I had the unique pleasure of working as Stage Manager for 2 seasons of EYECONS with the award winning, nationally acclaimed entertainer Christopher Peterson. I was recently able to interview Christopher for Letters magazine about his upcoming performance of Typhoon Judy. Due to the space limitations of traditional printing, the interview was condensed to a more workable size (online here). The following is the complete interview from the recorded transcripts of our conversation. It gives a rare insight into the creative process of a dynamic stage professional and artist as well as a glimpse into the production and the roller-coaster life of Judy Garland herself.
Typhoon Judy Starring Christopher Peterson
Saturday, July 28
Rehoboth Beach Convention Center (229 Rehoboth Ave.)
Doors open at 8 p.m.; showtime at 9 p.m. Cash bar.
Tickets are $100 ($100 Table Seats are sold out!), $75, $50, and $30 and available on the CAMP Rehoboth website, at the CAMP Rehoboth office or at Proud Bookstore! Purchase Tickets Online
Typhoon Judy is a Bruce Pfeufer and Mini Bear Graphics Production! Created by Darrin Hagen and Christopher Peterson with musical arrangements by Jim Rice. Accompanist Jerry Birl.
It’s been two years since North America’s foremost female impersonator Christopher Peterson packed up his production of Rehoboth’s perennial favorite EYECONS and headed to the sparkling streets of Vegas. While that journey proved much more of a bumpy ride than he had hoped for, he landed once again on his well-heeled feet returning to his loyal and adoring fans in Key West, Florida. This July, he returns to Rehoboth for a one night only performance of a dazzling new dramatic play with music that he co-wrote with the playwright Darrin Hagen titled “Typhoon Judy”. The production takes place in Judy’s head, circa 1964, as she lay comatose during a raging typhoon in a Hong Kong hospital room following a suicide attempt shortly after a disastrous concert in Melbourne, Australia.
Christopher Peterson as Judy Garland in EYECONS
Theatrical and dramatic (quite the turn from Peterson’s highly comical, brassy and shtick driven EYECONS), TJ also reads as a skillfully crafted, witty, poignant, and highly personal account of a woman who dedicated every ounce of her being to show business. Peppered throughout the production is a large selection of songs from the Garland song book carefully selected to bolster the biographical aspect of the show. In any actor’s hands it’s a meaty role - in Peterson’s, it’s sure to be a banquet.
MS: Do you want to discuss what’s been going on with your career since your last professional appearance in Rehoboth and now?
CP: Absolutely. Yes. I’m sure and lot of the fans and friends know in Rehoboth that we moved to Las Vegas to do the show and the producer, who was going to produce the show, of course, fucked out of it before it even got off the ground. So we scrambled and opened the show in a little theatre there called the Onyx Theatre.
Christopher Peterson in EYECONS at the Onyx Theatre
We thought, well, that’s the way we used to do it in the past. Start from the bottom and work your way up. We discovered quite quickly that unless you’re “on the strip” people don’t know you exist in Las Vegas. We did that for about eight weeks and it was an OK run. It was nice. Then we started doing a few showcases here and there at different casinos and nothing got off the ground. Then we had a chance to work the Four Queens downtown. We auditioned for them and they really liked the show, but they were delaying and delaying and I said, “We have to find some work.” The summer was coming so we said “Let’s go back to Key West.” Just as we were going back to Key West they phoned and said “We'd like you to work the Four Queens.” I said, “Well, I just signed a contract in Key West for the summer so that will have to wait.” Because they were waiting they moved another show in. I kind of woke and and I said to James, “I think I want to move back home.” And he said “Where’s that?” I said “Key West” and he said “O.K”. We did a quick tour of Canada in August and then in October we went back to Vegas packed it up and moved back to key West. And that was the Vegas adventure.
MS: Well, then it was enjoyable, fun, perhaps a learning process?
CP: It was horrible, tiring, and I’ve not washed my hands of Las Vegas, but certainly that dream has been cruelly crushed under the heel of Las Vegas. And you know what, that’s fine.
MS: Clearly, the lead character in “Typhoon Judy” is Judy Garland. Why Judy and why now?
CP: At this point for me to say why Judy Garland would be, well, the obvious answer is because I’ve had so many people say when they watch her in EYECONS, as you know, I closed the show with her, they always say “Oh my goodness, you channeled her. You should do more of her. Have you thought about doing a Judy show.” And this has been , this idea that I’ve been spewing around - Typhoon Judy - has been in the works for probably around, Oh God, since EYECONS, for about 15 years. But only in treatment form. Only a small little outline of it and that’s it. Then a friend of mine who wrote Bitchslap which I did, which is Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, their feud, refereed by Hedda Hooper, he and I sat down and started writing it last year.
Christopher Peterson as Bette Davis (right) in Bitchslap
(Photo By Barry Fitzgerald)
It wasn’t until I was asked to do Rehoboth again this year, that I said, “I want to do a new show in Rehoboth and it’s going to be Typhoon Judy.” So it pushed us forward to get it done. Why now? I think the relevance of her story, again, if you haven’t been around for the last five years and don’t know that Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston died of an overdose and with the death of Donna Summer, well I think the relevance is certainly that Judy was the first story that we all knew about drug addiction and drug overdose, and what’s it like to be in show business and to get caught up in that tornado, or in this case, a typhoon. It’s a story that is as famous as the Michael Jackson story or the Whitney Houston story. It’s about what you do to try and cope through this business we call show.
MS: So, in your process of creating this show, you say that it’s been sitting in your head for 15 years.
CP: The treatment had been sitting in a file for 15 years. For anybody not in show business, a treatment is just an outline of the story. I had read an episode in a book titled Get Happy years ago about how she died for the first time in Hong Kong after a disastrous concert in Melbourne, Australia.
It was the first time in her life that she really committed suicide. The four other attempts before this were fakes. They were hysterics. Cutting your throat and the doctor said, “Please, she barely even broke the skin.” That kind of thing. I thought wouldn’t it be neat if she had to rehearse for a concert in which nobody showed up. So we put the two ideas together of her being in a coma and the concert rehearsal is in her head, but there’s nobody there. And the person who is there, the pianist, doesn’t know the show. So she has to go through all the songs and at the same time, tell him all the stories of what these songs mean. It was an idea to make it a more interesting version of her life story than just “here’s my life story” kind of thing.
MS: Tell me more about Darrin Hagin, the co-author of the production.
CP: He wrote Bitchslap which I did down here in Key West. We were going to bring it to Rehoboth but we had some logistic problems so it didn’t get off the ground. His company in Edmonton, Alberta is called “Guys in Disguise”. I’ve done my show for them a couple of times and he writes plays with lead characters that tend to be drag queens. When I did Bitchslap here in Key West, it was a huge hit. So, when I told him about TJ he said, “I want to help you write it.” I said, “Terrific. I’ve never written a play before.” To have had someone who has had some major success help me was fantastic.” So we did it together. It was quite painless. We collaborated well together. It was pretty spectacular.
MS: So what was the collaboration process like then?
CP: We did it the same way we’re doing this interview, over Skype. We just had the script in front of us and came up with ideas. Part of the script that the audience is going to hear is from a CD that I bought in Los Angeles about 12 years ago called Judy Speaks. It’s a bootleg version of her autobiography that she read into a Dictaphone in 1965. We cleaned a lot of the incoherency of it up. She’s pretty drunk at some points on it. And these are her words.
About Liza and her other children. About Sid her husband. It’s kind of neat that it’s actually Judy’s voice. Some of the other stories we took from some of the biographies that are out there. The ones that we liked. We just kind of mish-mashed it all together and put the songs in between. There’s a song at the beginning that she sings, I’m Just A Minstrel Girl. “The story of my life is in my song” is one of the lyrics. It’s absolutely true about the songs she sang. It was easy to say “This song goes here. This song goes there” to tell the story. She’s a pretty amazing character in that sense. The show is half singing and half speaking and yet you still follow the story. Her songs really do tell her life.
MS: So, the biographical information used in TJ, was from a mix of research materials or had you picked up information over your career?
CP: In a sense, the knowledge that I had about Judy before I went into this piece, was probably the same knowledge that a lot of people had about her. What was interesting, as we read the books, we pulled out stories that I had never read before. There’s a story about her relationship with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall and how they started the Rat Pack before Sinatra started it. They had the original Rat Pack, Sinatra joined and after Bogie died, Sinatra took it over. I never knew that before.
Judy Garland and Humphrey Bogart circa 1950’s
There’s a story about when she got cleaned up in Boston for the first time off of drugs and there is a little girl that she befriended there - I won’t give that one away - but it’s a very touching story. So, as we read through it, Darrin and I said “Let’s tell these stories.” They’re ones that we hadn’t heard before and hopefully ones that the audience hadn’t heard before. That will make it more interesting to listen to from an audience point of view I think.
MS: At the time that TJ occurs, Judy’s career is really at the beginning of her tragic downslide. Do you feel that the Judy that you’ve written for TJ is aware that this is the beginning of the end?
CP: That’s a really good question to ask. At think at this point, just as she mentions in the show, her life is a roller coaster. In the show, we go through the ups and downs. She does know that she has problems, though she’s blaming everyone else around her instead of herself. It’s not until the end of the show that she realizes that she is the problem and that if she wants to continue, she’s going to have to change. We have a very happy ending - though she dies in the show - she does come back to life (laughter). She does a very triumphant concert at the end. It’s only five songs, but it’s to show that even after all of this, this woman still got back out on stage, still did her job and did it amazingly. It’s a down period in her life, but she just pushes through. It’s the tenacity of Judy Garland.
MS: You and I had a discussion the other day, and you mentioned concerns about the audience’s potential reaction to the darker aspects of the show. Can you elaborate on that?
CP: Michael, I can answer that easily. I have worked in Rehoboth for 12 years and I adore my audience. I love my fans and friends, because most of my fans became my friends. But they’re quite used to show that is very light and comical in EYECONS. They also know that I’m a good actor I think, but this is a drama. It is a play. I think if people come to it thinking “Let’s go have a couple of drinks and watch Chris be Judy”, they’ll get halfway through it and think, “Jeez - this is pretty serious.” I just want them to be aware that it’s not a frolic through the posies. It’s a look at a woman’s life. There are some light parts - I’m not saying the whole thing is heavy, but it’s a drama. No matter what I do, they’ll be a few who walk away and go (laughingly with pantomimed slurred speech) “Why didn’t he do Tina? I wanted to see Tina!”
MS: Some of your fan base may not be aware that you have a very established background in traditional theater. How have those experiences have seasoned this production?
CP: Well, as you know, I’ve been performing since I was four years old and professionally since I was 11. I did a lot of theater in High School and slightly after that, but I gave that up to do drag. With drag, you go into another world. You work in bars immediately when you become a drag queen. I really didn’t get back into theatre until 1992/93. I did theater in Toronto for about 5 years. Even though I did drag in theatre, I didn’t get back to EYECONS until about ‘96. There was a period of about 4 years there that I did theater and I loved it. It got me back on the boards. The way I always thought my life would be you know. I did a couple of plays and a musical. It was just terrific. Then I got back to EYECONS , after winning a Dora award for acting. It’s the Canadian equivalent of a Tony Award. Then EYECONS took of. We brought it to the states and it took off there. So it’s nice to get back to it. I did Bitchslap in Key West and it left me wanting to do more. This is just another chance to show my theatre chops. I’d like to take this places on tour. Certainly, take it to all the places that I’ve played for with a new show.
MS: What are the differences, if any, between the Christopher Peterson of EYECONS and the Christopher Peterson of Typhoon Judy?
CP: Short answer is - with the Christopher Peterson of EYECONS - the audience gets to know me and who I am as I change between the ladies. In TJ, I play Judy Garland from beginning to end. It’s an actor’s role. There’s no breaking the fourth wall. I’ll be Judy for 90 minutes.
MS: Is more challenging or less challenging to play one character for 90 minutes versus several for the same amount of time with snippets of yourself between character changes?
CP: They’re different challenges. I have to act. You know as well as I do Michael with acting you have to be very specific with how lines are read and such. I get to ride a roller coaster with this. I get to laugh. I get to scream. I get to sing. I get to cry. I get to laugh some more, scream some more, sing some more, cry some more - by the way - that’s in the first 10 minutes! (laughter). EYECONS is pretty much a comedy show. This is A to Z. I was watching the video today from the reading that we did last week and I was thinking that this is an acting challenge for any person. I was surprised at how well we wrote it in the sense that it allows for such a large range of emotions on stage. I thought it was good. I was pooped after the show and I thought Jesus Christ we gotta take some of this out. (laughter). But, you know, if I’m not pooped then why do it? It’s pretty scary to do - and again - if it’s not scary, why do it? If it doesn’t challenge you, there’s no reason to do it.
MS: So, that’s important to you as an artist - having that challenge?
CP: I think so. Any actor will tell you. You want to be challenged in your craft. You don’t want to be stereotyped. You don’t want to play the same role over and over again. You want to grow as an artist. This show is going to let me grow as an artist.
MS: Do you view this as evolutionary move in your career?
CP: 100%. You never stop evolving in theatre. If you stop evolving you die, I guess, in some sense of the word. Some may say, “Well, you’ve been doing EYECONS for 12 years.” And I can say, yes, but it’s a new audience every night. It makes it thrilling because I still have to weave a different method every night depending on what the crowd is reacting to.
MS: EYECONS had a quite a bit of audience participation. Is there any of that in TJ?
CP: Not really. Just that they laugh and clap at the right places. You ask your audience to do whatever they need to do, but it’s not until the end of the show when Judy does her concert that the audience is actually there for her. Once she does the concert, They are there for her. We do break the fourth wall at the end of the show. Or third wall. Or fifth wall. Which wall is it?! (laughter).
MS: Tell me about the costumes. I know there are costume changes, can you discuss them?
CP: There are new costumes for the show of course. They’re in the traditional Christopher Peterson way because I do design my own costumes. They’re an homage to the outfits that she wore and not direct duplicates. We took some of the Bob Mackie dresses that she wore for her television show, which was cancelled a year before this tour happened, and created our own treatment of them. Certainly if you are a Judy fan, you’ll recognize the silhouettes and shapes, but they’re not identical, but you’ll go - wow, that’s a Judy outfit.
Judy Garland in a still from “The Judy Garland Show”
They were challenging too in themselves for me to make. Copying a Bob Mackie when you’re one little person sitting alone in the workshop when he has 15 people beading for him is quite the challenge.
MS: The music for this show is an integral part of this production. You’ve created new arrangements and a more character driven delivery for some of the songs. What was the thought process behind that?
CP: The songs were chosen after we did the book. We did the book first, laid it out and had the ideas. So, we knew we were going to talk about Vincente Minnelli. We knew we were going to talk about Sid. We knew we were going to talk about her first husband David Rose - who a lot of people don’t know she was married to. She married him because her first love, Artie Shaw, was stolen by Lana Turner. And there’s the kids. Well, when you look through the Judy Garland songbook, and you wonder, how can we sing about Sid Luft not being the right kind of man, but she put up with him. And then we found the song called The Worst Kind Of Man that she sang, and we knew - well there’s the Sid Luft song. Her songbook just made it so easy to paw through. What are we going to sing about Liza? Well, there’s a song called Liza. Let’s do that one. It was really quite easy to pick the songs. Now, they’re not the most popular Judy Garland songs, but they’re perfect for keeping the story going. it’s just like a musical. You want the songs to either comment on what just happened, or to keep the story going using music and lyrics rather than dialogue.
MS: You’ve been performing as Judy for a large part of your career. Do you feel as if, over the years, you have formed some kind of special relationship or bonding with the essence of what Judy Garland was?
CP: When I first started doing Garland, she was the very first character, besides Marilyn Monroe, that when I finished singing the songs, I could actually talk like them. And I don’t mean just vocally. If it wasn’t in the script and someone gave me something from the audience, I could react the way that they would too. Garland certainly became a character that I didn’t have to think about when I was on stage. I just let the character take over. It came naturally to me I guess. Some people say that I “channeled” her. As an actor, sometimes you want to be that comfortable in the skin because then you can do anything you want. You can react. I’m not bragging when I say that when I was watching the video, I thought, wow, even though it was a reading, I realized that as I watched myself delivering the lines, it would be the way that Judy would react to it. For me, that makes my job easier than really having to pound it into yourself - learn how to do it. It really comes naturally.
MS: The very first time that you performed as Judy Garland -
CP: I’m going to say it was 1991 or ‘92.
MS: So, about 20 years ago. How has your portrayal changed over the years? Have you grown more with the character?
CP: I suppose I could say yes. But, like Marilyn Monroe and Judy Andrews too when I first started doing it, I had listened to them so much and lip-synched to them so much, that when it came time to do them live, it just came out easy. It’s grown in the sense that I’ve learned new material for them and have experienced new stuff with them. But it feels the same way it did the first day. It just feels totally natural to do it. That’s one of the reasons that I kept those characters. Lots of other characters in EYECONS dropped out. Either they were just one song or they were trendy at the time, but these girls always stayed because they’re my favorites.
MS: Have you ever been approached by anyone that actually knew Judy Garland and have had them comment to you on your performance?
CP: No, no. But I’ve spoken with people that have seen her perform live. Older friends of Dorothy. Older friends of Dorothy who had seen her in Carnegie Hall and all the rest of that. They would always tell me that it was like watching her all over again and thank you for bringing back those wonderful memories.
MS: You have a truly impeccable sense of timing and delivery with your lines. Garland often had a somewhat fluid way of speaking, but there was also timing involved. How much of your performance relies on that kind of rhythmic delivery?
CP: Well, it’s exactly as you just said Michael. She had a certain cadence and a certain style in the way that she talked. Delivery sometimes for her can be very deadpan. She would think something that she thought was funny. She would just say it and people would laugh. It’s a brand new show. We’re hoping that the laughs are in the right spots (laughter). Certainly doing the reading the other night proved that they are there. The laughs are there. We just have to do it more. We’re going to do a couple of dress rehearsals here in Key West before we take it to Rehoboth. We only have one performance and we don’t get a dress rehearsal for it. You really have to know it by heart.
"Judy Garland” digital enhancement by Michael Sprouse
MS: When was the last time you had to memorize this many line for a role?
CP: Bitchslap - a couple of years ago. That part of my muscle isn’t working as well as it used as one says. The only good thing about that is - I wrote it. So I had to read it over and over again as we were working on it. A lot of it is already in me. And it came out of me. So, it’s not like I have to learn something new - a new way of talking or a new way of being. Darrin and I are still doing this now - we’ll sit down and say, “Is there an easier way to say that line for me and sound like Judy?” We get to cheat a lot in a sense because I’m writing and performing it so I get to tailor it exactly to who I am. Learning it isn’t that difficult. It ain't Shakespeare! (laughter).
MS: You may have mentioned this earlier - but what would you like the audience to take form the production?
CP: I’d like them to take away two things - maybe something they didn’t know about here before and an emotional ride. The same one that she was on. If you can’t touch people emotionally, there’s no reason to do a show. You want to strike an emotional chord in people. I don’t want them to feel sorry for her. Hopefully, they will be able to feel what it was like for her to go up and down and up and down and how hard that must have been. Maybe you have to feel a little bit of sympathy for the lady. It was a tough ride for that gal. There weren’t too many people who helped her. When they did - they pretty much stole from her. It was a rough ride.
MS: This production is set roughly around 1964 or ‘65. Why, out of the many chapters of her life that you could have chosen to dramatize, why then?
CP: It’s because it’s a mature Judy - a very mature Judy. It’s the same Judy that I do already. People ask me what my inspiration is for Judy - and I always say the television show. So, I’m doing an homage to her style on television. Aren’t we lucky that we get to see that - as reruns. We get to see Judy Garland - the woman - in that time in her life. Not the movie star, which is all before that, where she plays different characters. This period is a period where she’s still on top, in some senses of the word, even though she’s at the bottom. She can still rise above and still come out on top. It’s before the downfall. The play that’s on Broadway right at the moment, which came over from London (The End Of The Rainbow), they’ve chosen to portray the last week of her life. She’s pretty fucking rough then - I mean really rough. I just wanted to make sure that, even though she was rough, that she could still be the Judy that I love - this woman that could still get out on stage and entertain the crap out of us.
MS: When you look back over your own life and your career, can you say that there have been times when you were able to relate to Judy on some level that has helped you shape your portrayal of her now?
CP: I can honestly say that it has been completely instinctual. I’ve never had down periods that down. I have had a few - I can honestly say at one point, when I went through a really down period - I went “Oh my God. I’m Judy Garland.” (laughter). I knew exactly what was going on. Worse - I was Esther Blodgett from “A Star Is Born” (more laughter).
Judy Garland in a still from “A Star Is Born”
I can honestly say I knew exactly what that character when through. Just recently with the experience in Las Vegas, I certainly know what it’s like to want to do something spectacular and have it just not work out. How lucky I was to be able to come back and still do what I wanted to do. So, yeah, my life has had it’s ups and downs - but again - nowhere near what she went through. But then again, I haven’t had her “ups” either. I would gladly take some of her ups and take the downs at the same time. I would have gladly loved to have done “A Star Is Born”, or Carnegie Hall, or any of that. I would have taken those triumphs and done them - and taken the falls at the same time. So, my life is a little more like a little zig-zag than a roller coaster. (laughter).
MS: I want to ask you about the Typhoon of Typhoon Judy. It’s true that while she was in Hong Kong there was an actual typhoon, but in your production, the typhoon seems almost to be a third character and very symbolic of Judy’s life. Did you purposely include that symbolism in your script?
CP: Yes. Absolutely. 100%. Her life is a typhoon at times. We tried to created a very frantic environment at the beginning of the show - and then you get to the eye of the storm which is calm and nice - and then a frantic thing at the end again. We tried to shape it like a storm - especially a hurricane or a typhoon. They have those wonderful period where there’s this calming and you think the storm is over, and just when you think it’s over - here it comes again!
MS: You mentioned earlier the British production of “End Of The Rainbow” which is now in a very successful run on Broadway and nominated for three Tony Awards and the book, “Get Happy” is being produced as a bio-pic starring Anne Hathaway. There seems to be a “Judy” fever occurring now.
CP: (Laughter) They stole it from me! How DARE they do this before I get a chance to do this on stage! (more laughter). Those sons-of-bitches! They’re just going to think that I’m copying them! (laughter) No - seriously. This has been in the works for a while. It’s just ironic that all of a sudden here comes a whole slew of Judy stuff out of the woodwork.
Actresses Anne Hathaway and Judy Garland
MS: Yes, it is ironic. If you were to put your finger on the pulse of that Judy wave in current culture, can you explain it?
CP: No. No Michael. I also design clothing. I recently sat down and sketched out a beautiful gown which I did for the Oscars last year because we host them here in Key West. A friend of mine came over, looked at the gown, and said it was absolutely stunningly beautiful. Next month, we picked up a Vogue magazine - and there was the dress. Oh well. Either some folks will think I copied it, or I still got it. I still know how to design. Maybe that’s it. Maybe it’s just coincidence. Or maybe that’s just how it is as an artist. Maybe you’re just at the right place at the right time with the right materials. I didn’t say let’s do it because everyone else is doing it. We started doing it and then realized, there’s one show, there’s another one. They just popped out of nowhere. I’m happy because maybe people who saw those shows, or the movie, will have enjoyed it so when they see ads for Typhoon Judy, they may say “Here’s another Judy show, let’s go see that!”
MS: You’re proud of this show, wouldn’t you say?
CP: At this point, it’s not an ugly baby which is nice. It’s a little over clothed. As I said, we have to pull back some of the words. I said the other day, “The baby’s beautiful - it’s just wearing too much clothing.” (laughter). We have to take some of the words away. But I think it’s a beautiful baby. But then again, she thought Liza was a beautiful baby and that looked like a freak. (more laughter).
MS: Do you feel that your experience writing Typhoon Judy will lead you to more playwriting, or are you just curious to see where this project goes for now?
CP: Oh, I want to see where it goes. But, it has given me the confidence. I think the reading that I did of it the other day and the reaction from the people who have gotten to read it - only a handful, you’re one of the lucky who have gotten to read it so far in its incarnation - has given me that confidence. Hopefully Rehoboth will enjoy it. We’re doing it here next year at the Waterfront Theatre for two weeks. It’s given me the confidence to say that I would like to write another show. I don’t know what it’s going to be. I have no idea. I would like to write another play. I have a bug for it now.
”Judy Garland” by Andy Warhol