Rufus Wainwright and Judy Garland, Together Again
A decade after his famous staging of Judy Garland's 1961 performance at Carnegie Hall, the shape-shifting pop star is back for an encore.
Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of seeing Rufus Wainwright perform Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, which, for a young gay man still high on the fumes of being relatively new to New York, was a kind of watershed moment. Arguably our only proudly “out” pop star at the time (even now we really only have two or three), Wainwright gleefully recreating Judy Garland’s iconic 1961 live performance felt like a revelation.
For those of us whose experience of being gay was either negated entirely by the institutions in place, or who had witnessed the renegade joy of gay culture being almost entirely quelled by the specter of AIDS, Wainwright’s performance was not only a celebration of Garland’s life (and the great American songbook), but also a testament to what it meant to be gay and alive. Equal parts serious homage and camp spectacle, the unbridled joie de vivre of the show was a much needed shot in the arm—a not so subtle reminder of the importance of embracing not only our history, but joy itself.
Now, an impossible-seeming decade later, Wainwright is once again reviving Garland’s opus, performing the show for two nights this month, on June 16 and 17, at Carnegie Hall. Though he’s confident that he can still sing the songs (and perhaps even better now), Wainwright is the first to admit that he is a much different person than he was 10 years ago. Over the course of the past decade he has experienced great joy—he married his longtime partner, and fathered a child—and no small amount of sadness, especially the loss of his mother, the late, great singer Kate McGarrigle.
Wainwright has also piloted a wonderfully unpredictable route creatively, having now released eight studio albums and one opera, 2009’s Prima Donna. His latest release, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, not only sets some of the Bard’s greatest work to music, but also includes contributions from the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, William Shatner, and Florence Welch. His second proper opera, Hadrian (a take on the gay love story surrounding Greek emperor Hadrian), will open at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company in 2018. It’s hard to imagine another contemporary artist, particularly one who entered the cultural arena as a young pop star, with such a wildly disparate catalog of work. But somehow with Wainwright, all of these things—pop music, opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland—make sense together.
When I spoke to Wainwright on the phone as he prepared to begin rehearsals, he connected his wide-ranging output as a simple byproduct of growing older. “I think it’s a thing that happens to people in their 40s,” he explained. “You really get this sense of like, ‘This is it, baby.’ I don’t want to waste time.”
A few days later, I ran into Wainwright at the closing night of Kiki and Herb’s show at Joe’s Pub. When I ask him if he was feeling anxious about his upcoming dates, Wainwright was characteristically flip. “I’m really not that nervous about singing the songs,” he told me. “I’m just nervous about the shows selling out. I need to know there’s a full house if I’m gonna get up there and do this again. Please! I need everyone to buy a ticket!”
I saw one of the Judy shows in New York in 2006. It just seems shocking and impossible somehow that it was 10 ten years ago. In some ways it feels like yesterday, and in some ways it feels literally like a lifetime ago.
I know. I’m actually experiencing a bit of the same conundrum in terms of bringing the show back. One of the taglines of this whole event is that it’s the 10th anniversary, and a lot of people will say, “Oh, it seems like it was yesterday!” Which I think is a double-edged sword: On one hand, it means that the show definitely has survived in the public memory, but also might mean that people don’t necessarily go running to buy tickets because they feel like they saw it a month ago. Maybe that’s just the state of the human psyche, partially, as well. So yes, it’s been 10 years … and you’ve got to come!
Ten years is a long time. A lot of things have happened, and you’ve done a lot of different kinds of work. Does it feel different to go back and do this now? Do you feel like you’re maybe more prepared to handle these songs than you were back then?
I’m very excited to re-enter the fray, the Judy fray, mainly because I’m really curious to see what my voice is like. When I did the show many years ago, it was of course somewhat daunting, since I didn’t know if I could even make it to the end. Part of the excitement of that was just the fear of collapse, which actually did happen once. I was in Paris doing the show and I totally lost my voice, which was terrifying. I kind of just soldiered on and made it more of an art piece.
But this time … certainly there’s always room for error and so forth, but I’m really more curious to see what my inner emotions and the deep experiences I’ve had over the last 10 years—whether it’s love or death or childbirth or aging—that I can bring to these songs now. I’m hoping I can bring a darker palette and more wisdom to the material. Certainly, the songs are built to accept what life has to offer, and a lot has happened in the last 10 years. I’m very excited just on a personal, artistic level to sing them again with that deeper knowledge.
The thing that really struck me in 2006 was how surprisingly moving it was. You expect it to be fun—and there’s an obvious kitschy-ness and nostalgia about it—but it’s also really emotional and genuinely affecting. You forget how powerful these songs are.
Right. You know, I am a Judy follower. In no way have I ever wanted to eclipse her, and I never could. But that being said, when she did her show in 1961 she had a good 40 years under her belt in terms of having sung that material. Whenever you listen to that album it resonates so deeply because of that. She really knew these songs. She had lived them. I’m looking forward to having 10 years to play with. When I think of my experience as a man, as a gay man, as an American, as a Canadian—whatever I am right now living in this era—those elements can also add different angles that belong to me, that don’t belong to her, and make it a different experience for the audience. I think oddly enough, this concert will be less about Judy and more about myself, and my personal relationship with this material and these arrangements. Which I think is healthy.
How do you even go about preparing for this?
I’m doing it in a very pragmatic fashion. There’s this great pianist who will be playing with me in the concert named Mark Hummel. He’s a very well-known figure in the Broadway world. I have about a dozen shows of my own shows before Judy, but I will also be singing Judy songs. Not the whole concert, but I will definitely be digging deep into the material, so I want to work a lot of this out onstage. Then as the dates approach, I’ll get into the studio a little bit here and there to rehearse it. I want it to be pretty seamless.
It’s a pretty epic show. The original Judy concert has, what, 28 songs? I imagine that it must be pretty grueling.
Yes. Well, it comes out to almost about 30 songs. On her album, for instance, the last songs from “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” onward are all encores. Three or four of them are encores, so I do those as part of the show. Then I do a couple of encores at the end that are more from my stance.
For most artists, the idea of writing an opera, doing a Shakespeare record, writing a pop record, restaging a Judy Garland performance—it would seem insane, but somehow in the context of your career, it doesn’t seem so.
I think at my age, and I see this reflected in a lot of other artists my age, we want something deeper. I was listening to my friend Anohni‘s record, and she’s very dedicated to protesting the environmental situation on earth. She’s really going for that full throttle, and I respect her deeply for that. For me, it’s all about tackling things like Shakespeare or opera. I really want to wrestle with major artistic goals. I don’t want to waste time. I think it’s a thing that happens to people in their 40s. You really get this sense of like, “This is it, baby. This is our prime.” It feels very … well, not aggressive, but it’s a forceful time in one’s life. It’s the time to really make your mark.
You’ve dipped your toes into all kinds of different music with all different kinds of people. Are there things that you’d still like to do?
Oh, I have a huge list. I’d love to make a French record. I’d love to work some more with my mother’s songs and work with my sister Martha [Wainwright] on that. I still have another pop record or two in me that needs to come out. Don’t worry, there will be lots more to come—whether people want it or not!