Homegrown hero on why queer men love their divas
RUFUS DOES JUDY performed by Rufus Wainwright, with conductor Stephen Oremus. Presented by Luminato at the Hearn (440 Unwin). Thursday-Friday (June 23-24) at 8 pm. From $39. luminatofestival.com.
Rufus Wainwright made international headlines a decade ago by having the cojones to recreate, onstage, Judy Garland’s legendary 1961 Carnegie Hall concert.
Wainwright’s show, with the same set list of standards, orchestrations and even similar flubs, sold out everywhere: Carnegie Hall itself, L.A.’s Hollywood Bowl, London’s Palladium, all stops on Garland’s tour, with A-listers in each city clamouring to score tickets.
Now it’s coming to Luminato to help close out the festival’s 10th year, the final one under the artistic directorship of Wainwright’s husband, Jörn Weisbrodt.
“A lot’s happened to me in 10 years,” says Wainwright, wearing sunglasses on the shaded Drake Hotel patio.
“Whether it’s my mother’s passing, or my marriage, or having a child, hitting 40, all of those things,” he says in his distinctive nasal voice. “I also felt the songs could stand a re-do. These are the great American masterpieces. They are built to reflect all of life’s experiences. I wanted to shine that light on them now.”
Performing the concert in the first place was a political act. Living in L.A. and appalled by the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Wainwright was considering leaving but had to stay for work. He wrote one of his best songs during this time, the mournful Going To A Town. And he also discovered the Judy At Carnegie Hall album.
“It was one of the saving graces that got me through,” he says about the recording. “It reminded me of all the fabulous things that America could represent. There was this earlier age when there was optimism and brilliance, and this was a celebration of it.”
Wainwright describes the current political climate as “being on the precipice of destruction – we haven’t gone over the cliff yet. I’m backing Hillary Clinton, partly because she’s a great candidate, but also because the alternative, if Trump wins, is really the apocalypse.”
The concert is being co-sponsored by Pride and is a reminder that Garland’s death – and the police intervention around memorials and subsequent riots – helped spark the North American Pride movement.
Wainwright says he doesn’t want to shove Garland’s significance down younger people’s throats. He acknowledges that some people who will be coming to his show might not even know anything about her apart from The Wizard Of Oz.
“A lot of young gay people coming out now have a certain sense of entitlement, an ‘I’m great because I’m gay’ feeling,” he says. “Which is fine. But when I was growing up, you had to seek out the reason why you were great, learn about all these incredible figures from the past. You had to do research. I hope doing the show this time reminds a younger generation that there was a battle waged and won and that it’s important to give that a bit of respect.”
Oddly enough, even though he grew up in what would seem an ashram of acceptance and alternative views – his mother was the late Kate McGarrigle, his father Loudon Wainwright III, both folk icons – his parents were upset when he came out.
“I reserve the right to condemn my parents for their mishandling of my coming out,” he says, laughing. “But you have to put it in context. I was 14 years old, and it was smack in the middle of the AIDS epidemic, 1987. To be gay at that point was basically a death sentence. I understand their horror. I forgave them. It wasn’t well handled. And I had to fend for myself in a lot of ways.”
After Luminato wraps, he and Weisbrodt will be packing up their rented Annex home and moving back to the U.S. to spend their time between L. A., where his daughter, Viva, is being raised by her mother, Lorca Cohen, and New York – “bicoastal, like all civilized people in the world,” he quips.
But he’ll still be making periodic trips to Toronto to work on Hadrian, his Canadian Opera Company commission with playwright Daniel MacIvor, which is scheduled for 2018. His debut opera, Prima Donna, played Luminato several years ago and got mixed notices.
Prima Donna. Garland. When I ask him why so many gay men worship divas, he delivers a husky laugh worthy of Bette Davis.
“It’s a figure that they can be enamoured of, and yet they don’t have to get it up,” he says. “There’s an amorous adulation that’s devoid of sex. So many gay men’s lives revolve around sex, and that’s a fact of life. Maybe these figures allow you to put sex on the back burner and just enjoy talent.”
“I have the right to condemn my parents for mishandling my coming out. But I was 14 and it was right in the middle of the AIDS epidemic.”