If Rufus Wainwright is lacking anything, it’s not ambition or audacity. Sixteen years ago, the renowned singer/songwriter took a break from his own material to tackle a song-by-song recreation of Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall, an event that has been called “the greatest night in show business history.”
That’s what we call chutzpah, but not every one was thrilled with the idea.
“Most people were excited and grateful and on my team, but some Judy diehards were horrified and bitchy,” Wainwright reports. “They were very vocal on YouTube and Twitter: how dare you think you can walk in her shadow! Even my dad (Loudon Wainwright III) wasn’t into the concept, because for him Judy was an emblem of tragedy. But he came to the show and loved it.”
Garland’s daughters were on opposite sides of the fence – Liza Minnelli wanted nothing to do with it but Lorna Luft eagerly participated.
If you’re wondering what made Rufus think that he could pull it off, you can be assured that it wasn’t without some misgivings.
“I remember the moment that I came up with the idea,” relates Wainwright. “It was a very dis-spiriting period — we were invading Iraq, and I was in a car with a friend listening to the 1961 concert. It reminded me that America can be great and inspiring, and I thought that it would be great for me to do the show onstage. But there was definitely the fear that I wouldn’t be able to get through all these songs live.”
Despite some grumbling about Wainwright’s technical abilities, The New York Times called his concert achievement “a tour de force of politically empowering performance art.” The success of that night led to a very popular recording, “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall,” a number of live presentations of the material — and now, the latest incarnation of Wainwright’s devotion to Judy-ism: “Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studio.”
Leading up to the new recording was a series of livestreamed concerts, done to connect with his fans while locked down during the pandemic and unable to tour with his 2020 release of original material, the Grammy-nominated “Unfollow the Rules.”
Wainwright performed each of his albums live at his home in California until it was time for the Garland tribute. For that one, Wainwright headed over to Capitol Studios — where Garland recorded in her heyday — with only a four-piece ensemble, the actual microphone that his idol had used so many years ago and an audience of one — Renee Zellweger, who won an Oscar for her portrayal of Garland.
“I’m incredibly proud of this record,” he admits, “but that wasn’t the case when I finished it. I was really trepidatious about the whole project – these standards have been so overdone by everyone and I didn’t want to heighten my rep as a lounge singer. But I’ve had these songs with me for 20 years and I know them instinctively now, like Judy did.”
“When I did the first concert,” Wainwright continues, “I was very much channeling Judy — there was a childlike, lost Dorothy vibe going on. Ten years later, I did the show again and I felt a more masculine, Sinatra kind of force, like a warrior. For this incarnation, the world feels battered again and Judy has returned. There is a darkness and a sadness in the world. I was able to go deeper into the material — it’s less about the show and more about the soul.”
Wainwright will be bringing his intimate quartet and a number of different guests to the City Winery for a four-night run beginning on June 5. Lorna Luft, Molly Ringwald, Laura Benanti, Sharon D. Clarke and Justin Vivian Bond will all hit the stage with Rufus on different nights.
The show has become more than entertainment for Wainwright, as living with Garland’s music is an experience for him that goes beyond showmanship.
“I’m older now than Judy was when she died and I’m starting to get it — what the world is all about, ” he confides. “Death is always there, but there’s a sense of perspective and a sense of patterns of beauty. I’m just starting to understand. I relate this a lot to opera, where you don’t hit your stride until you’re in your 40s.”
Speaking of operas, Wainwright has written two, one of which will be performed this summer at the Teatro Real in Madrid, as directed by his husband Jorn Weisbrodt. Despite the 10-year gestation period of an opera and the “arduous, gut wrenching process” of getting one produced, he’s still planning on writing another .
And in the meantime, there’s a Broadway musical on the horizon as well.
“All I can tell you is that it’s a fascinating story with a top-notch director,” he says. “I’ve taken what I’ve learned from pop music, Judy and opera and I’m prepared to attack Broadway by the jugular!”
Assessing his own abilities, Wainwright lets on that, “I know I’ll never be an opera singer, but I feel that the new LP is a testament to the fact that I’m singing better than ever. Also, I’ve grown a beard and people seem to find it sexy.”