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Judy, Judy, Judy

Rufus Wainwright will sing all 25 numbers from Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall classic—at Carnegie Hall—as a tribute, a protest and a joyful call to arms

SHANDA DEZIEL June 5 2006
THE BACK PAGES

Judy, Judy, Judy

Rufus Wainwright will sing all 25 numbers from Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall classic—at Carnegie Hall—as a tribute, a protest and a joyful call to arms

SHANDA DEZIEL June 5 2006

Judy, Judy, Judy

THE BACK PAGES

stages

Rufus Wainwright will sing all 25 numbers from Judy Garland’s Carnegie Hall classic—at Carnegie Hall—as a tribute, a protest and a joyful call to arms

SHANDA DEZIEL

There’s an old home movie in Rufus Wainwright’s family that to this day cracks him up. In it, he’s pretending to be Dorothy from the movie The Wizard of Oz. “I’m dancing around the pool with an apron on, very dainty,” says the singer-songwriter. “My dad’s in the background on a lawn chair with a Scotch, just staring at me.” Loudon Wainwright III knew what it meant when his young son fell for Judy Garland— the original gay icon. He knew that the song he wrote when Rufus was breastfeeding, Rufus Is A Tit Man, would eventually be proven wrong. But who could have known that as a grown man—even a grown gay man—Rufus would still want to be Judy?

On June 14 and 15, he’ll replicate Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert at the same venue—and his once-disapproving dad will be in the audience, most likely beaming. (Folksinger mom Kate McGarrigle and sister Martha Wainwright will be part of the evening’s performance.) It’s going to be quite an event. With a 40-piece orchestra, Stephen Oremus (Wicked, Avenue Q) acting as musical director, Sam Mendes (American Beauty) directing and filming the performance, and Phil Ramone recording it for a CD, Wainwright will tackle over 25 classics by the likes of George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and Harold Arlen, including The Trolley Song, Puttin’ on the Ritz and The Man That Got Away. He’s changed all the keys from what Garland sang them in, except Do It Again, which he’ll sing exactly as she did. That number, says Wainwright, is “going to be a freak show.” In no other way is he going to become Judy. For instance, he’s not going to dress as she did. A style icon himself, Wainwright will wear two outfits from Amsterdam-based Dutch designers Viktor & Rolf—who’ve chosen for him something “dapper” from their men’s line.

Some have asked, “Why risk disturbing the ghost of Garland?” But Wainwright feels he has her blessing, especially after meeting with daughter Lorna Luft, who told him that her mother would have been “so proud and so happy to be remembered in this way.” Wainwright’s never shied away from aligning himself with the tragic diva, even calling himself the male Judy Garland: “There’s a mystical affinity.” Well, they both started performing at a young age, both are belters in their singing style and both fought demons: Garland lost her battle with prescription

drugs, Wainwright overcame an addiction to crystal meth. “She was 39 when she did the concert,” says Wainwright, who’s 32. “She’d already had a few ups and downs and this was her ultimate comeback—the real moment when she was no longer Dorothy. And Tm in a good space right now. I’ve had some ups and downs, and it’s just time to, you know, get happy.”

But there’s much more to it than that. Wainwright is a show-off—although it’s not off-putting. He mentions how after last year’s A McGarrigle Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall (with mom Kate, aunt Anna, sister Martha and others), a reviewer said,

“Of all the singers of the evening, Carnegie Hall was truly built for the voice of Rufus Wainwright.” So now seems like an advantageous time to make his solo debut at the famous venue. And Garland’s concert is the ultimate challenge for a performer like him—a two-hour tour de force, packed with mood swings: playful one minute, dark and sad the next. The original recording won four Grammys, including album of the year, stayed on the charts for 73 weeks, sold over two million copies, and has never been out of print. “The performance and structure of the evening and the nature of arrangements made it one of the great Olympian feats of singing,” says Wainwright. “It could be compared to an opera. So being a big opera fan, who will never be able to spread my wings in that territory, singing-wise, I thought this is probably the next best thing. I could face this challenge and I think I can pull this off.” He’s bringing his mom and sister along for moral support and as an insurance policy. “I wouldn’t want to listen to myself for

that long.” So Martha will sing Stormy Weather, a song Wainwright thinks is just too heterosexual to do himself. And mom will play the piano for Over the Rainbow. “We’ve been doing that together since I was about three,” he says. “In the fun old days of Montreal in the ’70s, she would kind of parade me about at her drunken folk nights at the househave me pacify angry banjo players with Over the Rainbow.”

Kate McGarrigle says she reluctandy taught him that song after “trying to hit him over the head with banjo music.” American standards and opera were the kinds of music her

parents played, which she rebelled against by turning to folk. Then Rufus rebelled in the opposite direction, preferring Gershwin and Garland to Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. McGarrigle’s still trying to woo him. “I said, ‘Rufie, what about Anna and I playing at Carnegie? Let’s do Over the Rainbow in a folk style, we’ll come out with our accordion and banjos.’ ” But no luck. Instead, she’ll leave her jeans at home, put on

a designer Viktor & Rolf outfit, and watch as her son pays tribute to a singer she could never stand.

“When he said, ‘I’m doing Judy Garland,’ I was like, ‘Oh f-k. Why Judy Garland?’ ” While she doesn’t remember a young Rufus having much interest in the legendary singer/actress, she sees at least one similarity between the two. “Her roles in movies are all kind of cheerful, ‘Hi, how are you? Can I help you?’ And Rufus is like that, he’s not attitudey. I can kind of see the house blowing away and him just carrying on.”

Wainwright does believe that what the world needs now is a little gaiety courtesy of Garland and himself. A 40th anniversary edition of the concert record came out in 2001 and since then Wainwright has really latched onto it. “It was a very dark time with 9/11 and then the war,” he says. “I really noticed that whenever I put that album on, all cares were banished immediately. Everything was so uplifted, hopeful, beautiful and exciting— it just offset the world so much. I felt like I had to spread the wealth.”

He wants this to be a young, old, man, woman, gay, straight celebration. But in some important ways, it is a gay thing. The concerts are just prior to Gay Pride Week in New York, which commemorates the Stonewall riots from 1969—when, after a history of harassment, a significant number of gay people resisted arrest during a police raid of a gay bar in Greenwich Village. Some believe that the gay population took action on that particular night due to their grief over the

death of Garland earlier that week. Gay men would refer to themselves as “friends of Dorothy” and congregate at her concerts. “There’s this famous picture of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall,” says Wainwright. “She’s at the front accepting flowers from all these men—well, most of them are dead, prematurely. They’re another ghost who inhabit the evening.

“The gay people I know from the last generations have really shunned the whole Judy aesthetic,” says Wainwright. “But a lot of the older ones who in the

IT’S ‘ONE OF THE GREAT OLYMPIAN FEATS OF SINGING,’ SAYS WAINWRIGHT, OF THE TWOHOUR CONCERT. T THINK I CAN PULL THIS OFF.’

’60s and ’70s were ashamed of being tied to her—of having to be a fan—have found that there’s kind of no escape.” So embrace it, challenges Wainwright. Believing that Christian fundamentalism is pervading the U.S., he says those “fey, freaky, queeny queens are a very radical entity right now.” In fact, Wainwright goes even further in his call for change, believing that gay men should return to a ’70s lifestyle—“when gay men would have sex in bars, weren’t monogamous, that free love thing. As long as they’re safe and as long as they take precautions, I totally believe in gay guys having multiple sexual partners.”

Besides all the socio-political reasons to

bring Judy back, Wainwright wants to use her to even out today’s musical landscape. “A lot of why I’m doing this show has to do with the resurgence of standard singing,” he says. “Take Rod Stewart or Michael Bublé or Harry Connick, Jr.—it’s all fine and dandy what they do, but they’re all trying to be Frank Sinatra. Twenty different people trying to be Frank. And nobody’s trying to be Judy. Instead of snapping your fingers like, ‘I’m going to f-k you after the show,’Judy’s more like, ‘Please f-k me after the show.’ I want to bring back the more pathetic and wanting performer.”

But that’ll be merely a persona for Wainwright. Offstage, he looks happy and healthy and is trying to lower his cholesterol by becoming a vegetarian, rather than taking prescription drugs. He’s working on an opera for the Metropolitan and is making a film about his life—directed by Mendes. But the Garland concert is the current obsession. At a recent visit to Carnegie Hall, he pored over the Garland paraphernalia in the archives, lingering over the photos of all the men (wearing identical Buddy Holly glasses) in the front row. The archivist eagerly announced that the owner of the jacket that Garland wore that night in 1961 has agreed to send it over for Wainwright’s shows. Looking at a picture of the bejewelled and sequined black jacket, Wainwright laughs, “I’m not wearing that. It’s beautiful—but in the case, please.”

With less than a month left before the event, there’s a buzz in the city. Time Out New York magazine is running a seven-issue countdown in which every week they’re interviewing a different person involved, prominent gay groups have organized outings to the performances, and David Bowie, Robert Altman and other celebrities are expected to attend. And this quintessential New York City concert has taken on extra meaning for Wainwright, who often talks about how his first foray into the city was a bust. No one was interested in him or his music and he left dejected, only to become famous in Los Angeles. “I have many memories of walking alone in Central Park on a hot summer afternoon, pining over, you know, some rollerblader— and now I have the city at my feet.” M