Our interview with "Chasing Rainbows" conceiver and book writer - WFSB 3 Connecticut

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Our interview with "Chasing Rainbows" conceiver and book writer

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The musical “Chasing Rainbows” is now on stage at the Goodspeed Opera House. It’s the story of the early life of Frances Gumm, who you may better recognize by the name she took as a teenager:  Judy Garland.  Our “Better Connecticut” team had a chance to sit down with Tina Marie Casamiento, the “Conceiver” of the musical and Marc Acito, the “Book Writer”.  Here is a transcript of our interview:

WFSB: Tina Marie … you brought this to life, is our understanding.

Tina Marie Casamiento:   I did.  I've had this idea since I was 14 years old just because I was obsessed with “Dorothy” in “The Wizard of Oz” and young Judy Garland and I read a lot of the story of her early life when I was a young girl and I just thought her story was so fascinating.  And I couldn't wait for it to be a musical.  And as a musical theater  geek, I was like, 'I can't wait until this is a musical like 'Gypsy' or

'Funny Girl'.’  And then ... nobody did it.  And then I found myself in a position where I could actually get the rights to all of the music based on her quote 'the history of my life is in my songs'.

WFSB:  Fourteen years old is an early age to start planning something that's coming to life now and is such a big thing.

TMC:  It is and I would say I had the idea.  I don't think at 14 I had enough wherewithal to think that I would actually do it.  It just ... I think it sort of planted the seed of an idea that maybe I was meant to do this and the time came and I knew that Marc was the right writer for it and here we are.

WFSB:  The movie is so magical and it has a happy ending.  People have fond feelings about it.  But her life wasn't always all that happy ... and that was surprising to us and may surprise some of the theater- goers.

TMC:  What Marc and I and the rest of the team were so focused on is telling the story of young Judy Garland and this buoyant amazingly talented girl who - against all odds - you know, earned this role. And we stop at “The Wizard of Oz”. We don't go any further than that.  We're interested in this young girl's buoyant spirit and humor and you know, talent.

Marc Acito: We all know that Judy Garland's life ended tragically, but the thing that gets lost in the public perception of Judy Garland - because it was a tragic ending - was the life force of the

woman.  Everyone who met her, the first thing they say is not what a great performer she is, they always say 'you don't understand how funny she was'.  That she was the life of the party.  She was this overwhelming fountain of love.  Her second daughter Lorna Luft said “tragic things happened to my mother, but she wasn't the tragedy."  And we felt that was also part of the untold story, that this life force ... that i would say indomitable ... but eventually it was extinguished.  But for 47 years it burned bright and you know, changed millions of people's lives.

TMC::  Everybody loves Dorothy. It doesn't matter if you're a Judy Garland fan. The next generation doesn't even know who Judy Garland is, some of them.  But they all know who Dorothy is. And there's something about that little girl who - you know - when she sings that song "Over the Rainbow" and the soul and the spirit comes through, that girl that sang that in the movie is who I'm interested in: her story and her connection to that song and why it moved me so much as a child.

MA: That's actually what brought us together as well.  While Tina Marie was growing up in Virginia, I

was growing up in New Jersey.  We actually had a number of near encounters  throughout our lives where we almost met each other, but didn't.  And meanwhile, I was having that same childhood Judy Garland obsession and “Wizard of Oz” obsession.  So when we met and she described to me her concept for the show using Judy Garland's songs to tell  the story, to reexamine “Over the Rainbow” for its deeper meanings, particularly with regards to loss and what it means to go to heaven, I stopped her right there and said ' you don't have to explain any more!  I've had this same idea for 40 years.'  So it did feel serendipitous that that should happen.

WFSB:  The movie is right of passage ...

TMC:  It's a beautiful story. And I think what I related to so much to as a kid was, was that song. And this orphan girl living on a farm with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry singing - you know - singing this song in a barnyard and you know, the fact that that song has become the number one grossing song pretty much for Sony almost every year ... it is one of the biggest grossing songs. It is a song that is a trend since time.   And a lot of the songs that we've unearthed that are from the catalog from the 1930s are these incredibly wonderfully written joyous songs that we've reconceived in a way that feels contemporary and feels accessible to today's audiences.  I always  knew that her father - the character of her father - would sing the song "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", which Judy Garland was known for singing. But when you listen to the lyrics, it's really his song and his story.  And that was a big part of

the 'a ha' moment for me when i read the biographies and I knew Judy Garland singing that song. And I

thought 'wow, that is her father's story'.  And that was, to me, a musical.

WFSB: She had a real attachment to her dad. TMC:   I think that he was the love of her life. MA: Absolutely.

TMC:  And I think she spent the rest of her life looking for somebody like her father.  And I think that's the story. Like, we always think about Judy at the end of her life.  And I feel the beginning of her life

is more of a celebration.  And something that I feel that people will see and remember this part of Judy

Garland.

MA: Well, it's more of the soulfulness that she brought to her work. You know, on the one hand there's this carbonated, effervescent joy. But then there's also this vulnerability that is so extraordinary and so unusual and in both cases, we found ourselves saying 'where did that come from?'  That had to come from someplace.  So what contributed to all of that talent and all of that spirit?

TMC: She was wise beyond her years.  She was a natural actress.  She didn't have somebody teach her how to act.  She just knew how to tell the story.  And that's why you're so drawn to her.  There's no technique behind it.  It's just raw unequivocal talent, undeniable talent.

MA: So as a result, the question of course that everybody has is 'well, where in the world are  you gonna find a young actor to do justice to Judy Garland?’  And we had the same thought.

TMC: So you know, we needed this kid because a lot of people were like 'yeah ... you're never going to find this girl'.  A I wanted to do a a tv docuseries.  Not an “America Votes” kind of thing, but a TV docuseries about the search for this young girl and we were going to go nationally and talking to some people about doing this national search and find this girl. Because I knew she was out there.

TMC:  Because when I was that age I sang like Judy Garland and I could wear the ruby slippers and do the whole, you know, imitation and all that.  So I knew she was out there.  And I was - as a professional musical theater  geek who's been involved in this my whole life - I was asked to be on a panel for Broadway Artists' Alliance, which is a wonderful program in New York that  brings young talent from all over the country and trains them for a week and then they audition for a panel of experts.  And I was one of the panel of experts.  And in the last minute of our thing, this young girl comes in and she gets up and she sings "Zing Went the Strings of My Heart", which is one of Judy's songs. And she's 15 years old from New Jersey, has the cascade and rich Judy Garland sound.  She's not belting like Elphaba.  She has this natural warmth that Judy had and she's dressed like she's from the 1930s. She's wearing like these cat-eye red glasses and this Ruby Red lipstick and this dress that I think she made herself.

MA: And, and the profile is the same. The shape of the face is the same.  And ...

TMC:  The same nose.  The same mouth.

Both: ... her name is Ruby.  (laughs)

TMC:   I couldn't believe it.  I said 'are you kidding me with this kid?'  She just literally fell from the heavens.

WFSB:  She didn't know she was trying out for this part?

TMC:  No. In fact, Jennifer Johns Grasso - who knew all about this project because we've known each other for years - she just had an inkling that maybe Ruby might be right for this show. And so she made sure that she was in my room for the audition because they separate  panelists and the kids go into different rooms.

MA: But Ruby didn't know that she sounded like Judy Garland.  She just liked that song, which coincidentally - by the way - is the song that Judy used to audition for MGM. That's what got her the job.

TMC:  There's been so many serendipitous things about this project from the beginning and, and both Marc and I feel like we were meant to do this.  And that along the way I've just kept gathering more and more, you know, I guess ...

MA: Travelers on the yellow brick road, if you will...

TMC: ... affirmations that this is what we're supposed to do and that this is a story we're supposed to tell.

WFSB:  So where do you start?  What is the first scene?  What are the first words that come out? MA:  It starts in 1938 on the set of the Wizard of Oz. What we wanted to do was reacquaint the audience with the place that they know Judy Garland.   But what you see is the movie that didn't get made, the ways in which they almost got this movie wrong - including wanting to cut the Wizard of Oz and having the cowardly lion fight a gorilla ... and having Dorothy being a Kansas girl who sings jazz and there being an opera princess who has a competition and...

TMC: ... and a younger, younger Dorothy.

MA: … and the Munchkin Fire Department.  I mean, there's so many things that were so off, including they tried to turn her into something else in a big blonde wig and crazy amounts of makeup.  So that's where we start, which is on the one hand 'this is the movie that you all know and love' and 'this is how it's going awry' and 'how did she get there?' and then 'how did it happen ... ' how did it ... turn out right? TMC: How did it get ... how did it finally right itself?

MA: Ultimately it's a story about identity.  It's about finding your true North. It's about owning your authentic self, which is so what Judy was about.  I mean, there was no artifice there.  It's all right on the surface.  She just takes her beating heart out of her chest and you know, hands it to you. So ... she was in a situation where the most beautiful women on the planet worked at MGM and it was a glamour factory, a dream factory. And she went to work with those women and the makeup department and the hair department and the wardrobe department were trying to turn her into something else.  They didn't even really know what a teenager was. It was actually a relatively new idea in the 1930s.

TMC: They didn't know if they were trying to sell her as a child - a little girl with a big voice - so they put her on the radio.  They didn't really know how she fit into the movies.  And she didn't know how she fit into the movies. But, you know, one of the things that Marc has really keyed on in to in the book is 'this is a child that was 13 years old and she paid the bills for her whole family.

MA: In the height of the Depression.

TMC:  Like, that MGM contract was more important to her than just fame.  It represented family. It represented a need for her to keep her family together.  And that's the heart and soul of the story is this, this family that struggled and she as the youngest in the family and as the youngest sometimes do,

say 'well, if i just could get an 'a' on my report card, my family will stay together'  ... you know, and i think for her it was 'if i could just get that MGM contract ...'

WFSB:   Is it heavy, too, in parts?  You talk about how it's a celebration of her talent ... but there were heavy things happening as a child for her ...

MA: I wouldn't call it 'heavy'.  I would call it …

TMC:  Truthful.   As John Fricke - our historian - will say, you know, we hit the emotional truth of her life.  And there's a lot of celebration.  There's a lot of celebration of her talent and a lot of joy in her relationship with Mickey Rooney.

MA: But we don't flinch from the pain and the heartbreak of her life. We knew that it would be just

completely dishonest to not acknowledge that.  For me the reason I knew I could write this - beyond the fact that I had this life-long fascination, beyond the fact that it just simply felt like destiny  - then I actually had to look at it as a writer and say 'well, yeah, but can we tell the story? Or is this just going to be an immense downer because well, we all know how it ended.”  But what I discovered was the metaphor of the rainbow - I think - is so perfect for her life., which is that rainbows don't last, but

neither does the rain.  So we deal with both.  We deal with the stormy times and we deal with the sunny times.

TMC: And her relationship with her father is beautiful.  It's a beautiful story about a family that nobody ever talks about.

MA: And it's not something you see in the musical theater  very often:  the central love story being

between a father and daughter.  I'd say maybe "Annie",  I suppose, which certainly has that

dynamic.  But honestly I can't think of another show off the top of my head that really puts that as the central love story.  And that was exciting to us because, you know, 'boy meets girl' we've seen so many times.  It was exciting to try to be able to try to explore a different kind of love at the center of a story. TMC: And how that affects the rest of your life. It does.  And I think that's the thing, that people look at Judy Garland and think about how her life ended up and you forget about what brought her there and what was it about her that made her a star in the first place.

MA: Well, this is what's so brilliant about the film, is that the framing device of it being a dream and her seeing everybody in her real life in her fantasy life is an invention of the MGM writers.  And we really let that inspire us in terms of the psychological truth of that because all of us have this family of origin who shapes us and most of us - in my estimation, in my experience - spend the rest of our lives sort of working out a psychodrama with everyone we meet who sort of reminds us of somebody from our childhood.  And that's  certainly true of Judy's off-screen life and so here we were able to deal with that same  relationship between fantasy and reality ... what i think of as the real world - REAL - and the reel world - REEL - and the way in which they intersect and influence one another.  And we have actors who are all playing double roles.  Everybody - like in “The Wizard of Oz” - has another identity that impacts Judy's psychology and emotional life.

TMC: And reappears.  It's ...

MA: It's super fun!

TMC:  We, we all create our own families, you know, like ... you always ... you have your family that you're born with and then you have the family that you create, whether it be your husband or your friends or whoever that are with you through the end of your life. And what's really fascinating about these people ... like, we're introducing people to  Roger Edens and Kay Coverman who were her champions and we wouldn't even know who Judy Garland was had it not been for those two

people.  And nobody knows who they are, not really.

WFSB: This is not just the story of “The Wizard of Oz”. It is a lot about it, but there are other parts of her life we see.  We just saw the cast performing "All Ma's Children".  She was in a school at MGM? MA: Actually this is before she got her MGM contract, when Judy first arrived in Hollywood in 1935 at the age of 13.  She went to the Hollywood Professional Children's School.  And that's where she met Mickey Rooney.  So we dramatize that pivotal moment.  He really became another soulmate in her life and essentially became her brother and that's part of the recreation of a new family. That's a theme that resonates throughout my work completely.  I wrote two novels about theater  people - one called

"How I Paid for College" ... the second one called "Attack of the Theater People".  And the central theme of both of those stories is how we create what Armistead Maupin calls your "logical family" versus your biological family. And that's absolutely the case here, where it's the story of somebody assembling a new family in order to  legislate against her emotional pain.

TMC: And you know, when I first got the rights to this music - because it all started with the development deal with a music publishing company that had the catalog of music, including "Over the Rainbow" and all these wonderful Judy Garland songs and other great songs from the 1930s that either Roger Edens wrote or people from MGM - I kind  of knew in my mind what the talking points were for her story and I created a treatment and an outline thinking 'oh, we need to talk about the Hollywood

Professional School' and I loved this song, you know 'All God's Children Got Rhythm' and it feels like, you know, about children and school and Marc totally hooked into it and knew exactly how to write that scene.

MA: … which by then because the school is run by a woman named Ma Lawlor is Ma Lawlor's  school, we changed it to "All Ma's Children".  And so we have ... we've taken a few liberties in order to make sure that it's in the story. Although the things that are sacrosanct like "Over the Rainbow" or "I Can't Give You Anything but Love" or "Broadway Rhythm" - songs that people really know and love - we absolutely honor …  but we repurpose them in the scenes.

WFSB:  Is the play 95% fact and 5% fiction?

TMC:  I'd say that's pretty close.

MA: We're working with an historian - John Fricke - who is one of the leading experts, if not THE leading expert on “The Wizard of Oz” and Judy Garland.  And he keeps us honest in terms of the facts. What we do, though, is oftentimes we will conflate characters or we will sometimes conflate time in order to be able to just tell a story on a stage with a cast of twenty five ...in 2 1/2 hours, right?  But the events are all true.  Sometimes, you know, they may happen with three different people and we put that into one person, but as John says we ... the emotional truth is real and what - i don't want to say is invented - is speculated on our part, which is really the exciting part for me to examine is the causality. Because we weren't behind closed doors.  So, for instance, we have the official record from whatever accounts we have - what MGM put out or from interviews - and of course, these are all fabulists.  They are Hollywood raconteurs so one has to take what they say ... and just themselves, too.  Mickey Rooney ... Judy Garland

... these are people who loved a good story but often tell it the way it should have happened rather than the way it did.  So you have to take what they say with a grain of salt.  So what I was really interested in was excavating history.  Almost every project I'm working on at this point in my career is based on historical events.  I'm just fascinated in excavating and investigating and then celebrating the

experiences of the past because of what they tell us about our humanity.  And this is a far cry from the last project I did, which is the Broadway musical "Allegiance", which was set in the Japanese- American internment camps.  So you can imagine working on MGM is a wonderful respite from that.  So what I find fascinating is the ... what happened behind closed doors and looking at the events and saying 'okay, this happened'. Why did it happen?  What could have happened?  So we actually see Judy involved in the advancement of her own agenda in ways that we don't always know about.

TMC:  But based on what we do know, you know, Kay Coverman and Roger Edens were the ones that really recognized her talent and when she first auditioned for Louis B. Mayer, he didn't see what they saw. And I think that's such a fascinating story, that had it not been for these two people that are very unknown, somebody else would have played Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz. Here's an American Icon that everybody connects to and she almost was an unknown.

MA: See, but that again ... coming down to the idea of your logical family, it's one of the most beautiful

things about the story for me ... is that it's not  ... unlike, let's say, "Funny Girl" ... or even "Gypsy" where you have this central character who is just driving the bus the whole way, this is somebody who as a

child is absolutely, you know, struggling to maintain control of her destiny but only gets there through the support of you know, let's say, you know a scarecrow and a tin man and a cowardly lion and you know ...

WFSB:  And if not for them pushing it ...

MA: And that, to me, is just so much more honest because none of us do it on our own. Nobody gets up at an awards show and says "I would like to begin by thanking myself ... " Right?

WFSB:  Some rapid fire questions.  Judy Garland is called 'the awkward girl with the golden voice' ... awkward how?

TMC: She was this kid - who Roger Edens wrote a song about her called "In Between".  You know, she was not a grownup and she wasn't a child.  And let's face it, every tweener is awkward.  You know what I mean?  And this was a kid with a lot of talent who at the age of three they knew this kid had a voice and she was talented and she was a performer and she loved performing for a live audience.  But you put a camera on her and she's just an awkward teenager who hasn't really blossomed into the girl that we then know as “Dorothy” in “The Wizard of Oz”. And if you watch some of the “Andy Hardy” movies, she was just starting to come in to herself, but there's an earlier set of movies where she's like still a little pudgy, a little awkward.  Great voice. Like, she opened her mouth and people were like

'what?'  But ... but they didn't know what to do with what she looked like.

MA: Jodi Foster talks about how when she made "Freaky Friday" and "The Bad News Bears" and all those movies in the 70s that made her a star, she said it was so painful for her because physically it was one of the most awkward times of her life.  I mean, as people say ... “what's the worst time of a woman's life?” There are two.  One, when she's 13 and then when her daughter's 13. And so, imagine that that moment of your life is 50 feet wide for the public to look at.  It's so tough.

TCM: Especially when you're working next to Lana Turner who was not a kid that ever had an awkward

stage.  We all know those girls.

WFSB:  We read this quote about “Chasing Rainbows”:  The show is 'a love letter to gifted underdogs.'  What made her an underdog?

TCM: Well, again, they didn't know what to do with her.  She was an incredible talent but she didn't look like Lana Turner and she wasn't a cute little Shirley Temple.  She was - against all odds - got that contract at MGM and against all odds, got the role of Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz”.

WFSB: Playbill says this show is 'Broadway-aimed'.

TCM: So ... of course that's our dream.  You know, that's what we would love to happen.  We would love for this show to be something celebrated by the masses and something that could make it all the way, you know, down our Yellow Brick Road to the Great White Way.  That is, of course, our

dream.  And that would be bigger than a dream come true for me because I've been working on this show for seven years. Marc's been involved since 2014 or 2013 and you know, I left my career track to follow this dream instead, not really knowing what was going to come of it.  And it is bigger than a dream come true for me, if that happens.  And of course that's what i would love.

MA: And the project.  If I could just say about Goodspeed ... Goodspeed really in a way ... I  don't want to say "Gave birth to the project", but sort of rebirth to the project.  Because I came on halfway through the journey when Tina Marie and her husband David ... they had, you know, given birth to this and they brought me in and I approached Goodspeed about joining the Johnny Mercer colony, which is something they do in the mid- winter.  So we came up here together as a team during a one foot

snowstorm and started to develop the musical together, redevelop the  musical together and you know, just ... two and a half years later, here we are on the main stage.

WFSB:  The play's been in North Carolina but it's changed a lot everyone is telling me ...

MA: In North Carolina, we did what's called a developmental production.  So it was our first chance to be able to do the entire production fully staged with an audience.  We learned a ton and we already knew we were going to Goodspeed.  So we took what we learned, brought new people into the team as well and now here we are.

WFSB:  On opening night you'll be sitting ... somewhere?

TCM:   I think I've been given a seat.  Whether i'll sit in it or not is ... I will be wearing probably the Ruby

Slippers that we used in Flat Rock because I will  wear them for good luck and i don't care who sees it!

WFSB:  That will be the moment that culminated your journey.  What will you think?

TCM: Every time we've done this, whether it be at Belmont University or New World Stages where we did the actors' audition or Flat Rock or one of the readings, every single time I'm overcome with so much emotion and so much pride and excitement and fear and all of it.  It's ... it's Emerald City.  It's just

there.  It's just beyond the rain.  Just up beyond the rain.

MA: For me what's most exciting ... I will be watching the audience probably more than the  stage because ... i can hardly express how gratifying it is to have something that lives inside your brain come

to life in three dimensions and then to see a roomful of strangers engage in it. And this is a show where, to see people throwing their heads back laughing, to see them  nodding their heads and moving to the music ... and then my favorite is the whole hand wipe of the tear.  Not just a little.  The glasses are coming off and the whole hand is wiping the tear.   That ... that is the moment that I, I relish.

TCM:  No pressure.  (laughs)