever amalgamation of Judy’s last two trips to London. Her penultimate trip to London was quite troubled. Her very last was very sad. Peter has taken those two trips and put them together rather neatly. In this version she’s coming with her last husband to do her last concerts in London.”

In American theater, Johnson is most celebrated for his direction, but his roots are in writing plays. He was brought up in the Royal Court Theatre, England’s champion of young playwrights. In 1956, its director George Devine declared, “Ours is not to be a producer’s theater, nor an actors’ theater, it is to be a writer’s theater.” This new company soon broke ground on modern British theater with John Osborne’s culture-changing Look Back in Anger. Years later the same company was nurturing Johnson as he developed what he terms his “satiric plays,” which approach such characters as Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock — the latter in his play Hitchcock Blonde, the US premiere of which he directed at South Coast Repertory in 2006.

Tracie Bennett
Tracie Bennett

“I was close to getting it on Broadway at one point. I kind of invented a blonde for him to terrorize. It’s a three-stranded epic play about a professor and his student discovering some old footage of Hitchcock auditioning girls to be Janet Leigh’s body double.” Hitchcock Blonde and Hysteria, or Fragments of an Analysis of an Obsessional Neurosis, a fictionalized meeting between Sigmund Freud and Salvador Dali that received its American premiere in 1995 at LA’s Mark Taper Forum, are two of his proudest achievements. “Both have come close to a possible Broadway life. I am frustrated they haven’t [actually opened there]”.

Both frustration and joy have marked Johnson’s relationship with Broadway. He received the 2010 Tony for directing La Cage, but his previous Broadway turn as director and playwright for The Graduate floundered with the New York critics, although it managed a run of 380 performances. “It didn’t go down well on Broadway and I think it was slightly willful…It was received as some wordy, slower version of the Mike Nichols movie.”

In fact Johnson had originally balked at the idea along those lines. “I turned it down instantly saying, “˜No it’s a movie.’ The producer Sacha Brooks gave me the novel.  It is such a remarkable piece of literature — a true zeitgeist of its period. So I thought I’d give it a go. The Graduate is entirely based on the novel, though I eventually watched the film again and think I stole one Buck Henry gag. The novel has wonderful rounds of dialogue, a kind of rhythmic feast. The adaptation was understood in England and Australia where we were a big hit. I believe it is about to rear its head again in Australia.”

Recently in the LA area, where the story of The Graduate is set, West Coast Ensemble produced Johnson’s version in 2009, LA Theatre Works recorded a radio theater version of it in 2010, and Long Beach Playhouse is currently producing it on its mainstage.

Though The Graduate was based on the book, Johnson believes its initial success may have unleashed the current trend of musicals based on movies. “A few months after we’d opened very successfully, MGM rang us up and then hurriedly invented an office called “˜MGM on Stage’ ““ they sent us a seven-page fax that mentioned every MGM movie in the catalogue. We were quite instrumental in the beginning, getting that trend going. I’m not sure it’s a good thing, but the reason it happens is because it is a brand. If you can’t get a star you need a brand.  Now you need a brand and a star. That’s what a film title gives you. Then it’s got a good a chance to be as good or bad as any other project, depending on who gets on board.  I’ve done it myself. We had a go at Rain Man, which I don’t think made its way to the States.”

Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett.
Michael Cumpsty and Tracie Bennett.

After the Ahmanson run of End of the Rainbow, Johnson will return home to several booked freelance jobs. First up is the UK premiere of David Mamet’s Race at Hampstead Theatre, which he hopes will move to the West End. But most exciting for him is a revival of a British musical sensation.

“I’ve been offered a very flattering job a year from now, doing a revival of a piece called Oh! What a Lovely War. Based on songs of World War I, [it’s] about as iconic an English production as you can imagine.” It was initially produced in 1963, in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I in 1964. Johnson’s 2014 staging will occur in the same year as the centennial of the beginning of the war.

It will be produced at Theatre Royal Stratford East — the same venue where it originated in 1963. Theatre Royal was a stalwart of the British stage when it opened in 1884. It later fell into disrepair and in 1954 was given new life by legendary director Joan Littlewood and a troupe of actors who formed The Theatre Workshop, a company steeped in left-wing politics.  Johnson explains, “It was an incredibly important socialist theater.  It provided a hinge from the West End being full of Noel Coward plays. At the same time as Royal Court finding John Osborne and putting on Beckett, Joan Littlewood was inventing agitprop. Her place in contemporary theater is extraordinary and Oh! What a Lovely War was her most important show. It’s bloody hard and scary and quite an honor to be chosen to do that particular revival because, in the English canon, it is just phenomenally important.”

End of the Rainbow, Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave. Los Angeles. Opens Wednesday. Tue-Fri 8 pm, Sat 2 pm and 8 pm, Sun 1 pm and 6:30 pm. Thursday 2 pm matinees on April 4 and 18. No Sunday 6:30 pm performance on March 24, April 7 and April 21. Closes at the matinee on April 21. Tickets: $55-$110. www.CenterTheatreGroup.org. 213-972-4400.

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Tom Provenzano

Tom Provenzano

Tom is Professor of Theater Arts at California State University, San Bernardino, specializing in acting, voice, speech, directing and children’s theatre. He has directed his own adaptations of As You Like It, A Wrinkle in Time, Macbeth, Hamlet, Charles Dickens: Great Expectations and Just So Stories as well as productions of The Seagull, The Three Musketeers, Hay Fever, Cabaret, Ah Wilderness!, Six Degrees of Separation Electricidad, The House of Blue Leaves, Blithe Spirit, Rumors, Night Must Fall and Eastern Standard. His production of Resa Fantastiskt Mystiskt was invited to the 2001 Kennedy Center/American College Theater Festival (KCATCF). Tom received his MFA in Theater from UCLA in 1992. In 1984, with Teresa Love, he created Imagination Company, a children's theater touring schools and libraries throughout California. Professor Provenzano wrote and directed several of the troupe’s productions, including the company's highly successful Alice in Wonderland and Big Bad Riding-Wolf and the ugly Step-Pig as well as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. He also reviews theater for the LA Weekly, and writes profiles for @ This Stage Magazine. Other publications include Backstage West/Drama-Logue, LA Parent Magazine, Theater Week, Creative Drama and Audrey Skirball-Kenis Theater's Parabis. He is also a past chair of the Playwriting Program of the KCACTF, Region VIII.