Thursday (June 16) evening in Carnegie Hall, Rufus Wainwright recreated his 2006 recreation of Judy Garland‘s iconic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. And while the mood of the night was sheer delight, there was no way a performance so beautifully and unabashedly gay could go by without a mention of the tragedy weighing heavily on the community throughout the week.
“I’m not going to say so much about it because it’s in all our hearts and minds,” Wainwright said, nodding to the Orlando massacre. “But we’re gonna be okay. We’re gonna be okay. I’m saying that as much to myself as to you people…. We are survivors. If anyone is a survivor, it’s a gay person. Let’s make the world a better place.”
In that sense, the 2016 reprisal of Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie has an unintentional and eerie parallel to the 2006 edition. Wainwright told Playbill he originally turned to Garland’s astonishing (but under-appreciated in the rockist retelling of music history) Judy at Carnegie Hall album in the early ’00s for solace after 9/11 and the “shit show” of the ensuing Iraq War. And while this restaging was obviously underway prior to the events on June 12 at Pulse nightclub, Wainwright’s June 16-17 run at Carnegie Hall ends up serving the same purpose: it’s providing much-needed cheer and positive energy following depressing real-world violence. And with the old Hollywood magic of songs like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” and “Over the Rainbow,” Wainwright is to the audience what Garland was to him years ago.
Sadly, Orlando wasn’t the only tragedy referenced in the night’s proceedings. Wainwright dedicated Noel Coward’s “If Love Were All” to the slain liberal U.K. politician Jo Cox, who was murderer earlier that day by a man with reported links to far-right groups.
Still, the overriding mood of the evening was joyful, with the audience reveling in Rufus’ deep love and obsession with the source material. Wearing ruby red slippers for the second half of the show, Wainwright imitated Garland’s stage presence by “fighting” with his mic cord and periodically throwing it over his shoulder like a heavy bag. He mimicked her phrasing at points, uttering the name “Jeanette MacDonald” with the same shady enunciation Garland gave it 55 years earlier (“I would interpret this next line as a dig,” he said during “San Francisco,” explaining why Judy might’ve found her singing-acting contemporary distasteful).
The most marvelous moment, hands down, was when Heart’s Ann Wilson made a surprise appearance to help Rufus act out Barbra Streisand’s guest spot on The Judy Garland Show in 1963. They recreated out the duet for the ages right down to the playfully acerbic pre-song banter (“You’re so good I really hate you”/”You’re so great I’ve been hating you for years!”) prior to their counterpoint duet on “Happy Days/Get Happy.”
His sister Martha — who tackled “Stormy Weather” and perfectly captured the fragility of “Someone to Watch Over Me” during the encore — was another surprise guest; their late mother, folk legend Kate McGarrigle, was part of the evening via the program’s liner notes, which included an anecdote from her about young Rufus’ distaste for folk and fascination with the Great American Songbook. The family connection was strong in Carnegie Hall that night — Wainwright mentioned his grandparents were actually in the audience during Garland’s original 1961 Carnegie concert, and he shared a story about a scotch-toting Judy babysitting his father, folk legend Loudon Wainwright III, as a child.
Earlier in the show, Wainwright dedicated “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” to Bernie Sanders and cheekily linked the lyrically antiquated “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” to Donald Trump. So right before a show-closing “Get Happy,” he gave a shout out to the other prospective presidential candidate: “I’d like to dedicate this song to the next president of the United States — Hillary Rodham Clinton.” While his previous nods to contemporary subjects were far more sobering, this one was met with thunderous cheers, and after he was done, Wainwright was treated to his second richly deserved standing ovation of the evening.
Wainwright performs Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall again tonight (June 17) and in Toronto during Toronto Pride.