The first words Rufus Wainwright said to the audience gathered to hear him reprise Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall last spring are, no joke, “We’re not in Kansas anymore.” Nor are they in 1961 anymore, when Garland, at age 39, two years after doctors said she would never sing again, appeared for a sold-out concert that some consider one of the best live shows of the 20th century. The resulting double record won five Grammys. It was an act of the highest artistic and political audacity when the openly gay Wainwright decided to take on the woman who was an icon for a previous generation of gay men but has been largely snubbed by his own. Like Garland, the 34-year-old Wainwright has been in show business since he was a child (the son of folk-singing royalty, he started touring with his mother, Kate McGarrigle, at age 13) and has successfully battled drug addiction. Of course, Wainwright sounds nothing like Garland, and he changed the key of all but one of the 25 songs to suit his voice. He follows Garland’s set list precisely, matching her patter with his own (revealing that his mother used to rouse him from bed at three a.m. to serenade her drunken guests with “Over the Rainbow”). His family (mother Kate and sister Martha) and Garland’s (daughter Lorna Luft) all lend splendid support to the endeavor, contributing vocals towards the end of the set. Wainwright occasionally stumbles with a lyric or the tempo; after one such incident, he apologizes to his audience, saying, “I’m a songwriter.” Indeed, he is, and one of such exceptional quality that covering another’s work was never a necessary step in his career. But he has grafted his own signature style onto Garland’s with such love and ingenuity that he has made an art form of its own. Judy, we think, would be proud. -
About the Author
Amy Benfer has worked as an editor and staff writer at Salon, Legal Affairs, and Paper magazine. Her reviews and features on books have appeared in Salon, The San Francisco Chronicle Book Review, The Believer, Kirkus Reviews, and The New York Times Book Review.