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Rufus Hearts Judy

Rufus Hearts Judy


Rufus Wainwright ended his Judy Garland tribute tour in Hollywood on Sunday night. Job Brother reminds us that in this age of celebrity takedown, imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery.

It had been raining in Los Angeles for nearly 24 hours when I arrived at the Hollywood Bowl, just as it had been raining the night Judy Garland staged her triumphant Carnegie Hall concert in 1961. Fortunately for those of us in 2007, the weather had shifted and the masses that filled the outdoor seating at the Bowl were treated to fresh, cool air and a perfect view of the hills behind the stage.

Rufus Wainwright, looking very much the dandy in a ruffled Tom Ford shirt, took to the stage amid generous cheers. At a certain point he poked fun at his clothes, which made for some delightful banter but was also a clear nod to the woman who inspired the show. When Judy Garland performed the lineup Wainwright emulated last night, she made many funny quips at her own expense. "I wish I would perspire," she said while pushing back her heavy bangs for the umpteenth time, "...but I sweat!"

There were many parallels between the two concerts beyond the choice of songs. Rufus, like Judy, kept a simple glass of water at his disposal, entertained us with monologues at the same intervals Garland did, and at the moment in the concert when Garland knelt into the audience to kiss Rock Hudson, Rufus surprised us by doing the same with front-row onlooker Debbie Reynolds.

He opened as Judy did with a boisterous rendition of "When You're Smiling," bringing new, cheeky humor to it by lingering on lyrics such as "When your groom takes a powder while you're walking down the aisle, don't worry that he's been... blown." The audience responded with howls of laughter.

It was one of many ways in which Rufus not only paid tribute to Garland but to the community that made her an icon. He made mention that at Judy's performance -- in a time when gay sexuality was itself illegal -- the audience comprised mostly gay men. It was to those men who paved the way for our present rights that Rufus dedicated the song "I Can't Give You Anything But Love."

One highlight was the Gershwin-penned "Do It Again," which Wainwright crooned in his wistful, breathy tenor. This was the romantic balladeer at his best.

Much of the rest of the program, filled with show-stoppers that Judy famously belted out, proved strenuous for Rufus. By the second act his voice was so strained it cracked at a song's climax. (Midway through "You Go to My Head," he seamlessly warbled "I forgot the goddamn words" before finding them again.) Even so, he offered up his limitations as further tribute to Garland's ability and played off such moments with a devil-may-care attitude. It wasn't about him being "as good" as Judy -- it was about paying homage to her.

It was clear he had given her work intelligent consideration, going so far as to tease the relatively young audience. In the introduction to "San Francisco," he sang, "I never will forget... Jeanette MacDonald...," then paused with a wry smile and said, "For those of you who have...," continuing with a brief bio of MacDonald and his personal theory that this original introduction was perhaps Garland's sly jab at her.

In another funny moment, Rufus told a story about having nearly drowned at a very young age in the pool at the Chateau Marmont. A fabulously dressed woman had jumped in and rescued him, he said, "That woman...was Betty Buckley."

Rufus's sister Martha Wainwright and their mother, Kate McGarrigle, both accomplished musicians, joined him in the second act. Martha's solo on "Stormy Weather" was spellbinding -- so terrific, in fact, that it posed a danger of stealing the show. Many in the audience gave her a standing ovation.

Also joining him was Lorna Luft, Garland's daughter with her third husband, Sidney Luft. Lorna was vibrant, wearing a snug, fluorescent-pink gown. In a voice that eerily recalled her mother, she sang with Rufus the duet "After You've Gone." Later she would return to the stage alone to sing "Carolina in the Morning," which Lorna said was one of her mother's first and favorite songs. The moment would have been tearjerking if not for the jubilant tone of the song.

As Rufus and Lorna are both heirs to musical families, stories from their youth proved a key element in the show. Wainwright's performance was reminiscent of those moments in childhood when, left alone with a favorite record, we would sing along, performing for an imaginary audience. Something of the purity and joy of such childlike admiration flavored Wainwright's concert, even more so as he coaxed us to sing along with him.

For an encore, Wainwright returned to the stage in Judy drag, bedecked in a double-breasted tuxedo jacket sans pants, black stockings, high heels, earrings, lipstick, and a tilted fedora. The audience roared, and he charged into the rambunctious "Get Happy."

It was a generous encore, and Rufus seemed relieved to be concluding his acclaimed yet exhausting Judy tribute tour while simultaneously not wanting it to end. The encore was five songs long. His mother and sister and Lorna all joined him for the final bow. The audience of thousands stood and cheered, and as the crowds slowly made their exit, many of them were still singing. It was an ecstatic and gay evening.

I found myself meditating on the current state of pop music celebrity. While so many of today's young stars seem more interested in mimicking the behind-the-scenes dysfunction of artists like Garland -- drug abuse, eating disorders, and high-profile marriage failures -- here was Wainwright highlighting the merits of their talents.

While his music may not be an obvious descendant of Garland's repertoire, his appreciation for her power to capture the depths of our emotion in the various stages of love and heartbreak is. In this way Wainwright's concert was a triumph, both as entertainment and thoughtful eulogy.

Brother is a Los Angeles-based writer for

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