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Guest blog: Ray Rackham: “Going Beyond the Rainbow”

Ray Rackham

Ray Rackham

Picture it, 25th December, nineteen-eighty-something. Whilst the rest of my family were either falling asleep in front of the television, or arguing over a rather heated game of Trivial Pursuit; the pre-pubescent, spoilt, incredibly precocious younger version of me was watching my increasingly frustrated father attempt get my Christmas present to work; a portable colour television. They were all the rage in nineteen-eighty-something, and I was the only child on Middleton Street who had one.

After what seemed like an eternity; white noise was replaced by a distant sound of strings, and the television static faded to a grainy, almost sepia hue. I was devastated. I wanted full on “Goonies” inspired, He-Man and She-Ra technicolour. What I had was a young girl, wandering around a barn yard, in black-and-white (my tastes were not as developed to differentiate the sepia), singing about all the world being a hopeless jumble. Christmas was, for me at least, ruined.

But then, I heard the now incredibly familiar Over the Rainbow, with its bold, opening leap straight up an octave from Middle C, juxtaposed with darker, underlying chords to offset the apparent schmaltz of the melody, and I was hooked.

“Somewhere over the rainbow, way up high, there’s a land that I’ve heard of once in a lullaby”.

Transfixed with that Christmas day memory, I continued through my childhood, and very much into adulthood, looking for that technicolour fantasy land, “where troubles melt like lemon drops”. I believe I found it, in the many school plays, attempts at amateur dramatics, and every time I got up to sing a song (or, as my grandmother would say, “do a turn”). My very own technicolour was to come from Fresnel lanterns, home-made star cloths and smoke machines. From the theatre!

Fast forward to two-thousand-and-something. I had just recently closed my production of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins at the Pleasance Theatre, and had just accepted the position as Artistic Director of the soon to be formed London Theatre Workshop. I was also trying my luck at being a burgeoning librettist lyricist (a passion that resulted in my contribution to the musical Apartment 40C), and translating a 1980s film to stage (a passion that resulted in very little!). One might safely say that I had found the place where happy little bluebirds fly, and it was in the professional theatre. Having been invited to a very ‘Sloaney’ dinner party, where I was being my usual self, dominating the cocktail conversation (like a cross between Woody Allen, Liberace and James Corden), I found myself lucky enough to be sat next to an elderly producer who had worked on the movie “I Could Go on Singing”.

Judy! By Ray Rackham

“Of course, it was Judy’s last movie”

“Judy who?”

“Are you kidding me?”

This wonderfully caustic and acerbic lady then proceeded to teach me, chapter and verse, everything and anything a self-respecting theatre geek should know about the late, great, Judy Garland.

“Oh, you mean Liza Minnelli’s mum!”

She didn’t talk to me for the rest of the evening.

But what she did do was instil an absolute hunger to find out more about this deeply troubled, yet gorgeously triumphant human being, who was taken tragically too soon just around the corner from where I had been dining. On my way home, I rather coincidentally stumbled across the mews house on Cadogan Lane, where over forty years earlier Judy had died. And by coincidence I meant that I had jumped in a cab and had asked the driver to take me there. Even in the romanticised setting of the glow of a London street lamp, and my possibly having had one too many cherry brandies at dinner, it was clear that the tiny mews house had seen better days. The paintwork on the door was peeling off, I remember some brown tape had been placed across an upstairs window, and a solitary Christmas bauble could be seen from another, even though it was the middle of April. Overall, the place seemed to exist in a world of faded glamour. Forgotten and unloved. The garage door was covered in hardboard, as if there was some kind of building work going on behind it. Maybe the new owners were restoring it to its former glory? Maybe there has been a break-in? The overall shabbiness of the building lead me to believe that the former was implausible, and the latter inevitable.

I felt an overwhelming feeling of sadness. Where was the blue plaque? Where were the garlands of flowers, or cards of heartfelt tribute? Where was the love? I may have been forty or more years late to the memorial, but where were the fans? I’d never felt sadder for someone I didn’t know, and never more so alone. As I started to leave, a faint glimmer of light caught my eye, reflecting from the shine of the London street lamp. It came from the temporary hardboard garage door. On second glance, I realised that scrawled on the door, in purple glitter pen, were the words “if happy little bluebirds fly beyond the rainbow, why can’t I?”

Upon further inspection, it became clear that every inch of hardboard had a comment scrawled across in.

“We love you Judy”

“JG – always in my heart”

“I still believe in the rainbow”

Immediately, I started to think of my own place in the world, my love of the theatre; the fantasy, technicolour world where you can forget your troubles and get happy. I believe in that world; and a huge part of the Judy Garland narrative, however you dress it, represents that. It was at that moment that I began to see Judy not a person whose sole legacy to the entertainment industry was of trouble, heartache and pain; but of skill, talent and determination, and most importantly of love.

So what if in her later years she cracked on that ambitious leap straight up the octave from Middle C in her signature song? Were the countless tales of pills and liquor all that was actually interesting about this incredibly beguiling woman? Why do we, almost a part of our DNA, like to wallow in the pain, when there remains so much to celebrate? It was at that moment I decided to write a play about Judy. I had for many months been working on a piece about stardom, and by the time I had got home that night the two ideas had morphed into one.

And now, that same show opens at The Arts Theatre in London’s West End, on May 16th, 2017. Having been workshopped and produced at the London Theatre Workshop in December 2015, where I am still, very proudly, Artistic Director; and then at Southwark Playhouse in 2016; it makes me very happy to say that in 2017 Judy Garland is back in town, with three actresses playing her, at the same time, a stone’s throw away from the Talk of the Town; where the actual Judy played her last London gig. I certainly never expected my show to go from 60 seats to the West End in eighteen months. Some might say it’s a bit like a Mickey and Judy film. Sometimes little bluebirds do fly.

I hope to see you there.

Oh, and the Liza Minnelli gag found its way into the first draft, and has been there ever since.

PS: Cadogan House that Ray mentions in the article has since been torn down.

FIVE WEEK WEST END SEASON SUMMER 2017
Venue: Arts Theatre,
6-7 Great Newport St, London WC2H 7JB
Dates: Tues, 16 th May to Sat, 17 th June 2017
Time: 7.30pm (Thurs & Sat Matinees – 2.30pm)
(extra Matinees Tues 6 th & 13 th June)
Box Office: 020 7836 8463
Online: artstheatrewestend.co.uk

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