“I had a dark, shadowy feeling backstage, like I’d upset her phantom,” said Rufus Wainwright of his London Palladium performance of Rufus Does Judy – in 2006.
The Canadian had struck upon the ambitious – and perhaps peculiar – idea of recreating Judy Garland’s seminal 1961 album Judy at Carnegie Hall and, after a successful first concert, cancelled a planned world tour – he had been filled with a sense of unease.
The reasons behind Wainwright’s fascination with Garland are complex. There’s the obvious: her status not as “a gay beacon. A gay saint,” as he put it to The Guardian in 2006.
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There’s the personal: when Wainwright first put on that show 15 years ago, he was in the delicate early stages of sobriety. In 1961, Garland had not quite managed that herself, but nonetheless made a Herculean comeback for the legendary Live at Carnegie Hall.
There’s the historical, too: like Garland, Wainwright is part of a rich showbiz lineage, and the two have occasionally intersected – his father, Loudon Wainwright III, was once in romantic pursuit of Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli (who incidentally has long disapproved of Rufus Does Judy).
Wainwright has since exorcised the ghosts surrounding the project, with lavish, orchestra-backed reprisals in 2016, and a cheeky riposte to Minnelli on the 2014 single “Me and Liza”. Now, he’s resurrected the idea one more time, to mark what would have been Garland’s 99th birthday.
Like the Carnegie Hall gigs, the setting is important; she recorded extensively at Capitol Studios between 1955 and 1966, and Wainwright was singing into a microphone Garland herself used. The performance, though, backed only by a four-piece ensemble, traded the high camp and theatricality of the stage show for something much more intimate.
Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar for her searing portrayal of Garland’s troubled twilight in the 2019 biopic Judy, watched a few feet away. Her role over the course of the two-hour show encompassed cheerleading, anecdote-swapping and generally looking delighted to be there.
There were contributions, too, from Rufus’s sister Martha – who chipped in with a smoky “Stormy Weather” via video link – and Broadway star Kristin Chenoweth, who joined him for “After You’re Gone”, as well as bonus takes on “But Not for Me” and “Get Happy” that, in keeping with the show’s restraint, were delivered as ballads. The real stars, though, were Wainwright and Garland.
His hard-earned mastery of the Carnegie Hall setlist – itself a slightly left-field, odds-and-ends blend of standards and show tunes – reminds us of the Olympian effort it took a fragile Garland to turn two vocally demanding hours into musical history.
With the artifice stripped away, Wainwright made the record’s most emotionally-wrought moments soar – “Alone Together”, “How Long Has This Been Going On?”, an especially powerful “The Man That Got Away” and, of course, a show-stopping “Over the Rainbow”.
Before the stream began, he mentioned that his parents had reservations about Rufus Does Judy back in 2006; citing the shared tumult of his and Garland’s personal lives, he said, they “thought it was a little too louche”. This bare-bones return proved them wrong; rather than being all-singing, all-dancing, it was all-empathy, all-tenderness.