Caro Meets Musicals & Opera Interview

Ray Rackham: Judy!

By | Published on Thursday 20 April 2017

If you are a fan of Judy Garland (and let’s face it, a large proportion of our readership probably is) then you won’t want to miss new musical ‘Judy!’, which, after a run (under a different title) at Southwark Playhouse a wee while ago, is set to be staged next month at The Arts Theatre.

Previous incarnations of the show met with much critical acclaim, and the structure and focus of the show seemed intriguing, so I was keen to talk to the show’s creator, Ray Rackham, to find out more.

CM: Can you start by telling us what the show is about? Obviously, it’s about Judy Garland, but what aspects of her life does it cover?
RR: Quite right, the show is about Judy Garland, I’m glad we’ve cleared that up.

The show explores what I believe to be three pivotal moments in Judy’s life. First, it covers the period of Judy being discovered by MGM Studios, when she was still called Frances Ethel Gumm and was part of a singing trio (with her sisters) called the Gumm Sisters. It covers her time as a cog in the studio machine, before she made probably her most known movie, the Wizard of Oz.

Then, we meet Judy in a two day period, in 1951, just before she opened her now legendary Palace Theatre concert series. At this point in her life, Judy has been sacked from MGM, and has put everything into opening at the Palace in New York. She is falling in love with her manager, Sidney Luft (who later became her third husband) and the stakes a very high.

Finally, we meet Judy in 1963 in the television studios. Judy is venturing onto the small screen, in a weekly broadcast series of variety shows. She finds herself on unfamiliar ground, her marriage to Sid is very much on the rocks, and again, the stakes are high.

CM: The show stars three different ‘Judys’ – what made you decide to structure the show this way?
RR: I have always been fascinated by the number three. My first musical, Apartment 40C, was produced in 2014/2015 and features a couple at three stages of their lives. I also wanted to forge a (very short lived) career in stand-up comedy, and always worked on the “rule of three” when telling a joke or making a point.

I wanted to structure the show in a way that Judy could be informed by the past and look to the future, with none of the narratives truly being the ‘present’. When I landed on the idea of the ‘Judys’ telling their stories at the same time, it then really began to take off. In the very first draft, it was a very chronological affair, and whilst still interesting, I think the alchemy only really started to make sense when I put the narratives together. It also gives a marvellous opportunity to hear Judy, at different stages in her life, singing of the songs we know and love in echoes of three. That’s exciting!

CM: What made you want to create a show about Judy Garland? Have you always been a fan?
RR: To be honest, no. I met a brilliant – dare I say elderly – lady at a dinner party a few years ago, who explained that she had worked on ‘Judy’s last film’. I asked ‘Judy who?’ and much to her astonishment I was asking a genuine question. Of course, I’d always known that she was Dorothy, but wasn’t truly aware of her extension catalogue in film, music and television. I’d always thought of her as Liza’s mother. Naturally, once I got to know that back catalogue, and found out more about the woman behind the voice, I was hooked.

CM: Did you learn a lot about her when writing the show? Did you do a lot of research?
RR: I learned so much. This was probably the most research I have ever done for anything I have written, because having fallen in love with Judy through watching the movies and listening to her sensational albums, I wanted to do her justice.

I settled on the three periods in the play because I feel they best explore the moments of Judy’s life that were met with both tragedy and triumph, in equal measure. And she was a fighter. She fought to land the part of Dorothy Gale (even when so young), she fought to forge a new career after the movie roles dried up, and she fought for the integrity of her television show; even when surrounded by almost a carousel of television executives, directors, and creatives.

CM: What was the quality, do you think, that made her such a favourite with the public? What was her appeal?
RR: Judy was both vulnerable and a force of nature, many times at the same time. For me, this means she is human, and that humanity is what I believe so many people find so appealing. She represents so many things to so many people; the little girl lost who was desperately trying to find her way home; the triumphant chanteuse who was always looking for love; the battle weary survivor who used laughter, love and song to get through a variety of life’s problems. She represents that part in all of us that wants to be the best we can be.

Judy never fell out of love with her public. She never blamed them for whatever life threw at her. She was deeply loyal to her equally loyal fans. And, frankly, she believed in everything she did.

CM: The show was previously performed under a different title, and was very well received. Have you made any changes to the actual show since the run at Southwark Playhouse?
RR: As a writer, I don’t think your job is ever truly done. There’s an old adage in the theatre, and particularly in the world of musical theatre, that shows aren’t written, they are rewritten; and for the most part I believe it to be true. I love revisiting my work, and what I have found exhilarating in these last two years is that I have been given two opportunities (first at Southwark and now at The Arts) to revisit the piece that was already very well received at London Theatre Workshop in December 2015. I am a stickler for clarity; when a character says something it has to mean something, and importantly has to move the story forward.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the cast of the show?
RR: I can tell you that I love them. Almost without exception, the cast has remained the same from the show’s first performance, in a sixty seat theatre above a pub in Fulham, to the show that will open on the West End in May. There is very much a reason for that, they completely embody both the characters I have written and the very ‘real’ people they are playing.

We have three exceptional Judys in Helen Sheals, Belinda Wollaston and Lucy Penrose; and a veritable cornucopia of talent in the actor musicians who play all of the supporting characters in the play, as well as a number of instruments throughout. They are such a talented and hardworking bunch, it’s a constant joy to witness what an incredibly tight knit group they have become.

Many are making their West End debuts with this show, and a few are returning to the West End after some years away. That’s one of my proudest achievements, keeping the cast who believed in the show with the show throughout its journey into town. However much they believe in the show, it pales into insignificance when compared to how much I believe in them.

CM: You’ve had a fairly varied career: producing, directing, writing, founding London Theatre Workshop… what do you enjoy the most?
RR: Without question, it’s working with people. I guess that’s why I have had a varied career in the theatre. I get to meet and work with a crazy and wonderful bunch of practitioners, who bring so much to the room.

There is a quotation, and forgive me for quoting an amphibian, that Kermit the Frog says in the film ‘The Muppet Movie’. I’m paraphrasing here, but it goes something along the lines of “I have a dream, and it’s about singing and dancing and making people happy. That’s the kind of dream that gets better the more people you share it with, and I have found a whole bunch of friends who share that dream. And it kind of makes us like a family.” It is, I believe, the most important statement anyone (felt puppet or otherwise) has said about working in the theatre. You find a family.

CM: What attracted you to a career in the arts?
RR: I’ve never really thought about why I wanted to work in the arts before. I just knew I wanted to work in the theatre. I wanted to create something that may someday still be knocking around when I am long gone. I wanted to say something, anything, about the world, and share that view with others. I’d love to be intelligent and prolific and say I wanted to “hold a mirror up” to the world, but someone has beaten me to that. So I’ll conclude by saying, I have always loved a good show tune.

CM: What ambitions do you have for the future?
RR: I don’t really have ambitions as such. I’d like to carry on doing what I am doing. I’d love to be successful, but that is such a subjective term. The character of Ben Stone, in James Goldman’s book for the musical ‘Follies’, says (and again I am paraphrasing) that success “is being good at doing what you want to do”. So, in short, I’d like to be good at doing what I want to do.

CM: What’s coming up next?
RR: Too much! I think I need to go to ‘over-committers’ anonymous’ at some point and put a stop to my taking on everything that I find interesting and exciting.

As a librettist/lyricist, I am writing a new musical, entitled ‘Therapy’, with an incredibly exciting new composer, Jordan Li-Smith. We’ve got a few numbers under our belts, and are starting to work with actors in a workshop environment.

I have just finished directing a new tour of a musical entitled ‘Fanny’, which deals with (amongst other things) prostitution and the damaging effect of the Victorian Contagious Diseases Act.

I am translating a 1963 film into a musical (although I’m not allowed to say anything more about that for fear of being hauled to Hollywood to explain myself).

Meanwhile, my first thriller, entitled ‘Disturbance’ goes into workshop soon, and I am writing a treatment for a three part television series.

The interesting thing will be to see which of these projects lands first. Who knows, something might come along tomorrow that excites me so much I put everything to one side and focus on that… I have been known to do that.

‘Judy!’ is on at the Arts Theatre from 16 May-17 Jun. See this page here for info and to book.

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