Back in 2006, I had the pleasure of seeing Rufus Wainwright perform Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, which, for a young gay man still high on the fumes of being relatively new to New York, was a kind of watershed moment. Arguably our only proudly “out” pop star at the time (even now we really only have two or three), Wainwright gleefully recreating Judy Garland’s iconic 1961 live performance felt like a revelation.
For those of us whose experience of being gay was either negated entirely by the institutions in place, or who had witnessed the renegade joy of gay culture being almost entirely quelled by the specter of AIDS, Wainwright’s performance was not only a celebration of Garland’s life (and the great American songbook), but also a testament to what it meant to be gay and alive. Equal parts serious homage and camp spectacle, the unbridled joie de vivre of the show was a much needed shot in the arm—a not so subtle reminder of the importance of embracing not only our history, but joy itself.
Now, an impossible-seeming decade later, Wainwright is once again reviving Garland’s opus, performing the show for two nights this month, on June 16 and 17, at Carnegie Hall. Though he’s confident that he can still sing the songs (and perhaps even better now), Wainwright is the first to admit that he is a much different person than he was 10 years ago. Over the course of the past decade he has experienced great joy—he married his longtime partner, and fathered a child—and no small amount of sadness, especially the loss of his mother, the late, great singer Kate McGarrigle.
Wainwright has also piloted a wonderfully unpredictable route creatively, having now released eight studio albums and one opera, 2009’s Prima Donna. His latest release, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, not only sets some of the Bard’s greatest work to music, but also includes contributions from the likes of Helena Bonham Carter, William Shatner, and Florence Welch. His second proper opera, Hadrian (a take on the gay love story surrounding Greek emperor Hadrian), will open at Toronto’s Canadian Opera Company in 2018. It’s hard to imagine another contemporary artist, particularly one who entered the cultural arena as a young pop star, with such a wildly disparate catalog of work. But somehow with Wainwright, all of these things—pop music, opera, Shakespeare, Judy Garland—make sense together.
When I spoke to Wainwright on the phone as he prepared to begin rehearsals, he connected his wide-ranging output as a simple byproduct of growing older. “I think it’s a thing that happens to people in their 40s,” he explained. “You really get this sense of like, ‘This is it, baby.’ I don’t want to waste time.”
A few days later, I ran into Wainwright at the closing night of Kiki and Herb’s show at Joe’s Pub. When I ask him if he was feeling anxious about his upcoming dates, Wainwright was characteristically flip. “I’m really not that nervous about singing the songs,” he told me. “I’m just nervous about the shows selling out. I need to know there’s a full house if I’m gonna get up there and do this again. Please! I need everyone to buy a ticket!”