On April 23, 1961, Judy Garland took the stage at Carnegie Hall for what would come to be considered her apotheosis. In 155 riveting minutes, the 38-year-old entertainer stamped her indelible vocal signature on one golden standard after another, her raw power tearing through the melodies, her emotion-soaked vibrato throbbing like a heart about to burst. The liner notes for the best-selling live recording of this concert called it, with minimal exaggeration, "probably the greatest evening in show-business history."
For a young musician to try to replicate such a triumph might seem quixotic. Yet on June 14 and 15, singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright will attempt just that: performing the same songs, at the same venue, with a 40-piece orchestra playing the same arrangements of Garland's material. Only the audiences at Wainwright's two shows will know for sure how his stunt—a gutsy one, with a serious risk of crash-and-burn—will be judged: as homage or ego trip, kicky bravery or folly.
Since the release of his self-titled debut CD in 1998, the openly gay Wainwright, 32, has earned a loyal following for his unusually intelligent and melodic compositions, exploring such subjects as his thwarted romances and struggles with drugs—territory that Garland knew all too well. "I do consider myself to be the male Judy Garland," he told England's Guardian newspaper in 2004; the Carnegie Hall project is in some regards a tug-of-war between Wainwright's competing impulses as diva and devotee.
In person, the troubled troubadour wears his divahood fashionably lightly, with a hint of apology or mischief when invoking its prerogatives. Wainwright's enthusiasm and commitment to his craft are camouflaged by an offhand manner of speaking, broken only by occasional staccato laughter: brief eruptions of machine-gun mirth that shoot through his otherwise blas delivery. He disavows the title of diva on a technicality. "I would actually say that I work too hard for that to be so," he says. "I get my hands too dirty." But when he says that he plans to make Garland's triumph his own "just by nature of my fabulous voice," he is only half-joking—poking fun at his own candor but not his essential self-belief. "Never underestimate the ability to metamorphose things," he adds.
Some degree of transformation is inevitable in reproducing Garland's concert, the high-water mark of a career that had endured more than its share of hells. Many of the songs Garland performed were standards that she had introduced—such as "Over the Rainbow," from The Wizard of Oz, or "The Trolley Song," from Meet Me in St. Louis—and that had acquired additional layers of meaning through her decades of fame. What kind of heat can Wainwright hope to draw from a program so closely linked to another performer? Is he carrying a torch for Garland, stealing her fire or merely suntanning in her reflected glory?
Any which way, the result is sure to be flaming. Garland is perhaps the ultimate icon of pre-Stonewall gay culture, and in re-creating her most celebrated concert, the difference between near myth and near miss may come down to the proper application of a lisp. Wainwright's undertaking can be seen as a kind of gay sance, transforming Carnegie Hall into a haunted house full of songs that moan with the memories of the fans who once loved them. "It's a communal experience; I'm drawing upon a collective unconscious," Wainwright notes. "In this day and age I think it is important for us, as gay men, to respect that part of history, and not put it in a place of shame."
What draws him to Garland, he says, is her vulnerability and emotional servitude to the music she sang, regardless of how it made her look. "I definitely don't want to portray implacability, which is what most of the male performers of the era did," he observes. "Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra—they were these sort of statuesque swine, aloof and tight." And he already knows how his performance will be perceived. "When I am up there singing 'The Trolley Song,' it is going to be the gayest moment of my life," he predicts. "For everybody in theaudience, it will be one of their top gay moments, too, and that's wonderful."
Yet in stepping into Garland's ruby slippers, Wainwright does not merely aspire to curate her legend; nor will he be attempting the kind of literal Garland impersonation that has helped keep her mannerisms alive through the orthodox Judyism of drag acts around the world. His main goal, it turns out, is to flex his vocal muscles on Garland's matchless lineup of musical numbers. "My pipes adore this material—they eat it up like it's oatmeal," he explains. "You can take Judy out of the picture, you can take Carnegie Hall out, you can take the orchestra out, and that is really the bedrock of this experience."
This, perhaps, is where the diva trumps the devotee, and Wainwright's colorful experiment risks the ancient hue of hubris. For although his idiosyncratic singing voice—powerful but nasal, with a pronounced tendency toward mumbling and a stain of purple whine—has added distinctiveness to his own rich songs, it is not necessarily an instrument that one longs to hear applied to a wider catalog. But while some might think of Wainwright in the company of songwriters whose voices are uniquely well suited to their personal work (such as Bob Dylan and Randy Newman), the singer sees himself as an old-fashioned belter—part of a fading lineage that he traces back to Al Jolson and Ethel Merman, as well as Garland herself.
"I have always considered myself equally a songwriter and a singer—not to be arrogant, but I feel pretty confident in both fields," he says. "I have tremendous reverence for that era when certain people wrote and certain people sang; it was probably a better system than we have now. But in doing this concert I am trying to establish myself as one of the voices of the 21st century." Had he not already recorded four CDs, Wainwright points out, he might worry about devoting a whole concert to the Great American Songbook. "Maybe some people will tell me to stop writing songs, and go on singing standards," he says. "But I do feel like I have established a signature sound and perspective that is really needed by a public, so I will continue both things."
In discussing George Gershwin and Harold Arlen, Wainwright seems humbled, and one is reminded again of the underlying fandom that gives his Carnegie Hall adventure a large part of its charm. "I had thought of singing one of my songs as an encore, but on further reflection I said, 'I don't really need to fight that battle right now,' " he recalls. "Those people were better songwriters than I am." And then, as though stung by his own deference, Wainwright tosses off a coy little glance and a rat-a-tat laugh: "But none of them had my eyebrows."
Rufus Wainwright plays Carnegie Hall Wednesday 14 and June 15.
Countdown to Judy:
For the past seven weeks, TONY has talked with the parties involved in the Carnegie Hall show: