The gate fold inner photo array within the original 2-LP release of “Judy at Carnegie Hall” capturing images from the magic of April 23, 1961.

[This is a repository of items accumulated over a several year period.  With a bit of edge to my collection — I claim no dispassion.  Husband says: “you have to forgive him” and I still ask: “Why?”  A September 10, 2010 review of a Portland, Oregon concert resuscitated my aggravation.  No apologies, no explanations, just context.]

So in 2006, Rufus Wainwright announces he is going to do, as a tribute, the entire Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall concert. As performed on April 23, 1961. An assembly of songs performed and perfected, (arrangements, set list, song order, musicians assembled) through several countries and multiple cities prior to this event, and which Garland tours for the balance of 1961. A set list that represents a career and a life. And Judy at Carnegie Hall captures this artistry, arguably at the pinacle of Garland’s career and arguably one of the greatest evenings in the history of show business. A recording that has never gone out of print.

Wainwright decides to embrace this work in 2006. And I hold my breath. And he performs the concert in June 2006 several times at Carnegie Hall and repeatedly in multiple venues in the U.S. and around the world in 2006 and 2007. CD and DVD versions of these concerts are released. Rufus does his own press. I keep track.

“It was the apotheosis of many colliding stars,” Wainwright speculates of the reasons behind the 1961 concert’s rep. “It was the beginning of the ’60s, so it was the final heave of that old-fashioned musical sound. And it was a moment when Judy’s decrepitude added an edge to her performance; it hadn’t quite taken over.”

”The songbook and the way these songs are built is so amazing that you could get out there and do it with a kazoo,” he said.

  • from National Public Radio, June 10, 2006.  Weekend Edition Saturday with Scott Simon [selections from interview transcript]

SIMON: Why have you chosen to do this?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, you know, I didn’t really know the original album too well, itself. I mean, I knew – I certainly heard tracks from it. But when they re-released the record on a double CD set, I bought that. Whenever I put on that record, that Judy Garland record, that concert, everything brightened. And I just couldn’t help but sing along, and so it was like a vision or a calling. That was the initial thing, but then there is a lot of other reasons as well.


SIMON: …one right after another, what did you learn about the artistry with which that whole playlist had been selected? And what did you learn about what it took Judy Garland to sing those songs one after another?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Anyone should be able to sing those songs. I mean, they’re just such amazing songs. The lyrics are impeccable and the arrangements. And really, if you have half a voice and those orchestrations, you can just kind of glide along. Really.

  • my own response to Stephen Holden about his Variety review of the June 2006 Rufus Concerts at Carnegie Hall:

I have read with interest your reviews .. actually one review that appears to have been augmented today … of the 6/14 and 6/15 Rufus concerts at Carnegie Hall.  They seem to report on the facts … and comment a bit on the response of the folks in the hall .. but not enough on the performance itself. Yes, I’m one of the legion Judy fans who have been a bit flummoxed at his decision to do this .. and also a bit confused by reviews of the performance itself. So … .with “shaky intonation” and “incomplete memorization” of lyrics (hey, isn’t that a basic job when you take on the oeuvre?) … still the reviews including yours seem to focus on the audacity of this “openly gay” performer who has dared to take on this iconic performance, and call him a hero for taking this on?  Even though he admits he knew little about Judy until a few years ago other than Judy as Dorothy … and that he has demonstrated in press leading up to the performances a breathtaking lack of respect for the performer whose shoes he attempts to inhabit?? A hero?

An audacious choice on his part, to be sure. but what do you think of this choice?  The original concert for some of us is seen not just as a tremendous evening of music but also the culmination of a person’s, a particular spectacular performer’s, career.  Mr. Wainwright seems to have approached the piece as a piece of performance art .. of opera. Commenting on it without having the voice for it …  and even having a true appreciation for the songs themselves.

He is an opera fan … and seems to have approached this as opera and performance art .. without having learned the material thoroughly.  What then is accomplished at the end of it?

“Q The Judy Garland tributes were a big hit. One question: Did Judy Garland ever play Boston?

A (Laughs) I’m sure she did. She was pretty road-bound at many points in her life and had to do shows in order to get her prescriptions.”

American singer/songwriter RUFUS WAINWRIGHT feared for his sanity towards the end of his JUDY GARLAND tribute tour – because he was sick of hearing the diva’s hits.

Wainwright – who famously packed out New York’s Carnegie Hall in 2006 with a performance of the iconic star’s best-loved songs – went on to perform the show, in full Garland costume, at a string of venues around the world, as well as releasing a CD and DVD of the concerts.

Now he admits he’s relieved to have returned to performing his own material.

He says, “It did become almost like a Terry Gilliam movie, like Brazil. “I’d be placed in this torture chamber where I’d have to sing Judy Garland songs for 20 years non-stop, it was getting surreal.”

The program ended with a sweetly somber song written by Anna McCarrigle, originally intended her sister, entitled “Kitty, Come Home.” Tears streamed down her nephew’s face as sang — his mother died less than nine months ago. But of course following deafening applause and a standing ovation, Rufus returned to the stage with Storm to belt out a tasty mash-up of “Get Happy” and “Happy Days are Here Again.”

It appears from these words that the reviewer does not  know that Wainwright was performing a well-known duet created for Garland and Barbra Streisand in 1963 for Garland’s CBS television show. But this is not the reviewer’s fault. Clearly Wainwright didn’t appropriately credit the duet, the creation, the provenance of this adventure.  Methinks Wainwright is conflicted about the boffo success of these arrangement that he asserts can sing themselves (hand out the kazoos!) and is confused by different responses these arrangements receive from the fans who respond to Garland’s humanity, and whatever his performances yield. He wants to embody, yet he can’t possibly understand.  It seems a use of her legacy rather than a tribute to her artistry. In his hands, couched by his words and actions, it always will appear that way to me.

© Martha Wade Steketee (September 11, 2010)

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