For many people, Christmas is not the season of joy but the season of dysfunction. Family gatherings of enforced cheerfulness are tough on the psyche, and most of us are thankful that our Yuletide celebrations aren’t filmed and kept for posterity—which in an awful way describes the 1963 Christmas episode of Judy Garland’s TV variety show. Ron Sandahl, artistic director of Open Circle Theater, explains that he first came across the episode a few years back when his company was running a series of yuletide TV offerings. “We’d planned on showing the Star Wars Holiday Special, but that fell through. So instead we ran a series of terrible Christmas specials, and one of them was this one.” The Garland special is semi-legendary. The star was out partying the night before and missed the dress rehearsal, so when she showed up for the shooting, “they poured her into a dress and on she went.”
The result is sad, funny, and bizarre, says Sandahl. “She holds it together for the opening, but then she walks ‘outside’ of this set, which was based on her actual Malibu home in all of its gaudiness. She’s a bit unfocused and slurry, and from there it just goes off the rails.” Dance numbers kick in where Garland seems unfamiliar with the choreography, she calls Mel Tormé “Mort” at one point, forgets lyrics, and is clearly disoriented at other times. “We all sat there watching and thinking, ‘It’s too bad that we couldn’t do this live onstage.’ But then we thought, ‘Why can’t we?'”
Sandahl transcribed the special word for word, then got busy with his theatrical adaptation, The Judy Garland Christmas Special. It’s an imaginary version of what the show’s dress rehearsal might have looked like, had Garland managed to attend. When the show was first produced in 2006, Sandahl’s collaborator Andrew Tasakos played Garland, but this year he was unavailable, so the company started looking around for new casting—and found Troy Mink. “When Ron sent me an e-mail, I just started laughing,” Mink says. “Name the worst casting choice of the new century in Seattle!”
It’s certainly true that even in the broad reach of drag impersonations, Mink is no Garland—short, broad-faced, with an infectious grin, Mink is most famous for playing not a glamour icon but for creating that eccentric Southern charmer Carlotta Sue Philpott, a little old lady who is the unlikely host of a recurring late-night cabaret. But Sandahl said he was an obvious choice. “Judy was only 43 at the time, but she looks about 60 because of the booze and pills,” he says—and it was the spirit of dysfunction, not of elegance, that made Mink a natural choice.
While the cast is having a blast with their ridiculous sendup of all things Garlandish, Sandahl says the more he’s watched the actual special, the more he’s haunted by its dark undertones. “This was December 1963, remember. Kennedy had been assassinated three weeks before, and everyone involved just looks sort of shell-shocked.” And while the aging star is definitely in their satirical sights, it’s neither undeserved (Garland was famous for trash-talking other celebrities on talk shows) nor without some sympathy. “Some say that Stonewall wouldn’t have happened without Judy,” Sandahl says, noting that the famous 1969 riots partly stemmed from outrage that the police were raiding gay clubs right after the singer’s death. “People were saying ‘Not today! Not on the day that Judy Garland died!'”
Yet with such surreal moments as a hallucinated alligator that offers Judy a few extra pills, Sandahl’s clear that though this is a dark comedy, it’s still a comedy. “We’re showing someone who’s damaged and has a shell-shocked family, but at the same time she’s a star. She had a hell of a knockout voice, even when she doesn’t remember all of the lyrics.”
As for his part, Mink is still marveling that he’s actually getting a wig and dress made for him, instead of shopping for the best Value Village has to offer (the exclusive salon of Carlotta). But he admits his portrayal isn’t going to be a masterpiece of subtlety. “I keep watching interviews with her and trying to get some of the nuances of her speaking and mannerisms, but this is going to be pretty broad. And when I get worried about how I’m going to appear, Ron and the cast keep telling me ‘Remember: this is a comedy.’ And for this show, she didn’t look all that good anyway.”