curtain call

Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland tribute takes audiences over the rainbow

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Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright at City Winery. Photo by Matthew Wexler

The Rundown

Judy who? Gays of a certain age have gone gaga for Garland since she first walked the yellow brick road in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Garland achieved a different recognition later in her career, momentarily stepping away from the silver screen (she was fired from 1951’s Royal Wedding) and into the concert spotlight, touring the UK and playing several extended runs at Broadway’s Palace Theatre. But it was her 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall that has lived on in infamy thanks to a live album produced by Capitol Records.

In 2006, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright recreated the famous evening in the same historic venue and has since carried a torch for Garland. In honor of what would have been her 100th birthday on June 10, he’s revisiting the Carnegie Hall concert through a series of performances at City Winery in both New York City (through June 10) and Chicago (June 16-17).

No Tea, No Shade

Garland was 38 years old when she performed at Carnegie Hall. Wainwright first tackled the massive set list at age 34. Hers was a voice other-worldly — a weathered knowing that could reflect a lyric through back-phrasing or a money note that shook the rafters. Wainwright possesses an entirely different sound but a similar yearning that inexplicably connects the two artists.

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright. Photo by V. Tony Hauser

On a late Sunday afternoon, Wainwright’s opening night performance as the sun set on the Hudson River was an informal affair. In this instance, he’s alternating the first and second acts of Garland’s concert with a four-piece band. The arrangements hint at the 36-member orchestra Wainwright assembled for the original incarnation, the brevity in numbers balanced by the thoughtful play between piano, bass, percussion and guitar.

Wainwright spoke of his professional growth since first approaching the project, finding more vulnerability in Garland’s work compared to the big band energy of leading men like Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin from which he originally drew inspiration. He sings George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva’s “Do It Again” in Garland’s original key. In the following number, J. Fred Coots and Haven Gillespie’s “You Go to My Head,” he purposefully flubs the lyrics precisely as Garland did on that fateful night, which can be heard on her recording.

It was midway through the set when it felt like Wainwright finally settled in, singing George and Ira Gershwin’s “How Long Has This Been Going On?” with an aching counterpoint to the guitar — a reminder that the 20th century’s great composers and lyricists gave Garland the wings with which she could fly.

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright recording his latest album at Capitol Studios. Photo provided by Mighty Real Agency

Let’s Have a Moment

In his original Carnegie Hall homage, Wainwright had invited his sister, Martha, also an accomplished singer, as a special guest. This time around, he’s featuring an eclectic list of artists, including Justin Vivian Bond, Molly Ringwald, and Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft. At the performance I attended, Tony winner Laura Benanti stepped to the mic to stop the show, delivering a rich, textured performance reminiscent of Kaye Ballard. Together, they performed the famous Judy Garland/Barbra Streisand duet “Happy Days Are Here Again/Get Happy,” bringing the audience to its feet.

Of course, no Judy Garland concert is complete without “Over the Rainbow.” Wainwright began the song’s enduring melody a cappella and then brought it home for a soaring conclusion.

The Last Word

Reflecting on what would have been Garland’s 100th birthday, one might question if her legacy can withstand the next generation of pop stars or if the Minnesota native, born Ethel Gumm, will fade into the distant past. But, if the City Winery concert series and other upcoming tributes from Seth Sikes, Debbie Wileman, and others are any indication, “Come Rain or Come Shine,” Garland will be there.

Rufus Wainwright’s latest album, Rufus Does Judy at Capitol Studios, releases June 10.