Channeling Judy: Rufus Wainwright re-creates concert

Critical Eye



That was the inevitable reaction to the news that Rufus Wainwright, the innovative pop singer / songwriter, planned to re-create Judy Garland's justly famous solo concert in Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961 -- and to do so in that very place, right down to the original orchestrations.

Even after attending Wainwright's performance last week (I caught the first of two quickly sold-out nights), I'm still not entirely sure why anybody would want to do this.

Well, all right, except for female impersonators, who have long found in Garland a font of inspiration and would surely want to get out on that stage.

But other than a rarity like ample-voiced Varla Jean Merman (not that there is anyone like Varla Jean Merman), those drag artists would have to resort to Judy Garland karaoke, lip-synching their way through her hit parade.

Surely the only person who could get away with resurrecting her historic performance is daughter Liza Minnelli, who at least would be relatively close to the real thing in terms of vocal and emotional wattage, as well as stylistic affinity.

But Rufus Wainwright? He of the mumbly diction and nasally, even whiny voice? (Tell the truth: Did you understand one line of his haunting closing-credits song in Brokeback Mountain -- other than "Get along little doggies" -- before you found the lyrics printed somewhere?)

Yes, he's very talented. His songs have bite and wit and sophisticated structures. He has even been commissioned to write an opera -- by the Metropolitan Opera, no less. No question that Wainwright is going to be a major player in the musical future.

But why put himself up against certified history? Certified by a five-Grammy-winning live album that remained on the charts more than 90 weeks (13 of them as No. 1) and has never gone out of print, helping fuel the Garland legend even among those, like the 32-year-old Wainwright, born after her death in 1969.

That legend owes a lot to Garland's Carnegie Hall triumph. As the New York Post reported: "The toughest town in the world broke down and cried. ... It was a religious ceremony."

Obviously, Wainwright couldn't duplicate that rapture. So, what was he thinking?

Lots of things, as it turns out.

Wainwright has a genuine appreciation for quality music of the past; an almost life-long admiration for Garland (he amused the Carnegie throng with tales of re-enacting Wizard of Oz scenes as a kid); a particular fondness for the Carnegie Hall recording (his grandparents were at the concert); and a hefty quantity of chutzpah.

That Wainwright has had publicized troubles with substance abuse gives him one more connection with Garland.

Then there's the clincher -- Wainwright, openly gay since his teens, understands and respects Garland's exalted status in the gay iconography.

In some ways, his reclamation of Garland could be seen as an ideal gay pride event, celebrating an artist long and especially beloved in the gay community for her artistry and humor, her sacrifice and emotional nakedness.

The large gay turnout for Wainwright, evident in the familiarity with each song and the program order of the show (not to mention an absence of lines at the ladies' rooms at intermission), gave the show a decidedly festive mood that the singer played off of, to engaging effect.

With all sorts of pop / rock singers, for better or worse, trying their vocal cords on standards, maybe there's a certain logic in attempting the ultimate tribute to the old days -- not just singing the repertoire of an old star, but becoming her for a night.

Of course, Wainwright couldn't match her talent, or her notes. In terms of purely vocal technique, he isn't fit to wipe her ruby-red slippers (replicas of which were worn by at least one guy in the Carnegie audience).

His droning delivery of "When You're Smiling" got the evening off to a very weak start. And he just didn't have the chops for "Swanee" or "San Francisco" and other rousers that Garland could carry off so ineffably.

Wainwright seemed uncomfortable with up-tempo numbers, as if his voice resisted high gear. While the camp quotient was certainly high and fun in his romp through "The Trolley Song," that's about all it had going for it.

Wainwright's attempt at matching hand gestures to the emotions of a lyric looked awkward, as did his occasional bursts of dancing. More disappointing was the lack of imagination and rhythmic nuance in the phrasing, the lack of variety in tone coloring (except when Wainwright ventured into a high, gently crooning register).

And, yet, somehow, it was hard not to be carried away by the sheer novelty of the evening, hard not to root for the boyish-looking young singer trying so hard to put across the pain of "The Man Who Got Away" or the over-the-top exuberance of "Chicago."

And when Wainwright settled onto a stool near the piano and sang the more intimate material, he was quite affecting, particularly in "Do It Again" and "If Love Were All."

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