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The Man That Got
Away (With It)

The Man That Got
Away (With It)


Some called it a stunt, some called it heresy, but at two sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall this week, out singer Rufus Wainwright succeeded in recreating the magic of Judy Garland for a contemporary generation--and further establishing his own star.

For a show ostensibly dedicated to Judy Garland, Rufus Wainwright's concert at Carnegie Hall last night mentioned the stage and screen icon only sparingly. True, the project probably qualifies as homage enough; Wainwright famously set out to re-create Garland's career-defining 1961 Carnegie Hall comeback, singing the same arrangements of her songs in the same order--and even resurrecting snippets of banter from the original performance. But Wainwright, an out 32-year-old singer-songwriter still in the first leg of what will probably be a long and prolific career, clearly had intentions other than imitation in mind when he took on the assignment. As evidenced by the June 15 performance, the second of two sold-out nights, this money-making gig was less about Garland and more about the artist himself claiming his own place in gay history.

"This has been quite the journey: over the rainbow, under the rainbow," he told the audience. "Tonight we're in the rainbow. It's gay pride, everybody!" References to pride and the utter gayness of the engagement popped up often during the next 2-1/2 hours, with Wainwright flamboyantly mugging his way through some of the numbers (including an impromptu soft-shoe during "Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart") but earnestly flexing his impressive vocals throughout. Having a 36-piece orchestra backing him, along with Wicked's Stephen Oremus conducting, added to the brassy spectacle. After a big sell, ripe with affectation, on "Come Rain, Come Shine," Wainwright joked, "That wasn't me doing that--it was the spirit of gay pride! It was that queen at the end of the bar who you try to avoid, but can't."

And those queens, or at least a largely 40-something set of adoring gay men, turned out en masse, curious to see if Wainwright would celebrate or soil the Garland legacy. Reports from the first night characterized the crowd as being predominantly gay, with celebrities Joel Grey, David Bowie, Antony, and John Waters attending. But on the second night, the audience seemed to edge younger, with a surprising number of women in their 20s and quite a few male-and-female couples. The girls went wild when Wainwright took the stage wearing a tan suit and starred shirt from Viktor & Rolf, but they seemed less up on the Garland allusions. In the second half, the singer struck poses in a black tuxedo complete with top hat, a get-up that drew chuckles with the "gay divorcee" line in "That's Entertainment."

Wainwright's longest meditation on Garland came before "If Love Were All"; he called its author, Noel Coward, "one of the great gays" and revealed that this was his favorite song in the show. "Both Noel and Judy had this problem in common, I think," he said, referring to Coward's bittersweet message about art and heartbreak, "and it's a lovely problem to have."

Spontaneous applause came during odd moments: Folks familiar with the original Carnegie concert clapped on cue when "The Man That Got Away" started, but only about half of the crowd seemed to realize the significance of Lorna Luft's appearance. Garland's daughter sang a duet with Wainwright on "After You've Gone." Luft's vocals sounded shockingly similar to her mother's--especially when compared to Wainwright's cavernous pipes and slurry diction. It was one of the night's more sparkling (if somewhat draggy) moments.

The family connections continued with Wainwright introducing his sister Martha, an accomplished (if underrated) talent in her own right, who sang solo on "Stormy Weather" with an intensity like an early Patsy Cline. Their mother, folksinger Kate McGarrigle, played piano during "Over the Rainbow," with Wainwright explaining that when he was a child, his parents would wake him up at 3 a.m. and ask him to sing the song at their parties. (Dad Loudon Wainwright III showed up in the concert's program, circled in the background of a photo from Garland's 1961 show.)

Such personal revelations--including a playfully barbed banter between Wainwright and his mom during the encore--helped lend sincerity to a performance that some might dismiss as egotistical. For such a relative newcomer to tackle a near-sacred show from one of the 20th century's most celebrated talents feels like stunt casting, the queer equivalent of Evel Knievel jumping Snake River Canyon. But Wainwright didn't crash and burn, and he proved in a couple of key moments that he has the chops to tackle these standards, even if his attention to stagecraft could use a rocket boost now and then. Unlike Garland, Wainwright is a performer who has recognized his own potential early in his career. So what if some jealous Judy fans cry foul--it's a lovely problem to have.

30 Years of Out100Out / Advocate Magazine - Jonathan Groff & Wayne Brady

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