Her first reaction was no, I don't want to do that. Adrienne Barbeau walked into her husband's office in California just as he was pulling down at random from one of his bookshelves a biography of Judy Garland. Her husband is the writer Billy Van Zandt. "That's what I gotta do," she remembers he said - put Judy Garland's life into a piece for the stage, as if recollected by Judy - "and you have to play it."
The tough but deep-felt title of the work, stemming from slavery days at MGM, is The Property Known as Garland, and yes, the Judy whom we happen upon at the Actors' Playhouse in Greenwich Village - as she's demanding mashed potatoes before she'll go onstage at a theatre in Copenhagen in 1969 in what will be, though she doesn't know it, her last concert on this earth - is Adrienne Barbeau, onetime Hodel of Fiddler on the Roof, onetime Tony-nominated Rizzo of Grease, onetime daughter of Maude on television, onetime (before all that) teenage barmaid go-go dancer at a mob joint on 49th Street, one-time everything in the span of a 40-plus-year career.
"At first I said no because of several reasons," says Ms. Barbeau some weeks before the Garland show has opened. "First off, all my life is in California" - starting with the Van Zandt twins, Walker and William, to whom she gave birth nine years ago at the age of 51. (Son Cody Carpenter, by a previous marriage, is a promising 22-year-old musician.) "The second reason was I didn't think I wanted to get into the pain of this woman. Too upsetting. So Billy put aside what he had written. A year went by; then someone asked to see it. And I read it, and saw how it emphasized her spirit, her strength and her hurt. I mean, I've been in this business since I was 18 and now I'm going on 61 and I've never had a script with this challenge."
She doesn't attempt to impersonate Garland in the show. "There are people who do that, and do it brilliantly. I don't." What does come out in the performance is that Judy Garland was a very funny lady. "So fast, so witty, such an incredible raconteur. When she went on Johnny Carson the first time, Johnny didn't know he could trust her. Eventually he relaxed, let her tell her stories - and she blew him away." Adrienne Barbeau has her own stories to tell in "There Are Worse Things I Could Do," her memoirs coming from Carroll & Graf any day now.
The hardest part of her performance as Judy?
She thinks and thinks and finally says: "Portraying her vulnerability. I tend to play strong characters, and Judy was strong, but she had a fragility that I don't."
Toto, this isn't Kansas. This is showbiz, and you and I are property.