The “Better Connecticut” team had the pleasure of getting a behind-the-scenes look at the musical “Chasing Rainbows” at the Goodspeed Opera House. The play tells the story of how a very young Frances Gumm became Judy Garland and won our hearts as “Dorothy” in “The Wizard of Oz”.
Here is a transcript of our interview done in late August with twenty year old Ruby Rakos, the young woman who plays a teenaged Frances Gumm/Judy Garland in “Chasing Rainbows”.
WFSB: You’ve been working on this musical for quite some time.
Ruby: Yeah. I have been working on "Chasing Rainbows" for three years. And Tina Marie (Casamiento – the show conceiver) and David Libby have had a development deal for the music for at least five years before they met me.
WFSB: What is you first memory of "The Wizard of Oz" movie?
Ruby: I don't think I have a specific memory of the "Wizard of Oz", but ... it was definitely a constant in my childhood. We watched it every year at Christmas like every other family.
WFSB: Could you have ever imagined you'd be taking the stage as the woman who played Dorothy? Ruby: I never thought i would play Judy Garland. I never thought I was that type. I mean, when I was little, everyone called me "Little Ethel Merman", so everyone asks me "oh, did everybody say 'you look like Judy Garland', 'you sound like Judy Garland'?” "No, not really."
WFSB: You've done research to get to know Judy Garland. What did you learn that surprised you or was interesting to you?
Ruby: Researching this role I read numerous biographies, watched a bunch of her early movies. I
listened to her sing her music and would copy her, you know, her cascades and her vibrato.
WFSB: We didn't know she had a hard luck start and there was pressure on her to support her family. Ruby: Yeah, I didn't know that she was the sole breadwinner of her family for years, especially once she got a contract at MGM. I didn't know anything other than "The Wizard of Oz" and her later life. So, it was ... everything was a surprise.
WFSB: Tell us a little bit about this play. It doesn't take you to end of her life ...
Ruby: Yeah ... “Chasing Rainbows” covers from when she's six years old to when she's sixteen and is starring in the "Wizard of Oz". It tracks her move from Minnesota to California and then to LA with her sisters and their act in the Vaudeville circuit and her numerous auditions for movie studios.
WFSB: You don't play the six year old?
Ruby: No. Little Ella Briggs plays six year old Frances Gumm.
WFSB: Does it go in time order, where it starts when she is young child?
Ruby: It sort of goes back in time a little bit. It starts with me in “The Wizard of Oz” during a costume test. And it sort of is a memory back to little Ella.
WFSB: Do you have a favorite song in the show?
Ruby: My favorite song to sing in the show is "Meet the Beat of My Heart", which is the opening of Act II and it's Judy's first day on the MGM lot and it's just a lot of fun to sing. It has a good swing to it. But my favorite song to watch that I'm not in is "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", which Judy's father - Frank Gumm - sang.
WFSB: What size cast is it?
Ruby: Twenty five cast members.
WFSB: A number of celebrities are portrayed in this show. Would you name some names?
Ruby: We have Mickey Rooney, Deanna Durbin, Clark Gable, George Jessel, L.B. Mayer. Shirley Temple.
WFSB: Shirley Temple was her competition, right? Do we see that play out?
Ruby: We do.
WFSB: You've already done a version of this musical in North Carolina. Tell us what that's about and how things have transitioned here.
Ruby: Last November we did a developmental production at the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina. We had a different director, different choreographer. And now we've got a completely new team, so things are very different. I mean, the story's still the same but details are different and the feel of it is different.
WFSB: You're really just kind of going with it now.
Ruby: Yeah, 'cause it's hard to unlearn what I did in the past. So it's just a lot of like 'oh, that was an old line'. That's not in the show any more.
WFSB: And this is part of the natural progression as a show moves ...
Ruby: Yes. We started with a table read in New York and then there was a workshop at a college and then we did a stage reading in New York City two years ago and then we did Flat Rock and now we're here.
WFSB: What was the audience reaction in Flat Rock?
Ruby: They were quiet for the first ... for most of the show ... until I sang "Over the Rainbow". And then just tears... It was like they weren't sure if they could trust me as Judy Garland for most of the show and then they slowly warmed up to the idea, like 'oh, okay ... okay, I like her’ and then you get to "Over the Rainbow" and then there are just tears ... like old men crying.
WFSB: There's so much nostalgia about the movie and Judy Garland.
Ruby: People have a very specific idea of who she is in their head, of who the legend of Judy Garland
is. But not many people know her story as Frances Gumm. They don't know that story. They know the end of her life and about “The Wizard of Oz”, but they don't know how she got there.
Ruby: Only Judy Garland sounds and looks like Judy Garland, so it's ... I mean, I'm not doing an impersonation. I feel like i embody her. Like, she's there with me the whole time. ...
WFSB: What’s the best thing about this role for you?
Ruby: The best part about playing Judy Garland is the music. It's all my style of music. It's all jazz and swing.
WFSB: What’s the most surprising thing about playing Judy Garland?
Ruby: The emotional ups and downs. It's a very emotionally exhausting show. She has ... there are so many highs and so many lows that by the time I get off stage, I just want to go to sleep.
WFSB: Are you ready if this goes to Broadway?
Ruby: Yeah, i miss Broadway. I miss living in New York.
WFSB: You started there. What was the play?
Ruby: Billy Elliott. I was 12 when i started and I was 15 when i left.
WFSB And this is your next shot at going back ...
Ruby: This was the next professional job I got was the stage reading two years ago.
WFSB : Was it a given or did you have to work for the role?
Ruby: I met the producer Tina Marie at an industry showcase panel at a musical theater intensive singing 'Singing with the Strings of my heart', of course. And about a month later I had an official audition for John Fricke, her husband David, Mark - who had just started on the project, so he wasn't even done reading the script yet - and the current director. So i don't ... I'm sure they saw other people
... but it never felt like an audition. It just felt like i was working with them.
WFSB: Are you on the stage a lot in this show?
Ruby: Yes, even more so in this (version of the) production, so I'm still trying to figure out how to go to the bathroom.
WFSB: Have you always been interested in singing and acting?
Ruby: When I was two, I said I wanted to go to Barbie Dance School and wear a tutu and dance on the stage and everyone would clap. And so … like … I was too young for dance classes, but my parents were like, 'clearly she wants to' . I’ve been dancing since I was two, but I didn't start singing until I went to a musical theater camp when I was 8 and that's when I discovered that I liked that and liked it a lot more than dancing.