Update, February 27, 2011: Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna will be staged by the New York City Opera in spring of 2012, the company announced. Here is the page from Wainwright’s website, with a brief video. Below is a consideration of Wainwright’s 2006 recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, a seminal event in pop-music history. (The comment about Christina Aguilera takes on new meaning since her February, 2011, performance of the Star-Spangled Banner at the Super Bowl.) Also, new videos at bottom of post.
Rufus Wainwright’s eclectic embrace of traditional pop and opera has made him an artist who brings more to the table than you might expect from an angst-ridden gay son of the guy who wrote “Dead Skunk (In the Middle of the Road).” Wainwright was in the news recently because his project to compose a new work for the Metropolitan Opera was abandoned by mutual consent. (Wainwright wants the work to be in French and staged sooner than the Met’s 2014 availability date, neither of which the Met can or will accommodate).
My interest in Wainwright stems not from his singing and songwriting on his solo albums, which I have never felt compelled to examine in depth, but by two remakes he undertook: his very good version of John Lennon’s “Across the Universe,” for the Sean Penn film “I Am Sam,” and his somewhat more ambitious recreation of Judy Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall concert two years ago, available on CD and video.
Somehow in my study of standards over the last few years I missed the Garland project and its exercise in pop-tribute/ego. (Why did Wainwright undertake a massive project on which he had no hope of making an improvement? Because he could.) Garland’s Carnegie Hall concert wasn’t just another schmaltz-fest by an aging star of musicals; it was a triumphant achievement that reaffirmed the abused former child star’s reputation as an unparalleled performer, much as Frank Sinatra’s performance in “From Here to Eternity” rescued his career from the teen-idol graveyard.
Garland’s star turn, unfortunately, while helping to stave off financial ruin by enhancing her worth as a concert draw, couldn’t rescue her from the drug dependence foisted on her as a child by the excesses of the MGM system. Garland was a wreck when she died in 1969 after years of declining physical and emotional health.
Wainwright, on the other hand, shows signs of surviving yet another roller-coaster upbringing by well-known parents, the post-folk singer-songwriters Loudon Wainwright III and Anna McGarrigle. Rufus, who outed himself early and endured the painful and alienated youth reflected in his original songs, developed a healthy regard for classic pop (and opera), becoming the first gay performer to trumpet Garland’s repertoire without any of the camp associated with the stereotypical Garland worship in the gay community.
In 2006, Rufus mounted a recreation of Garland’s concert, the original recording of which has never been out of print. He followed the New York appearance with concerts at the London Palladium and the Hollywood Bowl in 2007. The London show is available on DVD.
Garland’s album was remastered for a fortieth anniversary edition in 2001 with tracks thought to be missing and without audience sweetening that had been added in reissues over the years. It is an album that lives up to its reputation in every way, providing an amazing performance by Garland at the top of her post-Hollywood prowess (and with no evidence of the subsequent decline). It’s a record from which any young performer could learn something, as David Was points out in this NPR interview. (I disagree with Was, though, that Christina Aquilera should try to adopt Garland’s particular “taste and restraint.” You might as well tell an orange that it should make juice like an apple. Which is not to say that Aguilera couldn’t make a compelling album of standards.)
Rufus Wainwright has been criticized similarly for not having the vocal chops of Garland, which he clearly doesn’t. But that misses the point of the show and the event, at which Wainwright’s fans generate the exact same electricity radiated by Garland’s fans at the original show. Call it a tribute concert or a memorial service, but Wainwright’s homage comes off perfectly well as a concert recording with excellent original arrangements (though mostly rewritten in Rufus’s key) and the infectious enthusiasm that only comes from labors of love.
Vocally, the concert is not a triumph; Wainwright occasionally misses notes and mangles lyrics, and he doesn’t have Garland’s range or power, but his own vocal style meshes well with the subject matter. I’ve always been a fan of standards being interpreted by the simpler vocal styles associated with folk and soft rock, such as Judy Collins’ recording of “Send in the Clowns.” And though I’d rather hear Ella Fitzgerald, or Patti Austin, or, yes, Christina Aguilera redo Garland’s work, Rufus Wainwright’s pure tenor is a captivating sound wrapped around Garland’s material. He created a performance that, beyond its listenability, amps up a dim, if not fading, spotlight on one of our most treasured artists.
Below: Video for Wainwright’s performance of “Across the Universe” from I Am Sam and “Do It Again” from Rufus Rufus Rufus Does Judy Judy Judy.