Sunday, October 9, 2016

Tina Marie Casamento: Catching Her Rainbow

Tina Marie Casamento

The history of my life is in my songs.
-Judy Garland

Anyone who knows me knows that I am a big fan of Judy Garland.  I am more interested in her body of "worth" than her private life...especially when it comes to "second hand information or gossip. So when I first heard of a musical celebrating the young Judy Garland, it was met with huge excitement from me. My only concern was that it be done with the respect that I feel Judy Garland is owed and deserves. I am thrilled to announce that Chasing Rainbows deals with the subject with class and dignity. Most fall into tragedy when dealing with Judy. There are aspects of Judy's early years that are dealt with brilliantly. I want to commend all involved for that.Are you ready to find out how it all began? Let's begin.
The cast of Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (c)Diane Sobolewski.

Judy has been portrayed as an adult on stage by Isabel Keating in The Boy from Oz and by Tracie Bennett in The End of The Rainbow.
An Iconic Moment for many
I only saw the former. It is difficult for me to see Judy portrayed by someone when they focus only on the darker side of her persona, therefore, I took a pass on the later production.
So many want to focus on the negative.
Let's face it, we all know it was there. Very few have taken the chance to put on stage a show that tells the story of the early years of Judy Garland leading up to that pivotal moment that changed her life, as well as ours, forever. I'm talking about The Wizard of Oz.
It was no great tragedy being Judy Garland's daughter. I had tremendously interesting childhood"-Liza Minnelli
In That's Entertainment, daughter Liza Minnelli talks about film capturing a moment forever. The Wizard of Oz has an iconic place in our hearts that no other film will EVER capture.
When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, there were no DVDs and The Wizard of Oz was a family event right up there with Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving.
Therefore, I knew from a very early age who Judy Garland was.  
I was eight when Judy passed away and it affected me tremendously. Believe it or not, I cried for days. My mom kept asking me how I could be sad over someone I didn't even know. Was I crying over Judy or Dorothy? Weren't they one and the same.
Shortly after Judy's passing, many biographies started coming out. Many had conflicting stories except for the fact that her life was "tragic".
When I was seventeen, Rainbow was presented on TV starring Andrea McArdle. The early life and struggles of Judy Garland (portrayed by Andrea McArdle), and of the film star's trials as a youngster in dealing
 
Can you imagine if Shirley Temple had played Dorothy?
with the Movie Studio system that held her back while her mother was forever pushing her to excel. It was based on the book of the same name by Christopher Finch. This was my third book on Judy.
The first two were Little Girl Lost by Al DiOrio Jr. and then the Pyramid pictorial book of Judy. As each biography came out, I bought them and devoured them.
It wasn't until I became an adult and met John Fricke (Garland historian) that I came to really know Judy.

There are many who have celebrated Judy on stage. Hilary Kole has put her own stamp on Judy's songbook and earler this year, I was blown away by Joan Ellison's wonderful tribute to Judy at Feinstein's/54 Below. 
On Judy's Wikipedia page, it begins with this: Judy Garland (born Frances Ethel Gumm; June 10,
1922 – June 22, 1969) was an American singer, actress, and vaudevillian.

She was renowned for her contralto vocals and attained international stardom that continued throughout a career spanning more than 40 years as an actress in musical and dramatic roles, as a recording artist, and on concert stages.
How did Frances become Judy Garland?
As you can deduce from this, many books have been written on that subject. Rainbow attempted to show us. We even got a glimpse into that through Tammy Blanchard received the Emmy Award for her portrayal of a teenage Judy Garland in the television movie Life with Judy Garland: Me and My Shadows, the amazing telepic starring also Emmy Award winner Judy Davis as the older Judy.
John Fricke also acted as a creative consultant on this.
So, once again, when I read about Chasing Rainbows and the fact that John Fricke was on board as Creative Consultant/Historian, I knew
that it would be treated in a way that would make Judy proud. I was not wrong. I feel that this production has legs and should be seen by a wider audience.
After seeing the show (Opening night, October 5th, 2016), I reached out to Tina who conceived of this show. We sat down to talk about the road that has led her to Goodspeed.
This blog is the result of that conversation.
Tina is a self professed "theater geek" who has always been passionate about the theater. She started out as an actress from the time she was in her teens. She continued as an actress and kept adding on other skills. That kept her working in musical theater. Her goal was to always have a job in the industry so that she would never have to work another table again. She basically worked doing national tours, regional theaters, but, at the same time, picked up skills as a casting director, and got jobs as a director. She had a very thriving coaching studio for professional artists. She loved teaching and being able to put that in her list of skills.
Ruby Rakos with Danny Lindgren, Jesse Sharp, Dan Higgins and Bryan Thomas Hunt in Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (c)Diane Sobolewski.
Ruby Rakos and company in rehearsal
Why Judy Garland?
At the age of four, Tina lost her mother. Knowing The Wizard of Oz as a young person, she related to the character of Dorothy because she lived with her Auntie Em and Uncle Henry. After Tina's mother passed on, she went to live with an Aunt and an Uncle for sometime. She very much connected with why Dorothy was living with her Aunt and Uncle. Even though she had a father, she still made that connection. When "Dorothy" sang Over the Rainbow, it made a very specific image for Tina.
As a young girl, when she knew she wanted to go into the theater, one of the first actresses
Ella Briggs and Kevin Earley in Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (c)Diane Sobolewski.
that she wanted to study, one that she related to, was Judy Garland. She was the one whose songs she sang and she also happened to be the one who played Dorothy.That's when she learned about Judy Garland. She really studied her and she read Rainbow. She found the book in her local library and eventually purchasing her own copy. After that, she would read any biography that came out. Reading more and more, especially after beginning this project. John Fricke was someone she knew about and read all of his Oz books. As she has read each biography, it is interesting to see how they all differ.     
She was really interested
The cast of Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (c)Diane Sobolewski.
from the period of five year old Francis through Meet Me in St. Louis' Judy. When she reached that point, she wanted to go back and read it again. She never really focused on reading past that period of Judy's life.
Tina was more fascinated with Judy's life up to Meet Me in St. Louis and even more so with The Wizard of Oz being the stopping off point.

How did Tina connect with John Fricke?
She found herself in a situation serendipitously where she was able to pitch the idea of this musical to the publishing company that held most of the musical that they use in the show. Someone at the publishing company said, "We should connect you with John Fricke." He is the foremost Garland and Oz historian. Tina told them she would love to meet John. She was told that he would meet with her, but that he would meet with her only to tell her why this was not a good idea. 
a young Liza with mama Judy
It's never worked. John and Tina met at the Westway Diner here in New York on Ninth Avenue. Within five minutes, she explained how she wanted to use the music. She specifically wanted to use the song, I'm Always Chasing Rainbows. It wouldn't be Judy Garland singing every song. It was going to be a 'book' musical utilizing the songs to tell her life story based on a quote from one of her songs, "The history of my life is in my songs". When she explained her entire concept with Chasing Rainbows, he looked at her with wide eyes and said, "You just cracked a nut that people have been trying to crack for years. How can I be of help?" Tina said, "It's a good thing you asked. I would like to have you on board as our creative consultant and historian. I will get you a contract." (Editor's note: There was one specific moment in the show that stood out for me as having John's stamp on it and that was The Wizard of Oz segment that dealt with the constant direction of the film.
John Fricke
I don't think that would have been there to the extent that it was without John's involvement. Knowing the history that I know, through John and his books, I know that they handled it so well. I applaud them for that.)
When Tina first pitched the idea to the music publishing company, End of the Rainbow was playing on Broadway which dealt with the end of Judy's life. Tina saw that show and, as wonderful as the performances were, Tina felt about Judy's family. Judy has three living children and grandchildren.
Tina said her thought was that she would not want her mother portrayed like this on stage. It was very important to her that every attempt would be made to HONOR this amazing woman and really focus on the brilliant young girl that became our American icon and not spend time dwelling on what happened later.
One of the first Garland biographies I read

Speaking of the family, what are their thoughts on this production?
Tina has so much respect for all of them. Tina's hope is that when she feels like the show is ready to be seen by them, they will be the critics that she cares about the most.
She wants to make sure the show is in the best possible shape before they invite them. She is using John as her gauge. Of course, he is friends with Lorna. Tina has other friends who are friends with Liza. Tina knows that they know about the project. She very much wants them to be involved...if they want to be involved.
Liza and Judy
Tina has always said to her General Manager and everyone involved, she somehow wants to get their stamp of approval and endorsement. She desires that it is mutually beneficial. The answer is no, she has not invited them yet. She is looking at the Goodspeed production to decide when the timing will be right. The first stop prior to Goodspeed was the Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina.
She would have invited them to Flat Rock but it was such a short production and there was no time.
Tina's husband, David Libby, who did the musical arrangements, along with Tina worked together as a collaborative team based on things that were supposed to happen in the story. This went on for seven years. About the end of 2013, Tina brought on Marc Acito, the book writer. Once he was on board, they participated in the Johnny Mercer Goodspeed Writer's conference.
It was there that they created Act One.  That was January 2014. She had also written an outline with nine songs. They pretty much knew what the story was. Marc and Tina hit it off quite well and with David in the mix it all came together as a natural collaborative team. A thirteen day developmental workshop at Belmont University in Nashville soon followed. A very successful AEA Staged Reading of this musical was also produced at New World Stages in New York City in September 2014. They then did a backer's audition here in New York. The show was in great shape and they couldn't believe how fast it was coming together. In every situation people were really responding to the story.
A year later was the Flat Rock world premier.
This came out of doing those readings and presentations around that time, getting regional
The cast of Goodspeed's Chasing Rainbows. (c)Diane Sobolewski.
and theater owners to see it. After Flat Rock, Goodspeed came right off the bat. They have been leapfrogging their way forward, although it has taken Tina seven years since she first got the development deal.
(c)Diane Sobolewski.
It was always in Tina's mind that this would be the story always ending with Judy getting cast in The Wizard of Oz.
The reason for that is that is really the beginning of people beginning to get who she is. Most people don't really think about Judy Garland before she was Dorothy.
The script did get some tweaks and rewrites during Flat Rock but they were very minimal. They wanted to see what they had.
They needed to assess what they had and what didn't work. They didn't make a lot of changes. They had a great director, Jeff Whiting, who came on board and saved them. They had a theater but no director. The first director they worked with was not available. The Flat Rock director did a fantastic job presenting it in a terrific way. They worked with that director for months just to make sure things were in order and they knew exactly what they were doing.
He put that show together in three and a half weeks.
The basic structure is the same, the story and the music in the transfer from Flat Rock to Goodspeed. What has changed is the clarification of the relationship between Judy's parents, Frank and Ethel Gumm. They've tried to clarify the sympathy for Ethel and telling the story from her point of view and fleshing out those characters. There has been a little more scene work in Act One. In Act Two, they cut a song from Flat Rock. They cut another scene. It has just been pruning and fine tuning.
Is the show where Tina would like it to be now? 
"Is a show ever finished? When it's your art, you're always looking at ways to make it better." Tina thinks the show is beautiful. I concur.
That aspect will never change thanks to Tina.

Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland (Flat Rock)
Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland!
Tina was in talks to do a national search for 'Judy Garland'. They were thinking of doing a docu-series on the search. There were several people involved in LA. There was banter about it. Tina was randomly asked to be on a panel at Broadway Artists Alliance which is a professional training camp for theater, ages ten to twenty-two. Ruby was in Tina's group. They weren't looking necessarily at the time.
They were still discussing "when we find this girl". Tina knew she was out there! Tina had done casting for Annie for five years. She knew she would find her. Ruby walked in and sang Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart and Tina just about fell out of her chair.
Young Judy
She couldn't believe her ears. She remembers writing Frances! on her resume. Tina couldn't believe, without even putting it out there, that she walked in the room.
She was fifteen going on sixteen when Tina first found her. She brought her in for Marc Acito, David, and John Fricke and had a work session with her in order to do a table read. She had been learning the music. When Tina first approached Ruby, she said, "Do you know that you sound like a young Judy Garland", and Ruby responded with, "I only know about older Judy Garland." Tina asked her to watch the young Judy Garland. Ruby ended up falling in love with her. She had no idea of the younger Judy Garland. She was unaware. She pretty much was given the material and has grown with this piece.
Ruby Rakos as Francis Gum with Gumm Sisters (Flat Rock)




In the early days, it was just Tina explaining the concept to her and her singing the songs and doing the readings. She has been involved in all but the student reading at Belmont University. She has grown with the piece.
In addition to Ruby, Ella Briggs is phenomenal as Baby Frances! She blew me away. She held a note longer than the Chase Bank!
At the time of this writing, I have read no reviews.
Chasing Rainbows will continue at the Goodspeed Opera House through November 27th.
Michael Wartella (Mickey Rooney), Ruby, Richard Skipper
The future of this show is contingent over the next several months. They have many industry people coming to see the show. There are also investors and producers already involved in the project. They will all sit down and have a big pow wow about it. Of course, Tina has big dreams. She doesn't know what the future holds. She won't know until they get a little further into it and see. They have to wait to see what needs to be done to make it a successful commercial and to make it an artistically interesting piece of theater.

Once again, being familiar with Judy's story, audiences are surprised (I don't want to do a spoiler alert!) at aspects of Frank's personal life.
Tina shared with me at the time of this interview that they had actually discussed the audience's reactions the morning of this interview. Is it a good thing the way that audiences are reacting? Tina wants to sit with the show and the different audiences to make sure that nothing is gratuitous, that everything is presented in a loving, respectful way. It is one of those things that can be handled in many ways. They desire to handle it in the right way.
From my point of view, they have handled it the right way. I thank them for that!
What is the biggest misconception that you feel people have about Judy Garland? What do you think

audiences are expecting when they come to see Chasing Rainbows?

Tina has been embroiled in this story for so many years. She has had this idea since she was a fourteen year old girl. She always dreamed that someone would turn this into a musical. She didn't dream it would be her! Tina knows what SHE was expecting. She thinks some people might come thinking they are in for a 'Judy Garland concert' where the character of Judy would just sing all of Judy's songs up until she gets The Wizard of Oz. Tina doesn't think that some are expecting a 'book' musical. What they are getting is an interesting and compelling story of a journey that this young girl is making from age five until sixteen. Tina also feels that people think about Judy Garland and think about this tragic and amazingly talented American icon. Lorna once said"Tragic things happened to my mother but she was not a tragedy." That is exactly right. She was this buoyant young girl with an incredible sense of humor and an incredibly natural talent. Audiences are expecting a good show.
Goodspeed offers a very generous four week rehearsal process. It was a very intense but wonderful    
period. The tech process is a very scary period as well. Then there are three weeks of paid previews.  During this time frame, the show is looked at very carefully and tweaks are made with the costumes and the orchestrations and sets and some of the writing. They looked at all of that  and two major cuts happened since the first presentation on September 16th. The truth of the matter is that they have way too much great material. They have to prune it down to the most important stuff.
Is Tina able to sit back and enjoy the show now? 
She says she always enjoys the show even when she is squirming in her seat wondering if something is working. At the very end of the show, the thing that is most satisfying to Tina is when everyone is on their feet having heard this glorious music. She looks around and she is blown away by how much people seem to be enjoying it.
One of the cast members was part of the Belmont University presentation. There are four people from the New World stages production. From Flat Rock, in addition to Ruby Rakos, is sixteen year old Claire Griffin (Deanna Durbin).
Deanna Durbin
She is so good that Goodspeed wanted to bring her up for this role. There are two ensemble members, Andrea Laxton (Virginia Gumm) and one of the great tap dancers in the ensemble, who also came from Flat Rock. Like Dorothy, they keep collecting friends along the way.
Michael Wartella (Mickey Rooney) is also amazing. He came to an audition when they were planning a backer's audition for New World Stages. He was found and brought to the company by Telsey and Company. They were contracted to cast the show. He came into the audition and sang All Ma's Children (All God's Children) with a pair of drum brushes in his back pocket and started drumming. He was the total spirit of Mickey Rooney. Tina felt this Italian kid, tanned because of summer with olive skin and dark hair, was going to be next to impossible to turn into Mickey Rooney. The fact is he just is Mickey Rooney! He and Ruby have a great chemistry on stage.
Looking into the Witch's Crystal Ball...Where would you like to be five year's from now in relation to this show?
Tina would love to see a commercial run on Broadway. She would love to see several touring companies. She has been hearing from people around the world wondering if there will be a cast recording. There is world wide interest in Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz. Tina would love to bring this story everywhere creating dreams for every little girl.

In closing, what Tina would love for people to come away with is that every character/person overcame obstacles that were keeping them down in life.
What Tina loves most about the show is the fact that if had not been for Kay Koverman and Roger Edens, for example, the world may never have known Judy Garland.
How interesting is that? Who are the people in our world today who maybe don't have those mentors to put the spotlight on them and what other talents are we not learning about because the fates or the right mentors did not push them to the surface?

Chasing Rainbows

THE ROAD TO OZ

An awkward girl with a golden voice blossoms into Judy Garland in the inspirational new musical about the bumpy road to "Oz." The future superstar's
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
complicated childhood comes alive with heartbreak, hope and the music that made her famous. "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," "You Made Me Love You" and "Over the Rainbow" sweeten the story of Judy striving to hold onto her family. A love letter to gifted underdogs who reach high—and how the dreams that you dare to dream really do come true.
Karen Mason (Kay Koverman) and Louis B. Mayer (Michael McCormick)  Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Photo Credit © Photo by Diane Sobolewski
Book by Marc Acito | Conceived by Tina Marie Casamento LibbyMusic Adapted by David Libby | Scenic Design by Kristen RobinsonCostume Design by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward
Lighting Design by Ken Billington | Sound Design by Jay Hilton
Wig & Hair Design by Mark Adam Rampmeyer
Music Direction by Michael O'Flaherty | Choreographed by Chris Bailey
Directed by Tyne Rafaeli
ORDER TICKETS HERE: Now Through November 27th.

Thank you, to all of the artists mentioned in this blog for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!


With grateful XOXOXs ,
 





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4 comments:

  1. I had the pleasure of seeing CHASING RAINBOWS opening night at The GOODSPEAD OPERA HOUSE here in CT and what a show. From beginning to end I wanted more and more. It answered some questions I did not know about Judy and her family. I love Ruby as Judy. Stunning young actress BIG voice! I would go again. The whole cast was amazing. It's a do not miss!!!!!!!! Xoxo ROSEY

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  2. What an eloquent piece. Richard, when you write it is as though we are sitting in my car, or talking over dinner. You never fail to entertain, educate and engage. Bravo!

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  3. Fabulous write up! What wonderful detail and history. I wish I could get to this location to see this show but too far. Richard Skipper, this was an amazing blog. Thank you also for sharing detail on Tina Marie Casamento's history. I had the pleasure of working with her as a director and she's a joy. She is very talented. I wish the best with the show.

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  4. Thanks, Richard, for this interesting write-up, interview, and eye-witness account for those of us who can't make it out to CT to see the show!

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