How Near-Death Experiences Paved the Way to the New Judy Garland Musical

Special Features   How Near-Death Experiences Paved the Way to the New Judy Garland Musical Book writer Marc Acito has been Chasing Rainbows since a young age. He explains how the new musical came to be and how it explores Garland’s life.
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Ruby Rakos Diane Sobolewki

What does Marc Acito’s unexplained (yet temporary) paralysis at age four and his mother’s subsequent car crash have to do with the new musical Chasing Rainbows: The Road to Oz? Well, everything.

“I am 50; I first saw The Wizard of Oz when I was three, which was in 1969, and it captivated me,” Acito explains. “A couple of months later, I’m having breakfast, and my father is reading the paper and says to me, ‘Marc, do you remember that girl who played Dorothy?’ I said, ‘Yeah.’ He points to a picture of her in the newspaper and says, ‘She’s dead.’”

Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz.
Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. 1939 Warner Home Video

Since then Acito has been fixated with how death and The Wizard of Oz intertwine—how darkness and light must intersect before a rainbow appears and the thought of what exists behind the moon and beyond the rain. When he was four-and-a-half years old, he experienced what he calls “a mysterious, inexplicable viral paralysis—so extreme that I can’t walk.” Eventually, he says, “I can’t use my arms or my hands, I can’t close my eyes when I’m sleeping at night.” Naturally, he was hospitalized.

It wasn’t until his mother came up to his hospital room one night that she noticed movement in his finger, and “mysteriously as the paralysis came,” Acito says, “it went away.”

Years later, when Acito was 13—still with inconclusive medical records as to how his paralysis came to be—his mother was involved in a nearly fatal car accident, in which she veered off the road and hit a tree. The car flipped on top of her and pinned her to the ground.

“This is where, though, it gets strange—as if that weren’t strange enough,” he says. “She’s now in the stars, if you will—in the sky in her mind—and she’s approached by a spirit guide who arrives in what looks to her like a translucent bubble, and they travel in this bubble over a rainbow bridge. They go over a bridge, and underneath the bridge is a river of enormous flowers. The bridge, like I said, is a rainbow, and they arrive at a crystal palace, where she sees all of her dead relatives, who then inform her that she needs to go back, and then she comes back. She was in the hospital for months and months and months because she was so damaged. She recovered as well, [but] when my mother told me the story of what she experienced when she was dead, it had this ring of recognition for me if you think about the imagery of what she experienced: Glinda arrives in a bubble, Dorothy goes over the rainbow, she arrives in Munchkinland where there are enormous flowers, she goes to an Emerald City.

“I’m not saying, necessarily, that any of this is real. She could have been hallucinating… Any number of things are possible here because, of course, who knows what happens when you die. … But it absolutely cemented, in my personal mythology, the idea that The Wizard of Oz is really about mortality—that The Wizard of Oz is actually a near-death experience.

“Fast forward 30 years, and I am approached by [producer] Tina Marie Casamento Libby, who is the conceiver of Chasing Rainbows. She’s interviewing writers, and she sits me down, and the first thing she says is, ‘I’ve always believed that when Judy Garland sang ‘Over the Rainbow’ in The Wizard of Oz that she was actually singing to her dead father,’ and I said to her, ‘Say no more. I get it.’ In 30 years, I had never met anybody who had shared my interpretation of this movie. … It’s one of those projects that feels…like destiny.”

So, with two near-death experiences behind him, Acito set to write the book to the new musical, which explores Garland’s life from a young girl named Frances Ethel Gumm through filming the timeless classic The Wizard of Oz, skyrocketing her to the legend that is Judy Garland.

“When I tell people the story of Chasing Rainbows,” Acito explains, “I usually start [with], ‘In 1935, at the height of the Depression, a little girl went to work to be able to save her family.’ And then I continue to tell the story, and then at the very end I say, ‘And that little girl was Judy Garland.’”

<i>Chasing Rainbows</i>
Ruby Rakos as Judy Garland with Michael Wartella as Mickey Rooney in Flat Rock Playhouse's 2015 production of Chasing Rainbows Alyssa Bouma

Unlike Peter Quilter’s End of the Rainbow, the most recent Judy Garland Broadway musical (or, rather, a “play with music” featuring about a dozen Garland staples), Chasing Rainbows is celebratory of Garland’s life and depicts the young performer as a joyful woman who’s brought down by challenge: After being thrust into the spotlight, MGM put her on strict diets leading to extreme self-doubt and, eventually, addiction, and her father died when she was 12.

End of the Rainbow documented the months leading up to her death at 47, capturing her decaying personal life and desperate drug addiction. Chasing Rainbows, on the other hand, aims to portray the life of a young Garland, in which—in the words of Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft—her life wasn’t a tragedy; “tragic things happened to” her.

Audiences know where Garland’s life led, but not “how she got there,” Acito says, “and that, while the seeds of tragedy were being sewn, the seeds of her resilience were also being sewn.” He adds, “When we were working on the show…[Tina Marie Casamento Libby] said, ‘This is a woman who has three living children. This is a woman who has grandchildren,’ and she said, ‘I wanted to create a story that the family could say, ‘Yes. That was my mother.’”

Along with Acito, the story is being crafted with Judy Garland historian John Fricke, who appeared in the documentary Return To Oz: The Joy That Got Away and co-authored The Wizard of Oz: An Illustrated Companion to the Timeless Classic.

According to Acito, the musical fuses the “reel” world with the “real” world—what is happening to Garland both onstage and off—and told through her perspective, much like how The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time took audiences into the mind of its protagonist Christopher Boone and how it felt to live inside his head. The book pulls from Garland’s real-life events (occasionally altering the timetable or who said what for storytelling purposes), and the score is made up of songs the performer used throughout her career. “Even though [the character of] Judy performs some of the songs that she performs in real life,” Acito says, “many of the songs that we use in the show are assigned to other people based on the quote that Judy Garland gave, which is, ‘If you want to know the story of my life, it’s in my songs.’”

Newcomer Ruby Rakos portrays Garland (a role she originated at Flat Rock Playhouse in North Carolina) at Connecticut’s Goodspeed Musicals, where the production officially opens October 5. The 19-year-old performer was discovered by conceiver Libby when she was 16 years old. “If you look at photographs of her, she’s a dead ringer for Judy. It’s uncanny how much she looks like her, [and] she has a similar instrument in terms of her voice,” says Acito. “Tina Marie said to her, ‘Go home and look at some young Judy,’ and Ruby went and [thought], ‘Oh my God, you’re right…’”

The production has hopes for a life on the Great White Way following its run through November 27 at Goodspeed. “It is absolutely a Broadway show—there’s no question in my mind,” Acito says. “Because we’re dealing with MGM in the 1930s, there is an entertaining showbiz-y-ness of it to make it commercially appealing. At the same time, though, there’s meat on the bones, and there is a story that everyone can identify with.

“The amount of excitement this show seems to be generating leaves me to be optimistic that we could come to Broadway. I mean, in my dream world, we play the Palace because then we’d be bringing Judy back to the Palace, but who knows.”

Michael Gioia is the Features Manager at Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.

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Kevin Earley and Ella Briggs Diane Sobolewki
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