Broadway director, lyricist and writer Scott Wittman (Hairspray, Matters of the Heart, Catch Me If You Can) caught up with long-time friend Rufus Wainwright to chat all things Judy! Judy! Judy! after first being dazzled by Wainwright’s staging in 2006. Rufus Does Judy is back June 23 and 24 on The Hearn Music Stage.
Scott Wittman (SW): Rufus Does Judy is a live recreation of Judy Garland’s unforgettable 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall. When were you first exposed to the Judy at Carnegie Hall album?
Rufus Wainwright (RW): Well, I didn’t know a lot about it growing up, only because my mother liked to portion off the Judy doses in reasonable amounts so my head didn’t explode. I knew the Wizard of Oz of course, but when I was living in LA after 9-11, it was such a tragic period. [September 11] was certainly tragic, but equally as tragic in my opinion was George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq as an answer to that event. At that point I hated living in America, and I thought about going back to Canada. But the one album I would play that reminded me of the former glory of the United States was Judy at Carnegie Hall. That is when I really started digging into it. And it was kind of like taking some sort of narcotic.
SW: That particular album was on the charts for almost a year and a half. And it spent almost 13 weeks at Number 1.
RW: Someone told me recently that it was the first-ever real live album. It was edited here and there but it really had that live, raw quality — mistakes and all.
SW: Do you identify with any of Judy’s showbiz saga?
RW: Well, part of me does. I grew up with the Wizard of Oz. Watching it on television was always a big family event. We would all sit down and watch it together. In terms of relating to her personality, I kind of did. But that later period I was talking about — when I was living in Hollywood I was somewhat possessed by her. And I mean in a hocus-pocus way. I was certainly having my own struggles with drugs and addiction and I found myself concentrating a lot on that album, her other works and her TV show. She kind of haunted me at that point and when I decided to do the Judy show, it was a bit of an exorcism frankly. I kind of wanted to get her out of my system a little bit because it was slightly treacherous. And in a weird way, it worked. I mean, I still adore her and I’ll always be a huge fan, but I don’t listen to as much Judy Garland and I don’t watch as many Judy Garland movies since I immersed myself. But — she’s BACK!
SW: I remember seeing a program from the show that said Act 1: Judy. Act 2: More Judy. The stamina it must take to do this show — aren’t there 28 songs?
RW: I even do a couple more songs because I have to be Rufus Wainwright in the end. We do about 33 tracks. But to be fair, my sister Martha comes out and does a couple of numbers and I have special guests, so I don’t shoulder it all alone.
SW: The stamina to work up to it is mind-boggling to me. No one ever works that hard anymore.
RW: One of the best things to come out of the original Rufus Does Judy performances: I actually improved a lot in terms of my singing. I started concentrating a lot more on diction and also warming up. I highly recommend it for anybody who wants to become a better singer. Or it will destroy you!
Rufus Wainwright in Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, 2006. Photo by Gus Powell.
SW: Your voice is so powerful; I can’t wait to hear you go through this material again. Has it really been 10 years since the last time?
RW: Well, what’s great about these songs for a singer is they deepen with age and there are so many hidden meanings and beautiful visuals that you can only really understand after a few years under your belt — or a bigger belt! So I’m very excited to return to them because 10 years ago, they were all pretty much new to me and I was just trying to get through the set.
SW I know you will miss, and I will certainly miss, your mother, Kate McGarrigle, on “Over the Rainbow.” That was quite special.
RW: What’s interesting with my mother is that she loved “Over the Rainbow” and she could play all of those songs and knew them quite well. But she was more from an anti-Judy school — it was too much showbiz. They wanted Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones, so it was square to her initially but she definitely came on board and knew how much it meant to me. And certainly in terms of being a gay man — we have a different reading of that situation than straight people who just thought it was like the Ed Sullivan Show.
SW: I used to put my sister’s ballet flats on and lip sync it in the garage, so I know what you’re talking about. I find with Judy Garland, there is a danger in her singing. It’s about – here is my heart, go break it. I find that compelling about her.
RW: Both of my grandparents were at the 1961 concert. My grandfather was friends with Judy. I’ve heard that probably the majority of the audience was gay, but I feel like in that space, at that time and with her present, everything was erased. Whether you were gay or straight or asexual. It effaced all of the norms and all of the boxes that people, certainly in the ̓50s and ̓60s, felt they had to belong to. So that must have been an amazing experience.
SW: Well I’m very excited because I don’t think there is anyone alive who can do what you do on stage, and I’m so looking forward to it because when you sing everything always turns to technicolour.
RW: I’m going to cry. We should end it there with me crying.
Rufus Does Judy runs June 23–24 at the Hearn Generating Station. Tickets start at $39. Performed by Rufus Wainwright, featuring special guests Martha Wainwright and China Forbes. Musical direction by Stephen Oremus.
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