I was 13 when Judy at Carnegie Hall, the two-record LP that documented the extraordinary concert of April 23, 1961, burst upon the world – an act of redemption, brilliance and daring that proved that Judy Garland was the greatest of them all – the apogee of the great American songbook. There was a time when I knew every note, every lyric, every clam in the orchestra, every thrilling Garland swoop and slide in the entire concert.
Rufus Wainwright wasn't born when Judy at Carnegie Hall was released and, according to him, only began to show interest in the album after Sept.11, 2001, when he instinctively intuited that the Garland event symbolized a different America. And he was right. The night Garland enraptured Carnegie Hall, the "Silver" Beatles were still figuring things out in Hamburg, an unknown Dylan was noodling away at a Greenwich Village club, the Rolling Stones were still nice, disaffected, middle-class kids. It was a time, I can attest, of great innocence in the world.
And in a way, it's Rufus Wainwright's own innocence, along with his own astonishing stage presence and stamina, that makes his audacious plan of recreating Garland's 1961 concert so successful. He first presented Rufus Does Judy 10 years ago, and has revived the show for this year's Luminato. It was a thrilling evening.
Wainwright makes the evening his own, first with powerful performances, , and then with his dedications of tunes to Bernie Sanders, Jo Cox, the Orlando victims, bringing the concert into the present, but finally with his understanding of the value of the original concert and the musical tradition on which it stood – that of the great American songbook.
Wainwright may have had to explain to his 2016 audience who Jeanette MacDonald was, and his attempt to get the audience to sing along to For Me and My Gal elicited as much silence as the original Garland request brought forth a lusty response, but Rufus Does Judy worked because Wainwright threw himself so passionately into each number.
And I hope he doesn't mind that I left Luminato thinking not of him, but of her. Of the incredible stamina, and bravery, and talent, and grace that the petite, damaged, indomitable trooper brought to her original performances of these wonderful songs. Garland may have thought she had but "a talent to amuse" as she sang that April, 1961, night, but she was wrong. She had a talent for greatness. A talent to inspire.