Writing the Rainbow: An Interview with Peter Quilter

We sit down with the playwright to talk about creating End of the Rainbow

Judy Garland at home on the stage. Photo by Tash McCammon.

Why this story? Why tell this story and bring it to the stage?

I’m always looking for subjects that are both compelling and intriguing. My immediate thought with Garland — particularly this period at the end of her life — was that it gave an opportunity for so many different levels of entertainment. She was a tragic figure, but was also known to be a very funny woman. She was worn down by life, but at the same time capable of being an incredible performer. So this wild mix of humour, show business, drama, music and emotion was irresistible to me.

Judy is usually associated with extreme tragedy or extreme optimism… which is a very Hollywood way of remembering someone. Your play presents Judy differently, she’s complex and multi-dimensional. Damaged, but brilliant. Angry but generous. In a sense, your play feels like a defiant and powerful celebration of her. What do you want End of the Rainbow to be for the audience? How do you want it to contribute to the memory of Judy Garland?

I want the audience to see a real person, with all her greatness, all her faults, all her cracks, all her sparkle. When writing about somebody so loved, you feel a pressure to always show them at their best. This is true of so many biographical shows and movies — always showing the positive side. But my belief was that if you give the audience the whole person then they can truly begin to understand them. And that enables us to empathise, to realize all the things that are going on and how she’s trying to battle through it all. So Garland is not always shown at her best in this play — sometimes we see her at her very worst. But by the end, the audience still adores her. That’s because it feels true.

My hope is that the play gives the public the sense that they were really there, that they really knew her. Michael Grade (a titan of the UK TV industry) was the nephew of Bernard Delfont who produced the London concerts which are the setting of the play. Michael’s job was to collect Judy from her hotel room each night, where he witnessed her behaviour, her relationship with her fiancé, and the car crash of everything going on with her life at that time. When he came to see the play in the West End, he said it was just like being back in that room, it was all exactly as it was. So i know that though the play is fictional, we have managed to get very close to reality.

Peter Quilter: The writer behind the rainbow

What’s so fascinating about the story of Garland is how it reads like a microcosm for the history for the Hollywood studio system at large. Can you talk about how Judy was made and broken by the Hollywood system or, rather, the cult of celebrity?

Drug taking was completely normalised in Hollywood at the time when Judy began her career. So you were given drugs to provide you with the energy to get through the tough, long working days, and then more chemicals were thrown at you in order to help you sleep and recover. Some people were able to escape from that cycle as they got older, but others never escaped from the addiction. So Judy was fighting a battle with herself from a very early age. It shouldn’t be forgotten that she did have a glorious career. So much so, that her status today remains legendary. It was only in the second part of her career when things started to go disastrously wrong. She was found to be difficult and her problems caught up with her, plus she had a pretty rotten taste in husbands. So Hollywood eventually abandoned her. It’s a factory that chewed her up and spat her out. But her brilliance enabled her to continue her career as a solo performer, again reaching great heights. So up until the sad end, she’s really more of a fighter and survivor than a victim.

Images from the rehearsal room

I want the audience to see a real person, with all her greatness, all her faults, all her cracks, all her sparkle.

Judy experienced a strong tension between the ‘real Judy’ and the persona of Judy and struggled with it. That disconnect between image and real-person is, as Richard Dyer states, a huge part of the queer experience and is part of what led to gay men having such an affinity for Garland. This is beautifully represented by the character of Anthony in your play. Can you tell us about the relationship between Judy garland and the queer community- why, in your words, was/is she so important?

There is certainly an affinity between gay men and strong but tragic women. Plus an appreciation of great talent. Garland is particularly important in the Gay community because legend has it that the Stonewall Riots were sparked by the police raiding gay bars on the night of Garland’s funeral. This is disputed now, but that doesn’t really matter because the myth of it, the possibility of it, remains as strong as ever. She was already a Gay icon before Stonewall, but that added element of history raises her to the heavens.

It was interesting taking the play to New York where we were instantly met by the Gay community with resistance rather than celebration. The feeling was one of “Who the hell do these Brits think they are daring to bring Garland to Broadway?” She was such a protected figure there, regarded as untouchable. In the end, they warmed to us and realised that the play was not an assassination but a love letter. But it was a confusing journey at first. Gay New Yorkers are very protective of their idols.

Judy was incredibly funny and quick on her feet- no doubt a result of her years in vaudeville. Lucille Ball said she was the funniest woman in Hollywood. Can you speak to the character of Judy Garland and what you discovered about her throughout the process of writing? Where there any amazing stories about her that you’ve discovered as a result?

When I started developing the play, the greatest joy for me was discovering how funny she was. It gave me the opportunity to shine humour through the sadness of the story. It’s particularly nice that people think that most of her one-liners and funny comments in the play are direct quotes. Well, they’re not. In fact, there’s only one sentence in the entire play that’s a true Garland zinger and it’s one that I just couldn’t resist using. But once you get into the character of Garland, it’s quite easy to be funny. I’m much funnier as Judy than I am as myself!

She didn’t have much of a filter, she spoke her mind, took no prisoners. Plus had that incredible ability to crack a joke in the most dire of circumstances. She was also a great storyteller, able to laugh at herself, and that made her a great talk-show guest. But underneath the jokes, there was anger, frustration, fury. It’s the mix of those things, I think, that makes her so compelling and the humour so rich.

How did the film adaptation of the play come about? You play feels inherently theatrical, in the sense that it’s a backstage musical (not dissimilar to films like Cabaret) whereas the film feels like more of a straight biopic? What does the play do differently?

The film has been a long journey. I was first approached about it back in 2010 when the play was in the West End. Over the next eight years, the project changed producers, had several changes of director, and a couple of different screenwriters. I was told early on that they would not want me to write it. I’m a theatrical writer and it was clear that the movie needed to go in a different direction and be a film that stood on its own and felt like a pure movie, rather than a stage adaptation. This was extremely painful to me as it meant that i watched the script move further and further away from the play. But you have to accept that it is something different, a companion piece. The play remains exactly as it is and the film will simply be a reflection of it, standing alongside. The play has a cast of 3 and the film has a cast of 34!

The play has two main locations and the film has dozens. So the story in the film is much wider, it moves through different time periods and tracks many different episodes. But the essence is the same as the play — the basic story, the central character, the emotions, remain intact. This is why the title is different. I wanted the audience to know that “Judy” (the movie) and “End of the Rainbow” (the play) are different things. The same story, but told in vastly different ways. The film is beautiful and has a really stunning central performance by Renèe Zellweger. So despite the initial pain of the process, I feel very proud to be a part of it.

And just to add, I feel equally proud to be a part of the season at State Theatre Company of South Australia. The joy of having a play of mine performed by a great company and great actors never goes away.

End of the Rainbow plays in the Royalty Theatre from 31 May — June 22 as part of Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Tickets are available here.

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Behind the Curtain

State Theatre Company South Australia welcomes you behind the curtain. Join us for bold opinions and discussions of art and theatre and learn about what makes the onstage magic happen.

Behind the Curtain

State Theatre Company South Australia welcomes you behind the curtain. Join us for bold opinions and discussions of art and theatre and learn about what makes the onstage magic happen.