Rufus Wainwright On What Makes Judy Garland a Gay Icon

Playbill Pride   Rufus Wainwright On What Makes Judy Garland a Gay Icon In anticipation of singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright’s return to Carnegie Hall, we talk all things Judy Garland and what she means to the LGBT community.
Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright Matthew Welch

The modern LGBT Rights movement arguably began 47 years ago—in part, some would say, as a response to the death of singular gay icon Judy Garland around the time of the Stonewall riots. This year, a very special celebration of this Pride milestone is taking place when Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Rufus Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall June 16-17 to recreate his 2006 Carnegie shows, inspired by Judy Garland’s legendary April 23, 1961, performance at the venue, often referred to as “The Greatest Night in Show Business History.” For many fans, there is great synergy in this confluence of gay icon Garland’s classic program and Wainwright—a trailblazing artist who has been out of the closet from the beginning of his career in the 1990s.

How has the Judy Garland program changed for you now after ten years?
Rufus Wainwright: This time around, it’s centered more on me, what the songs mean to me now after ten years of fame here and there. This material is built to absorb all the kicks life has to give. Whether it’s childbirth or death or marriage or war or peace, these songs become a prism for those big experiences. So I’m excited to sing them now with a little more time under my belt, to own them as they relate to my personal life as a gay man as opposed to trying to match Judy, the gay icon. I love celebrating the legacy of Judy Garland and her spirit, but I’m also intent on just sharing the brilliance of that era in terms of songwriting and all those fabulous gay songwriters, Noel Coward and Lorenz Hart and Roger Edens.

Judy Garland
Judy Garland

The years that you’ve been in the industry have been such a time of social change—Ellen DeGeneres was still in the closet when you recorded your first album. How do you see your role in the gay community?
RW: With all the transgender stuff, which I wholly support and I find really wonderful, I think my role is [being] here to preserve the old school, being a good old-fashioned gay boy and keeping those gay traditions alive whether it’s Broadway or opera.

From the beginning your work has been compared to either opera or cabaret or classical music; you’ve even written an opera, Prima Donna. And I read that your pop song “Welcome to the Ball” was originally written for a musical.
RW: Yeah it was, for a musical that never materialized, but that’s definitely an area I’d like to at some point really tackle because I’ve always liked things at times operatic, at times musical and never like a play. At the age of 13, I became this rabid opera fanatic.

Do you remember the first time you heard the Judy Carnegie Hall album?
RW: I didn’t know the album that well at all. I was more affected by The Wizard of Oz and her Hollywood career, and also, on dark days, her crazy recordings of herself—I kind of got a little too into those [and] tried to imitate them—but, anyway, those were the three points that I knew. Then, of course, I’ve always heard about the Judy Garland record and knew that my grandfather had been to the concert. Around the time of the Iraq invasion, it was a sh*t show—this moment of real hope and goodwill and positive energy after 9/11 when the world came together with the United States. Then we invaded Iraq, and it was a traumatic blow to that. At that point I started listening to the Judy Garland Carnegie Hall record because it reminded me of what America was in times of peace, social progress and what it could stand for if it was on the right side of history before George Bush, which I was hoping that it would be again after George Bush.

Would you describe the Judy show, then, as a kind of Civil Rights battle cry?
RW: Yes! And it’s actually funny to say that because it’s the attitude you need to perform it, as if you’re a soldier or an athlete, you need so much physical stamina to make it to the other end. That’s definitely what made Judy a hero for the community—you’re going to battle when that overture drums up. She embodies what I love about musical theatre and opera—especially this real danger when a singer steps on the stage and the idea that they have to basically defy gravity with their music. That what makes a diva a gay icon.

Do you find the audiences different when you’re doing to Judy show versus your own stuff? Are the Judy audiences more gay?
RW: Hm. Well, they tend to be a different crowd of gays, that’s for sure. I mean, there’s overlap, but I think, with the Judy, they’re really excited because they forget how fun these songs are live, how you just get on the train. It’s a roller coaster. I get to do so many party tricks. It’s a blast.

In your song “Gay Messiah,” you say that it’s not you—you’re “Rufus The Baptist.” Who is the Gay Messiah? What should we look for?
RW: A great ass, probably. I’m not sure who the Gay Messiah is yet, but we will know soon because John the Baptist was in his 40s back in the day as I am now, so here we go.