Karen, Jere, Dale, and I saw Rufus Wainwright in his re-creation of Judy Garland's immortal 1961 Carnegie Hall concert, almost exactly 11 years ago. It was an unforgettable night. Because, you know, when you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you.
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Last night (Weds 6/14/06) Rufus Wainwright did the first of two concerts at Carnegie Hall, recreating the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall comeback concert of 1961. He did the same 24 songs in the same arrangements (with some tweaking), with a 40-piece orchestra. It was an extraordinary performance, it's the kind of thing that I enjoyed immensely at the time and will enjoy even more as the days and years go by. Can't wait to get the album.
He sang SO BEAUTIFULLY - - he has a peculiar voice, but he certainly knows how to use it, and sounded gorgeous last night. Singing these songs brought out a newer richer beauty to his voice that isn't there as much when he's singing his own songs, or other pop/rock/folky songs.
The audience was insane, littered with gay men straddling 40 who were thrilled to be having their Judy at Carnegie Hall Moment, since they weren't available the first time. The orchestra was killer - - the overture alone drove us all nutty. Rufus's clothes were by Viktor and Rolf - - the first act outfit was maybe the most elegant thing I've seen on a man: a pearl gray suit with a black satin strip up the side of the pant (like they do on tuxedos) and a white shirt with large-ish black stars in different sizes, the largest star being probably 3 inches wide. I don't remember the shoes, which is shameful.
I was in tears many times during the night, it was such a bizarre conflation of elements, all brought together to hit me where I live! His stage deportment throughout was darling and idiosyncratic: sometimes petulant, sometimes fully exultant and self-aggrandizing (in a Barbra way, thrilling), sometimes goofy and self-conscious. But every single moment was dedicated and fully formed. I got the feeling that he knew this was his moment and he was equal to the task and if it wasn't going to have an impact in Cultural History, like the Judy concert, it was going to be a moment in HIS history. And in mine!
There's one thing I was worried about, and that was the keys - - his range and Judy's range are very different, and he was using her original arrangements. I don't know what the particulars are, but I would guess that his range is about a fourth lower than hers, which is a big diff when it comes to these arrangements, which were created just for her (unless they were created for someone else, see story below about Rosemary Clooney). But the tweaking was very successful, there was only one song where I felt like the sound was a little murky. One of the most touching moments of the whole night was when he sang "Do it again", which was done as a tender ballad. He sang this song in her key, in her range, which was rather high, but he crooned it up there and sounded lovely.
One cute thing: before he did that song, the third song of the night, he said, "Now I'm going to talk, because at this point in the album, Judy talks."
"You go to my head" was funny, he quoted Judy when she forgot the words. Bucky Pizzarelli gave us one of the high points of the evening, in his divine guitar solo during "How long has this been going on". "The man that got away" was stunning, another highlight - - Jere and I filled Karen in on what a kow-pow moment it is in *A Star is Born*. One of the greatest songs ever. And "San Francisco", the song that closed the first half, was roof-raising.
JERE: You're thinking of Richard, I can just tell.
ME: Yes, I am. I wish he was here tonight. I was thinking of him a lot during "How long has this been going on".
KAREN: And the answer is, "Not very long".
Har har har, thank you Miss Wisecracker. I did wish he was there next to me, us holding hands during that song. I held my own hand, but it didn't feel quite the same.
The four of us made our bets on what he would wear for the second half:
Me: bottle green
Karen: electric blue
It opened with "That's entertainment" and he strode onto the stage wearing a tux with a silk top hat (Jere won). He immediately took off the hat, jacket, and bow tie, leaving him in a white shirt with a longish pointy collar, a slim black vest with watch-fobby chain across it, and black trousers. Karen and I agreed that this outfit wasn't sufficiently special for the occasion, and not at all on the level of the first half's outfit. She saw that the shirt had a gorgeous pattern on it, but I didn't see that even with my opera glasses - - and the rest of the outfit looked like it could have been bought at Nedrebo's.
The third song on the second half was my primary reason for being there, "Come rain or come shine". I have to tell a couple stories. First, Nelson Riddle wrote the arrangement for Rosemary Clooney, whom he was shtupping at the time. Judy was putting together a concert and asked Nelson if he had anything she could use, and he got approval from Rosie for Judy to use it. Rosie was at a Judy concert some time later, and Judy had heard that Rosie was recording it.
JUDY: Hey, what's this I hear about you and Mitch Miller recording MY song?
ROSIE: Judy, Nelson wrote that arrangement for me.
JUDY: The hell he did!
ROSIE: [picking up phone] OK, I'm going to get him on the phone right now, and we're going to clear this up.
JUDY: No, hang up the phone, don't be ridiculous, calm down.
Lesson learned: Rosie might be blonde, but she is fierce!
Now a story about me: Judy's recording of Nelson's arrangement has been one of my very favorite recorded moments for a very long time, maybe 20 years. The bongos, the trumpets blaring, and especially the carefully placed moments where it's just the strings revealed and exposed under the brassy texture - - it's a masterpiece of tension and release. Here's an excerpt from emails going back and forth between Karen, Dale, and I earlier this week:
ME: Warning: I'm bringing a wooden spoon to the concert, which one of you will need to place in my mouth before he sings "Come rain or come shine" - - I will be having a seizure. Karen, you seem like the most logical choice, since you did this when we saw the Chanel show at the Met last spring.
KAREN: Don't you have a boyfriend to do these things for you now? Sheesh.
DALE: He's too busy putting other things in Chris's mouth.
And on. And on. And on.
Well, Rufus's performance of the song did not disappoint. The bongo intro had me in a frenzy of anticipation, and the eagerly awaited string exposure moment found me with both my hands over my mouth, salivating like mad, afraid I was going to barf. This kind of visceral reaction to a performance has only happened to me maybe three or four times before, and there's nothing like it.
Then came Rufus's favorite part of the night, the three songs performed with just piano: "You're nearer", "A foggy day", and "If love were all". "If love were all" is one of the most heart-breaking songs of all time, it never fails to destroy me, especially in these three lines:
I believe that since my life began
All I've had is just
A talent to amuse
Rufus sang it with a fab mix of delicacy and verve. He did "Zing went the strings of my heart" with the whole orchestra, and then said, "You know that part of the whole Garland aura is her legacy and her family..."
Karen and I shivered in anticipation and horror - - was Liza going to perform?
"...so in that vein, I would like to bring out my wonderfully talented sister, Martha Wainwright."
The audience went nutty, of course. She looked like a dream within a dream, wearing a frosty mauve silk satin suit in a very 40s cut, and the shoes! Jere went ape shit for the shoes, as did I - - the same color pink, but a slightly lighter shade, with a cluster of rhinestones at the toes, and the most beautiful shape to the heel. She sang "Stormy weather" and turned it into a dazzling mad scene. It was nutty, it was totally alive, it was just right for her, and for the night! Never seen anything like it, it was teetering on the edge of ridiculous.
He came back out and did a few more songs, including "For me and my gal", and asked the audience to sing along, just like Judy did, and I would have thought more people would know the words. Come on.
Then it was time for "Over the rainbow" and he invited his mother, Kate McGarrigle, out on the stage. She is a handsome woman, was wearing a chartreuse silk satin pantsuit, looked sharp as hell. He asked her how she was doing, and she said she felt like Celine Dion. Very funny. He introduced "Over the rainbow" and said when he was a little boy his mother used to get him up out of bed and get him to sing it to whoever was over at her house getting drunk, so they would be touched and then leave. He said all this in a warm yet snarky way, and her retort was, "And look where you are now." MAJOR screaming from the audience.
They did an interesting thing with the song - - they started with her playing the piano, a rather spare arrangement. Then the orchestra came in, in the arrangement we all know. It was a brilliant balance, and the only moment in the show where Rufus was saying, "Yes, this is Judy's thing, but I'm doing it my way." And of course that was the perfect song for it, because it's Judy's signature song.
He did "After you've gone", which starts up tempo and changes to a bump-and-grind tempo halfway through. At the change of tempo, he said, "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Lorna Luft!" Pande-freaking-monium! She looks great, she's a bit zaftig, but as Karen said, she chose her outfit well - - a black crepe blouse and trousers, with the blouse revealing lots of shoulder and chest, but not any cleavage. Major bling from the necklace, probably real diamonds. And her hair looked fab, sort of a high glam Joanna Cassidy look. Her singing was less fab, she was capable and totally there, but the vibrato was wide and scary. I think she's blown her voice out. But ya know, it was the Garland Seal of Approval to have her there.
But she did the tackiest thing: the song ended and he kissed her and everyone applauded like mad. She stood there and took a few bows, then took a few steps away, stopped and bowed some more, then a few steps and more bows - - I bet she moved, stopped, and bowed four times. Lorna, I know you're not out in front of The Public very often anymore, and you've probably never played Carnegie Hall before (and may never again), but you should stand where you are, bow many times, guage the applause, then leave the stage. If the audience is still bonkers, come back out for another set of bows. This start-and-stop thing is not good.
The last official song of the concert was "Chicago", and I don't think I was alone in watching that door on the side to see if Liza was going to come out. She did not. He sang one encore, with just his mother at the piano, a song he said he didn't think Judy ever did: "Every time we say goodbye". It was gorgeous, and again, a respectful way to put his own stamp on the evening.
We left, and of course there was a huge bottleneck trying to get out of there. This group of old queens in their 50s and beyond were arguing:
1st QUEEN: I wonder if Judy ever sang “Every time we sang goodbye”.
2nd QUEEN: She didn’t, she never did.
1st QUEEN: Are you sure?
2nd QUEEN: Of course I’m sure, I have everything she ever recorded.
3rd QUEEN: I’m not so sure. I think she sang it in *’Til the Clouds Roll By*.
2nd QUEEN: That was “Look for the silver lining”, you idiot. What did I ever see in you.
The four of us heard all of this, tittering at each other. Karen said, “Take a good look at your future, boys!”