Rufus Wainwright reprises Judy Garland tribute, 10 years later

Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in New York ahead of his concert.
Rufus Wainwright at Carnegie Hall's Weill Recital Hall in New York ahead of his concert.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK •Rufus Wainwright is resurrecting Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall, his song-by-song recreation in 2006 of a legendary concert that Judy Garland performed at the same venue in 1961.

After playing New York on June 16 and 17, he will take the show the following week to the Luminato Festival in Toronto, where his husband, Jorn Weisbrodt, is the outgoing artistic director.

But Wainwright is not the same performer, or person, that he was a decade ago.

He is now 42, four years older than Garland was when she mounted the original concert.

Still louche and languid, he has acquired a touch of silver on his sideburns and a glut of life experiences, both joyful and bruising.

Since the 2006 concert, he married Weisbrodt, fathered a child (with his long-time friend Lorca Cohen, the daughter of singer Leonard Cohen) and weathered the ups and downs of the music business. Most life-altering was the loss of his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who died of cancer in 2010.

All those milestones will inevitably colour the Carnegie Hall repertoire, which for Garland encapsulated the glamour and mess of a life lived in emotional extremis. She died eight years after the 1961 concert from a barbiturate overdose.

Wainwright is no stranger to turmoil himself. He once memorably described his 20s as "gay hell": a haze of alcohol and drug abuse, anonymous sex and emotional nihilism, which he touted obliquely in songs such as Cigarettes And Chocolate Milk, his ode to decadence.

His debauchery went hand in hand with an obsession with Garland.

"I kept having these blackouts where I would go to record stores looking to buy the latest Radiohead album and walk out with yet another Greatest Hits Of Judy Garland," he said recently at a Whitney Museum cafe. Part of the reason he staged the Carnegie Hall show in 2006 was "to exorcise her".

In a de facto rehearsal run for Carnegie Hall, Wainwright arrived in Annapolis, Maryland, last month as part of a three-night mini-tour that took him to the Rams Head on Stage, a smallish concert space adjoining a tavern.

"Let's get sad," he announced, playing a Garland standard, the smouldering Alone Together.

At Carnegie Hall 10 years ago, he dedicated the number to Weisbrodt.

"I don't think he would dedicate Alone Together to me anymore," his husband says now. "It sort of stands for someone who's accepted that he's in a relationship, but at the end of the day, you're always still alone."

Now, the loss of his mother haunts the set list, particularly Garland's signature number, Over The Rainbow. When Wainwright sang it in 2006, he brought his mother out to accompany him on the piano, joking about how she would volunteer him to sing it as a child "to sober up adults at three in the morning".

This time around, he plans to start singing the song a cappella, letting his mother's absence linger before the orchestra floods in.

"That's still her song, and now she is over the rainbow," he said, before letting out another mournful laugh.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 07, 2016, with the headline 'Rufus Wainwright reprises Judy Garland tribute, 10 years later'. Print Edition | Subscribe