HAS RUFUS WAINWRIGHT channeled the spirit of Judy Garland?
Devotees of Garland's immortal "Judy at Carnegie Hall" double-disc concert album from 1961 might think so, as they listen to and watch Wainwright audaciously perform the same set of material on his new dual CD "Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall" and the companion DVD version "Rufus! Rufus! Rufus! Does Judy! Judy! Judy! Live from the London Palladium." Both are out today on the Geffen imprint and both warrant a near-perfect A- grade.
The brazen artistry as well as psychological-sexual mindset driving this project are equally potent, both making major cultural statements.
At the time of her Carnegie Hall stint, Garland was one of the last of the old line "troupers," a major (but fallen) star of Hollywood's golden age of musicals and, like Frank Sinatra, one of the few surviving talents keeping those beloved standards alive in regal fashion. For what was essentially her stage comeback, Garland faced the music with a powerhouse orchestra numbering almost 40 players. So, too, does Wainwright. While best known in the past for his intimate, original, singer/songwriter fare, Wainwright has spent the big bucks to mimic the sound and dynamics of Garland's lush and splashy arrangements with uncanny accuracy, using a huge band of mostly seasoned vets — though the conductor up front is a boyishly beautiful Stephen Oremus.
The 34-year-old Wainwright hardly has the rafters-ringing voice that Garland possessed. But he's very much a pop operatic diva in his own way. He achieves a pretty big, brassy tone on belters like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "That's Entertainment" and the "politically incorrect" (so he apologizes) "Rock-A-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody." And when Wainwright swoons and flutters at the upper end of his reedy register (in Garland's original key, he points out) on intimate ballads like "Do It Again" and "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," the guy really seems to be channeling her wobbling, warbling, wounded bird demeanor. So drunk on love! — and probably other intoxicants, too. (Garland overdosed on sleeping pills, at age 47, on June 22, 1969.)
The gold-toned, sequined suit that Wainwright wears in the first set pays homage to the spangly jacket and pants outfit Garland wore on that historic '61 tour — which also landed nearby at the Cherry Hill Arena. He even repeats a few of her ad-libs and "forgets" the lyrics to "You Go To My Head," just where she did.
Wainwright does break from Garland's Carnegie Hall script (though not her later concert and TV appearances) by hauling out members of his own, extended showbiz family — his piano-playing mom Kate and sister Martha. Sis sends shivers up the spine with an achingly nuanced "Come Rain or Come Shine." Wainwright also links to the legacy by bringing out Garland's daughter Lorna Luft for a duet of "After Your Gone." Also connecting the dots, he tells the London crowd that his Hollywood-raised dad Loudon Wainwright III shared playdates and had a boyhood crush on Garland's other daughter, Liza Minnelli.
Please to note in the video how Wainwright has mastered some of Garland's loose, puppet-on-a-string stage moves, too. Like that yearning, arms pulled out straight in front of him gesture, and the cutesy, feet crossed at the ankles bow, and of course, the stage apron sit under the spotlight to bask in "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," Garland's signature song from "The Wizard of Oz."
The not-so-subtle subtext of the Rufus does Judy adventure is its celebration of gayness. Although heterosexual, Garland became a major icon of the gay community still largely closeted in the '60s. She was beloved for her own, somewhat androgynous combination of toughness and vulnerability, resilience and remorse, rocky romantic life (five times married) and also for her upholding of old-school, "Gay White Way" showbiz virtues — the grand melodies and gestures, the give-till-it-hurts performing posture.
Wainwright has all that, too, and also is fabulously, vigorously gay, in an age when you don't have to do your Garland tribute in drag at midnight at a 12th Street "fruit loop" bar. Now you can do it as yourself, in prime time, on the most prestigious stages in the world.
Because he is 100 percent out, there's no need for Wainwright to change a word of Garland's original material when he sings (and kills) on the steamy "The Man Who Got Away" or even the "Trolley Song" — "When he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand..."