From Fringe Show to Biopic: How 'Judy' Went From London Stage to Big Screen

Judys Journey_Split - Getty - H 2019
Walter McBride/Corbis via Getty Images; Carol Rosegg

Playwright Peter Quilter wrote a show in London that wasn't about the famed singer, but after audiences pointed out the similarities, he did a new take.

Roadside Attractions' Judy stars Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland in her final months in 1968 as she mounts a comeback with a series of London concerts. It's the first big-screen attempt to depict Garland's reckoning, 50 years after her death. It all began with British playwright Peter Quilter's End of the Rainbow, which had an unwieldy path from a London Fringe show about a boozy singer not named Judy to a biopic that could earn Zellweger her second Oscar.

Quilter's play Last Song of the Nightingale, an even earlier iteration, premiered in 2001 in "one of the typical pub theaters, a 100-seat venue," the playwright tells THR. It centered on an alcoholic singer struggling with her talent and a complicated relationship with her son. Quilter says audiences immediately recognized similarities between its protagonist and Garland. "There was this gay couple that came several times," he says. "They kept referring to the main character as Judy. 'I love that scene when Judy does this. Oh, and that scene when Judy does that.' And I said, 'It's not Judy.' "

Returning to the play with Garland in mind, he was shocked that no one had written a stage show about her. "When I first wrote [End of the Rainbow], I sent it to various people, including the National Theatre, which wrote back and said, 'Oh, Peter, it's a good play, but no one is interested in Judy Garland.' " But End of the Rainbow went on to prove otherwise: after a successful premiere in Sydney, the show ran at the West End and on Broadway, earning Tracie Bennett (who played the lead, Martha Lewis, in the original conception) Olivier and Tony noms.

Judy screenwriter Tom Edge hadn't seen the play when he was asked to adapt it for the screen. But reading the script led him to watch clips of Garland's TV appearances promoting the London concerts, where Edge recognized the "quite vulnerable moments of real anger showing through and a sense that she was carrying a lot of history with her." He read many books about Garland written by people in her life, all of whom he felt had some sort of agenda; he was determined to get more of her voice into the film and wrote flashback scenes of an adolescent Garland struggling with the pressure put upon her by MGM head Louis B. Mayer. "Tom came at it from a different angle," Quilter says. "She's battling what has been done to her by various people, what the Hollywood system, her husbands and life have done to her." Edge also was inspired to include those flashbacks after watching Garland's early films: "You just feel her relationship with the camera and the audience, understanding how she can modulate those performances. That feels like a complex relationship — her relationship with performance, with applause and needing to be loved."

Garland never seems in control of her own path, though she desperately wants to be. It's a theme in the song she's most associated with, which Zellweger performs in the finale. "She's reflecting on that song that has followed her all her life and it's about thinking, 'What is over there?' and 'Should I get there?' " Edge says of her iconic "Over the Rainbow." "As she reaches this part of her life, she does not get to go on the magical journey and complete the yellow brick road, overturn the villains and return home to comfort and domesticity."

This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.