Renee Zellweger is earning critical raves and Oscar buzz for channeling Judy Garland in “Judy.” It’s no small feat to inhabit a legendary performer in the twilight of her career when she’s singing to pay off debts and battling demons, from bad marriages to drug addiction.
Perhaps no one understands the beast of a role that is Judy Garland better than Boston’s own Kathy St. George. The Stoneham native, a popular fixture on the local theater scene, has played the showbiz icon in four shows, starting with “And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland” at Lyric Stage in 2007. She brought “Dear Miss Garland,” a celebration of Garland’s music, to the Stoneham Theatre in 2009 and in a revised version in 2012. Two years later, St. George starred in Peter Quilter’s musical drama “End of the Rainbow” at the Actors’ Playhouse in Miami. Quilter’s play is the basis for Tom Edge’s screenplay for “Judy” which is set in 1968 when Garland, beset by debts, a custody battle with fourth husband Sid Luft, and years of drug dependency that began when she was a child star at MGM, performs an extended engagement at Talk of the Town in London. She died the following year, on June 22, 1969, at age 47.
“End of the Rainbow,” says St. George in an interview with the Globe, was “an actor’s dream but excruciating. I can say without hesitation it was the hardest show I’ve ever done. It was exhausting. It was depressing. But as an actor, I loved it. If people said that watching it was painful, I knew I did my job.”
Balancing Garland’s gifts as an actress and singer with the private pain that gave her a vulnerability that endeared her to her fans requires stamina and skill. In “End of the Rainbow,” recalls St. George, “there’s so much screaming, throwing, and sobbing that I occasionally told the director that I had to rest on a cot in the green room. I only had to play it for four weeks. How did she live it?”
Zellweger, interviewed at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival where “Judy” screened to a standing ovation, has called Garland her “childhood hero.” St. George, too, first became fascinated as a child by Garland’s 1939 classic “The Wizard of Oz.”
Her first professional connection came quite by accident. She sang “You Made Me Love You,” which 14-year-old Garland sang to a photo of Clark Gable in “Broadway Melody of 1938,” at Boston’s Club Cafe in 1989. A reviewer said that St. George, who like Garland is 4 feet, 11 inches, “is reminiscent of a young Judy Garland.”
“I’d memorized the monologue; I studied the mannerisms. She just spoke to my heart,” says St. George, who hadn’t planned on an acting career when she graduated from Salem State College (now Salem State University) with degrees in elementary education. She taught second grade in Stoneham for five years while also performing in community theater and auditioning. Unexpectedly, she got a call that she’d been cast as one of Tevye’s younger daughters in the 1981 Broadway revival of “Fiddler on the Roof” starring Herschel Bernardi.
“It was horrific,” St. George recalls. “I’d gotten tenure; I’d just [earned] my master’s as a reading specialist. So I waited 24 hours before I said yes.” With some trepidation, she gave up her teaching job and moved to New York. “That show started my career,” she says. “ ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ was so good to me. I did four national tours and two Broadway productions,” including a Tony-winning 1990 revival starring Topol in which she played Grandma Tzeitel.
After returning to Boston in 1991, she’s worked nonstop, specializing in musical comedy. She won an Elliot Norton Award as best actress for SpeakEasy Stage Company’s production of “The Divine Sister” in 2012. Most recently, she performed in “Menopause: The Musical” at Maine’s Ogunquit Playhouse, then traveled to Minnesota with the show. In December, St. George heads to the Hanover Theatre in Worcester for “A Christmas Carol.”
St. George and the late Tony McLean in 2007 created her solo show “And Now Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Judy Garland,” using Garland’s own words from her infamous 1964 tape recordings for a never-published autobiography.
“That was depressing Judy, slurring her words, in her cups. But the second act was a concert, which is what I love. I want to celebrate her. I don’t want to think about her at her worst,” St. George says.
“Dear Miss Garland,” directed by Scott Edmiston, was St. George’s valentine and celebration. She and Edmiston wrote a 10-minute version of “The Wizard of Oz” for the show, complete with props and with St. George playing every role. St. George says this was her favorite part of “Dear Miss Garland” because it allowed her to incorporate comedy in a tribute to her favorite movie. The segment has become a St. George signature; she’s performed it over the years in cabaret shows and at assisted-living facilities.
It’s a tall enough order to sing, dance, and impersonate Garland; quite another to interpret and fully inhabit her. Like Zellweger, St. George prepared by immersing herself in her recordings, TV appearances, films, and interviews. Playing an icon meant plumbing the depths of her humanity.
For St. George, Garland’s key quality was her sense of humor. “She was extraordinarily funny and quick-, quick-, quick-witted,” she says.
“End of the Rainbow” and “Judy” require its star to sing Garland’s famous songs, from “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Get Happy” to, of course, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Even when she’s hardly in peak form, Garland’s charisma is captivating.
“The emotional energy it takes to put across a Judy Garland song is extraordinary,” says St. George. “She opens up her heart and tells a story in a song. No one can match her. No one.”