About the author:
Since making his Broadway debut in 1989, first time Tony nominee Michael Cumpsty has appeared in 15 Main Stem shows (including Copenhagen, The Heiress, La Bete and 1776) and won raves for his off-Broadway performances in Hamlet, Richard III, Twelfth Night and more. Cumpsty finally received long-deserved Tony recognition for his heartfelt performance as Judy Garland’s friend and pianist in End of the Rainbow. When approached by Broadway.com to write about his experience in this and other shows, the gentlemenly star chose instead to examine (and gush about) the performance of his co-star and fellow Tony nominee, Tracie Bennett.
I am currently playing Anthony Chapman, Judy Garland’s accompanist and confidant in End of the Rainbow. This is the fifteenth show I’ve done on Broadway, and thinking back through all those productions, I realize that I’ve been fortunate enough to work with a great many amazing actresses. Just a partial list would include Lynn Redgrave, Kate Burton and Kathryn Meisle in The Constant Wife; Elizabeth Ashley, Molly Ringwald and Jayne Atkinson in Enchanted April; Zoe Wanamaker, Claire Bloom and Pat Carroll in Electra; Christine Ebersole and Beth Leavel in 42nd Street; Blair Brown in Copenhagen; Cherry Jones, Frannie Sternhagen and Katie Finneran in The Heiress; Linda Emond in 1776; and Dana Delany and Marcia Cross in Translations.
With End of the Rainbow, my luck has held in a really big way. Tracie Bennett, who plays Judy, absolutely astounds me. Time and time again, after seeing her performance, people ask in a kind of awed tone, “How does she do that?” My answer is that I have no idea, but she does it eight times a week and doesn’t ever seem to get worn out.
At the end of almost every show Tracie performs an encore. Each time she does I stand in the wings with Tom Pelphrey and Jay Russell, the other two guys in the show, and usually a couple of the crew guys as well, and we all marvel at the energy and intensity she still has after her performance. She says she inherited her constitution from her father, whom she describes as being “strong as an ox.” It’s a little hard to think of Tracie as an ox, since she’s such a little bit of a thing. But whatever the secret of her energy is, she’s a phenomenon.
She doesn’t think of herself as a singer, which is almost impossible to believe once you’ve seen her performance, but Tracie is musically very accomplished. One of her earliest passions was for the piano, and she intended for a long time to become a concert pianist. I’m playing Judy’s accompanist in the show, but I have no instrumental musical skill or training whatsoever. One of the most challenging and fun aspects of my role has been figuring out how to convince the audience that I am actually playing the piano. Anthony has been hired as Judy Garland’s accompanist and musical director. She describes him as her favorite pianist. He plays with exceptional skill, right there in front of the audience. I get a big kick and a great deal of satisfaction from creating that illusion.
Tracie has an extraordinary “ear.” When we first met with the band that plays on stage in Judy’s concert scenes, and heard them play for the first time, I noticed that Tracie could hear and comment on what each of the six musicians was playing, even when they were all playing at the same time. It seemed to me that she must almost hear six separate tracks in her head. I think the precision with which she hears music probably has a great deal to do with how well she has built the voice, and persona, of Judy. Whether she’s speaking or singing as Judy, she sounds nothing at all like herself. She makes a complete vocal transformation, and I totally understand why she says that she’s acting the songs more than singing them.
One of the reasons that Tracie didn’t become a concert pianist was that her hand span was a bit too small to be optimal for that line of work. So she decided to dance, and studied for years. You can see all that skill in the way she has created Judy’s physicality. Again, the transformation is quite complete. You can hardly see Tracie’s way of moving in Judy at all. And yet whether Judy is sparkling in the limelight, throwing herself on (or off) the furniture, pitching a fit, seducing you with her charm or making you cry with her pain, her physicality is consistently all of a piece. Several people have told me that they have found Judy’s way of moving beautiful and fascinating, even haunting.
With all the elements of her performance woven together—the vocal and the physical and the wildly comedic and the deeply emotional—when I’m out there on stage acting with her, it’s an experience for me unlike any other. Tracie is a brilliant technician, but she’s also deeply emotional and absolutely immediate and engaged, and that makes her a total joy to work with.