SHE may have forged her name on the cobbles of Coronation Street but actress Tracie Bennett has got used to seeing her name up in lights in the West End.
This time the award-winner has been furthering her stage credentials by bringing Judy Garland back to life on the road in End Of The Rainbow.
But the Lancashire lass is swift to make an admission. “Singing is a nightmare for me,” she says midway through our conversation.
“I play the piano, I’m highly musical, but my friends are proper singers. I’ve always been a theatre girl but I never thought of musical theatre. But because I danced a bit and I could act they pulled me in.
“You find the voice and then from the voice of the character you have to sing like the voice you found for the character. I would sing differently for Miss Adelaide, for instance.
“Something just comes out, it’s bizarre, but I can’t say I would stand on stage as Tracie and sound pretty; I wouldn’t know what my voice was.
“It’s different with every musical I’ve been in and it’s weird how my life has gone that way; it’s by default, it’s not like I planned it.”
Certainly it’s been a long and bright road from soapland to the West End stage; Tracie made the jump from Sharon Gaskill to some of theatre’s most famous roles with apparent ease.
“It’s funny isn’t it, but I’ve always felt comfortable in either medium,” says Tracie, whose CV includes much telly, such as Dalziel And Pascoe, Vincent, The Royal, and a recent spot on Casualty.
“It’s just weird it’s gone down the stage route rather than the other, but to be fair it was me who left The Street at every opportunity to hone that skill because the theatre will always do it for you.”
On film Tracie played Millandra in Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine and in theatre she’s paid a few visits to Sheffield stages, notably Guys And Dolls, Educating Rita and Spring Awakening for the Crucible.
Elsewhere she appeared in Billy Liar, High Society, Sex, Chips & Rock ‘n’ Roll and La Cage Aux Folles, as well as Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray, for which she won an Laurence Olivier Award for Best Supporting Role in a Musical.
In End Of The Rainbow, at Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre from Monday, she plays out the final days of one of the 20th century’s biggest, yet most tragic, entertainment icons.
Although comfortable in the role after a successful West End run, Tracie is still a tad bemused by the near obsession people have with Judy.
“People ask me, journalists included, what’s it like playing Judy Garland, is it a pressure? I’m thinking ‘Everything I do is a pressure’..
“And people ask ‘What’s the fascination with Judy?’ But I’m not fascinated, you lot are. I don’t understand what the fascination is. So you’ll have to explain that.
“You grow up watching the MGM films, but I was into Gene Kelly, to be honest. My sister was into Tommy Steele and then I started working with Tommy, which was hilarious. But Judy was always there to be respected.
“Obviously with doing this I took it on board to read everything going, like an actor would. I’ve seen every DVD possible to see and YouTube.
“I did study her a lot, but I didn’t want to copy. I just had to sink it into my body over months of saturated research and then by osmosis it’s just in me now, because it has to be.”
In fact, reviews thus far, suggest Tracie not only sounds like Judy, but has an uncanny resemblence to Garland.
“It is weird, isn’t it. I don’t know what people see because I’m doing it. You can’t look at yourself and go ‘yes, I agree’; I just have to feel what I feel with the script and after discussions in rehearsals with the director, the writer and others you just do it. Whatever is in the piece I cannot veer from that and as soon as my wig comes off I’m back to me again.
“The public will always tell you your faults, if you’re honing it right, and that spurs you on.”
Either way, Tracie is hoping for a great reception for Rainbow in Sheffield.
“I find the provinces are more interested. They open the paper and they’re more supportive usually because you are willing to up and skip your house and family life to take it out.
“And that’s what we do, isn’t it? I don’t do it for myself otherwise I’d stay in my living room or the bath. I’m doing it for audiences and also people who can’t afford to come down to London.
“The producer bought the rights for me and has been extremely loyal with his faith in me. I don’t think it’s my part – other people will have a go eventually – but my producer said ‘They will probably want to see the person who did it in London and would you be available?’.
“The reason I do this is to move people and communicate so I have to go on tour, it’s imperative. I’m being loyal to someone who saw deeper in me and offered me this massive opportunity. If I didn’t take that I’d be a fool. What am I waiting for, it not roles like this?””
Street ex wears Garland well
PETER Quilter’s touching play is set in London in 1968 and combines humour and heartbreak to follow Garland’s final performances in London – and her last days alive.
Directed by Terry Johnson, who also directed Tracie Bennett in La Cage Aux Folles, it features some of the Wizard Of Oz legend’s most memorable songs including The Man That Got Away, Come Rain Or Come Shine, The Trolley Song and Somewhere Over the Rainbow.
Tracie stars alongside Hilton McRae as Anthony, Garland’s devoted pianist and musical director, and Stephen Hagan as soon-to-be husband number five Mickey Deanes.
Where most people focus on the success that Judy enjoyed, Quilter’s story explores Garland’s less than glamourous demise beside her final triumphs; balancing the darker aspects of her life and personal battles alongside a much-loved public profile.
It has prompted Bennett to give a sensitive and powerful portrayal labelled as “career-defining”.
“You always think like that as an actor,” she says when asked if she felt this was a story that needed telling.
“You want to go deeper with everything. The thing about somebody being alive is it’s all documented but even a lot of Americans don’t know Judy died in England or this was her last concert.
“A lot of people remember Easter Parade and Meet Me In St Louis.
“My mother’s era would be aware of her drug taking because it was all in the papers at the time.
“Some people felt sorry for her and some were ‘Get over yourself and stop taking the drugs’.
“But whether it’s a story that should be told... I think the play is about the price of fame.
“And in this day and age with the celebrity rage going on, all those magazines with ‘How to dress like a celeb’... it’s relentless.
“Of course, none of us were there in the hotel where Judy Garland was, but Michael Grade came to see us and he was.
“He said it was like being there.
“So the writer was chuffed because he’s done his research and talked to people and mixed in a bit of imagination.”