What makes the physical and mental disintegration of famous performers so compulsively fascinating to so many people? The breakdown of a talented artist, usually female, brought down by her insecurities and the betrayal and abandonment of those close to her, usually male, is a trope that is endlessly trotted out to and repeatedly lapped up by audiences. The unhappy finales of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Maria Callas, and Amy Winehouse, among many others, have been dissected in countless books and films.
Billie Holiday is a case in point. A uniquely talented singer who, after a grisly childhood, achieved fame and fortune only to die under police guard in a hospital bed leaving an estate of less than $1,000, she fits the bill perfectly. Following her not entirely accurate ghost-written autobiography Lady Sings the Blues (1956), several other attempts to chart her life have been published. Two major films have appeared: Diana Ross’s 1972 vanity project named after the autobiography and Lee Daniel’s valiant attempt to turn Holiday into a female Martin Luther King, The United States vs Billie Holiday (2021). Now Lanie Robertson’s 1986 version Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill has arrived at the Belvoir.