Special Reports

Judy Garland's Life Story Will Be Both Onstage and Onscreen This Fall

Renée Zellweger stars in the new feature film ”Judy” as ”Chasing Rainbows” hits Paper Mill Playhouse.

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy; Judy Garland in an undated publicity still; Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in the Goodspeed production of Chasing Rainbows
Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in Judy; Judy Garland in an undated publicity still; Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland in the Goodspeed production of Chasing Rainbows
(© David Hindley / WikiMedia Commons / Diane Sobolewski)

It's been a relatively sleepy week in the world of theater. Labor Day weekend is upon us, and everyone in the biz is getting in their last licks of vacation before barreling full steam ahead into a brand-new season — a season of Judy Garland, that is.

For the past month or so, we've been getting updates about two Judy Garland projects. There's Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz, a Broadway-hopeful musical set to run at Paper Mill Playhouse September 26-October 27 about Frances Gumm, the child performer who grew up to be the famed Judy Garland. Then there's Judy, a biopic set for a September 27 release about the end of Garland's life. The film stars movie-musical alum Renée Zellweger (Oscar nominee for Chicago), who, we learned earlier this week, will be lending her own rendition of "Over the Rainbow" to the film's soundtrack. Being the 80th anniversary of The Wizard of Oz, a dueling Judys scenario is not unexpected, but possibly a little confusing. Read ahead for our breakdown of both…so you don't get lost in all the rainbows.

Renée Zellweger in a scene from the upcoming film Judy, directed by Rupert Goold.
Renée Zellweger in a scene from the upcoming film Judy, directed by Rupert Goold.
(© David Hindley / LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions)

What is Chasing Rainbows?
Chasing Rainbows is the brainchild of Tina Marie Casamento, a performer turned casting director and faculty member at Rider University's Musical Theatre program in New Jersey. An admirer of Wizard of Oz heroine Dorothy Gale since childhood, Casamento mentioned in a 2018 interview that she was more interested in Garland's identity as an underdog rather than her later persona as a troubled cultural icon — hence the musical's focus on her younger years as the Minnesota-born Frances Ethel Gumm toured the vaudeville circuit with her two sisters, Mary Jane and Dorothy Virginia.

The musical has been floating around the country for a few years now, with rising star Ruby Rakos playing Frances/Judy in each incarnation. The show had its world premiere at North Carolina's Flat Rock Playhouse in 2015, followed in 2016 by a run at the Goodspeed in Connecticut, now landing within spitting distance of New York City at New Jersey's Paper Mill Playhouse — a theater that's known for making Broadway dreams come true, so keep your eyes on its next move.

On a scale from gloomy gray to tap-dancing Technicolor, what kind of musical will Chasing Rainbows be?
Press materials describe it as follows: "At its heart a story of love between a father and daughter, featuring such legendary songs as 'Over the Rainbow,' 'You Made Me Love You,' and 'Everybody Sing,' Chasing Rainbows is a poignant coming-of-age tale about 'the little girl with the big voice,' who went on to become one of the world's most beloved entertainment icons."

Judy Garland's childhood and rise to stardom is speckled with plenty of tragedy — from financial troubles, to her father's homosexual affairs, to his premature death in 1935. However, judging by the plot description and the creative team bringing it to life, it's unclear how far down these darker pathways Chasing Rainbows will go.

Penning the book is Marc Acito, a comic novelist and playwright who made his Broadway debut in 2015 with his book for Allegiance, a short-lived musical that gave a little too glossy a shine to a story set during the Japanese-American internment of World War II. Directing and choreographing will be Denis Jones, a two-time Tony nominee for his choreography, but a comparatively untested director. His choreography nominations have been for the currently running Tootsie and Holiday Inn, which, set in the 1940s, had a Garland-esque air of old-fashioned entertainment. Judging by the music video for "Got a Pair of New Shoes" that Chasing Rainbows released earlier this year, all signs are pointing to the show capitalizing on that song-and-dance nostalgia of old Hollywood — perhaps not the makings of anything groundbreaking, but certainly not a bad recipe for Broadway delight.

What about Judy?
If you're looking for a darker tinge to your Judy Garland history lesson, the reflective Judy is much more likely to deliver on that front than the forward-looking Chasing Rainbows. It's set near the end of 1968, almost 30 years after The Wizard of Oz and just a few months before her death from an accidental barbiturate overdose. She's about to marry Mickey Deans, her fifth husband, and as the film synopsis states, she's "exhausted, haunted by memories of a childhood lost to Hollywood, and gripped by a desire to be back home with her kids."

The film is based on Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, a play that traveled through Australia and the UK before landing on Broadway in 2012 and garnering a Tony nomination for its star, Tracie Bennett. Now adapted for the screen by Tom Edge (writer and producer of the British sitcom Lovesick) and directed by Rupert Goold (a British director accustomed to Shakespeare and thoroughly British dramas like Ink and King Charles III), I think we can safely anticipate a healthy British blend of drama and gallows humor.

So which piece of Judy Garland media should I kick off my Rosh Hashanah weekend with?
Both! The more Judys the better, I always say. Paper Mill Playhouse is billing Chasing Rainbows like your traditional rags-to-riches story with a hearty helping of Mickey Rooney's "hey kids, let's put on a show" spirit. It's bound to have great dancing, great music, and a stellar cast featuring Olivier Award winner Lesli Margherita and Tony nominee Max von Essen as Judy's parents Frank and Ethel Gumm. And if the musical turns out to err on the sweet side, you can just get a strong cocktail, head to a dark movie theater, and watch Renée Zellweger earn her next Oscar nomination.

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