English stage and television actress Tracie Bennett (b. Leigh, Lancashire, England, 17 June 1961) makes her Broadway and American stage debut playing Judy Garland in Peter Quilter’s play-with-music End of the Rainbow. In the United Kingdom, hers is a familiar household name, as the winner of two Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical and the nominee for three more. She has been a familiar presence on British series television, appearing in well over one hundred episodes over the course of her career. She has been a talk-show host as well.
As a child, Tracey Anne Bennett was trained to be a musician at the Royal Northern School of Music; her first experience on stage was playing Rachmaninoff with an orchestra when she was ten. “I was totally crap on the piano but I liked the lessons, discipline, and the challenge.… I have a lot of musician friends to this day and in my head I feel more like a musician than an actor.” She went on to drama school – in retrospect “it was like an army boot camp”– at the Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts in Clapham, London.
Tracie Bennett made her television debut in a children’s series, Going Out, in 1981, but made a memorable impact the next year playing a fourteen-year-old in a long-running series, Coronation Street. As late as 1999 she returned in the same role in four episodes. Her first movie was a high-school drama called Knights & Emeralds (1986); her second, Shirley Valentine (1989), in which she played the daughter to Oscar-nominated Pauline Collins, is far more familiar to American audiences.
Although Bennett has been known to insist that she can’t sing, that her voice “sounds like a cross between a cheese grater and a pneumatic drill,” her continuing successes on the musical stage would seem to give the lie to such a claim. Her first award for Best Actress came in 1984 from the city of Manchester’s Evening News, for her musical performances in Merrily We Roll Along and Carousel at Manchester’s Royal Exchange. In 1995 she won a Laurence Olivier Award (the West End’s answer to Broadway’s Tony®) as Best Supporting Performance in a Musical for the role of Ilona Ritter in She Loves Me. In 2000 she played Ida in Honk!, that year’s Olivier winner for Best Musical, and three years later she appeared in High Society, earning an Olivier nomination for herself. Back in Manchester, she starred as Irma in Sex, Chips and Rock ‘n’ Roll, gaining a nomination for a TMA Theatre Award as Best Supporting Actress in a Musical. At the Queen’s Theatre in the West End in 2006 she was a replacement in the role of Madame Thénardier in Les Misérables, which she continued to play until joining the original London cast of Hairspray as Velma von Tussle in 2007. This was the role that won her a second Olivier Award for Best Supporting Performance, as well as the WhatsOnStage Award for Best Supporting Performance in a Musical. Two years later she received another WhatsOnStage Award, again for Best Supporting Performance, as Jacqueline in the 2008 London revival of La Cage Aux Folles. Past repertoire has included Grease (Marty), Blood Brothers (Linda), Educating Rita (Rita), Guys And Dolls (Adelaide), Spring Awakening (Wendla), Chicago, Aladdin, Saturday Night, and Putting on the Ritz.
In addition to all this award-winning musical theatre, Tracie Bennett has toured with Tommy Steele (“An Evening with Tommy Steele”), and presented “An Evening With Cy Coleman” in Cardiff, Wales, and “An Evening of Gershwin” at the Royal Albert Hall. Her recordings include Forever England, People Like Us, and The Snowfield, and she has recorded (as audiobooks) both Bridget Jones volumes (the Diary and The Edge of Reason), winning the International Audie Award for Best Actress (Comedy) in 2002.
Bennett first took on the role of Judy Garland in 2000, when she won a television contest, “Celebrity Stars in Their Eyes.” Again in 2004 she played the singing star in an episode of the TV series The Long Firm. Peter Quilter’s play, End of the Rainbow, debuted at Northampton’s Royal Theatre in February 2010 with Tracie Bennett in the leading role, and when the production moved to London, she was nominated for the 2011 Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress.
End of the Rainbow marks Bennett’s Broadway debut when it opens in April 2012, having toured Europe and Australia and finished a pre-Broadway run at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. It is set in late 1968, as Judy Garland is readying for her engagement at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London. Among the numbers that Bennett performs as Garland are “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “When You’re Smiling,” “Get Happy,” “The Trolley Song,” and “The Man That Got Away,” as well as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”
– Lucy E. Cross