Judy Garland and Whitney Houston: If happy little bluebirds fly …

“The 48-year-old singer had struggled for years with cocaine, marijuana and pills, and her behavior had become erratic.”

That’s a paragraph from a recent Star Tribune. Except for slight differences, it might have been from a review of “End of the Rainbow,” a show that opened at the Guthrie two weeks ago. Performed with skill and vigor by Tracie Bennett, “Rainbow” is the story of Judy Garland’s march toward death from a drug overdose.

But no. The paragraph comes from one of this week’s articles about the death of Whitney Houston. The comparisons between Garland and Houston are easy: Both had been young stars, blessed from an early age with talent, looks and charm. Both had wildly successful careers in music and decent careers in films. Both developed problems with bad husbands and hard drugs. They were about the same age – Garland 47, Houston 48 – when they died, alone, in the bathroom. Just how similar those deaths were, we won’t know until toxicology results come in.

“End of the Rainbow” has played to great success in London, and it’s scheduled to go to Broadway this spring. Houston’s tour ends in Newark on Saturday.

Bennett has said she isn’t trying to do an impression of Garland, and that’s just as well, because (to my mind) she doesn’t look or sound all that much like her. (She evokes Garland approximately as well as Frank Langella did Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon.”)

What Bennett does chillingly well is give us a glimpse into the heart of an addict. And not just any addict, but one with enough celebrity to steamroll those who would keep her from getting what she wants. As my friend Graydon Royce put it in the Star Tribune, “By December 1968, Garland could no longer spit out the hook, and whether she acknowledged it or not, she was drowning in chemicals.” Bennett’s performance is all about the drowning.

In that way, the play’s about more than Garland. It’s about Jim Morrison, too, and Michael Jackson. And now Whitney Houston.

One more strange little connecting thread: Most of us first learned Judy Garland’s name from “The Wizard of Oz,” the movie she starred in at age 16. Many people first learned Whitney Houston’s name in 1985, when, at age 19, she appeared on Merv Griffin’s television show – singing “Home,” from “The Wiz.”

-Eric Ringham

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