At the beginning of the song “How Long Has This Been Going On,” on Rufus Wainwright’s “Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall,” Wainwright remarks that he “Feels like Judy Garland’s secretary.” He has to remember set lists, lyrics and sheet music that he didn’t write — awkward tasks for a traditional songwriter. But though this statement is comical, he’s selling himself short. For Rufus Wainwright to recreate an album that received great notoriety and a slew of Grammy Awards might seem artificial and gimmicky, or like a campy stereotype. Yet Wainwright’s take on “Judy At Carnegie Hall” (1961) cannot be regarded in the same light as a Jethro Tull cover band performing at a ski lodge. The piece does not serve as just an imitation, nor as an attempt for Wainwright to mirror his struggles to Garland’s own emergence from highly publicized personal turmoil. Rather, it’s a fresh work that relates Wainwright’s eclectic sound to that of Garland.
Aside from the occasional transpositions to better accommodate Wainwright’s voice, the structure of “Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall” is identical to that of Garland’s 1961 album. Wainwright even recreates Judy’s banter in between songs, noting “I’m going to speak here, because Judy speaks here on the album” after “Medley: Almost Like Being in Love/This Can’t Be Love.” But the structural similarities between the two albums only serve to highlight Wainwright’s voice. This album features no electronic samples or folk-tinged guitar strumming, and it has a subtler piano-pop feel to it than Wainwright’s previous work. Yet it epitomizes Wainwright’s sound as clearly as his own work does.
Judy Garland’s sound was equally influenced by the “Golden Age of Broadway” as it was by big-band swing and cabaret. In the same regard, Rufus Wainwright’s voice often transcends simple classification. A listener may note similarities to Sinatra in “Who Cares? (So Long As You Care For Me)”; the smoothly pop lead singer from the Fray in “Over the Rainbow”; and Broadway legend Gwen Verdon on Wainwright’s rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Wainwright shares Garland’s ability to front a piano-based pop group, just as he has the theatricality and vibrato to star in a Broadway musical and the smooth swing characteristic of renowned jazz vocalists.
Garland structured her concert to mix grand theatrical orchestrations (“Rock a Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody”), moody arrangements featuring just piano and voice (“If Love Were All”), and bossa nova (“You Go to My Head”), highlighting her versatility as a singer in an unforced manner. The set list works in the same way for Wainwright, who can effectively excite an audience to applaud while he belts, or force them to be silent and listen intently as he croons at the piano.
The album does not come off as a tribute or a choppy remake, but as a subtle new look at the music that shaped the career of Judy Garland. Wainwright does not succumb to cheap imitations of Garland, nor does he repeat her stories in between songs. “Rufus Does Judy At Carnegie Hall” is Rufus Wainwright telling his own story through the same songs used by Judy Garland. And when Wainwright forgets lyrics, it only makes the listener find him more endearing. Yet when he tries to gain the audience’s affection with stories such how he used to dream about being Dorothy from “The Wizard of Oz,” it comes off as superfluous. His anecdotes about what Judy Garland means to him are not necessary; his relationship to her is apparent through the music. The shape of music has changed dramatically since 1961, but audiences can still appreciate the purity of “Judy At Carnegie Hall” — only now through the body of Rufus Wainwright.