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Wainwright to Channel Judy Garland, Live

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Wainwright to Channel Judy Garland, Live

Wainwright to Channel Judy Garland, Live

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(Soundbite of applause)

SCOTT SIMON, host:

April 23, 1961, an orchestra at Carnegie Hall plays the overture for maybe the most magical night in the theater ever recorded. Backstage, Judy Garland is about to make the comeback of a lifetime. The late 1950s had been a sad, dangerous and lonely time for Ms. Garland. She made no movies. She was addicted to cocktails of drugs. She was diagnosed with hepatitis. And maybe most tragically, doctors told her she would never sing again.

Well, onstage that night, boy, did she prove them all wrong.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert)

Ms. JUDY Garland (Entertainer): (Singing) When you're smiling.

(Soundbite of applause)

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing) When you're smiling, the whole world smiles with you. When you're laughing. When you're laughing, the sun comes shining through.

SIMON: That recording of Judy Garland's April 1961 concert has never been out of print. The album spent 13 weeks at number one. It won five Grammy Awards. And it reminded the world of why Judy Garland mattered, and why she still matters.

Now today, a new voice is resurrecting that April night.

(Soundbite of Rufus Wainwright singing)

Mr. RUFUS WAINWRIGHT (Singer): (Singing) When you're smiling, keep on smiling. The whole world smiles with you.

SIMON: That is Rufus Wainwright, rehearsing earlier this week at New York University's Skirball Auditorium.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: (Singing): When you suddenly find out you've been deceived, don't get mean. If your husband bluntly tells you you're too stout, don't ship out.

SIMON: Next week, Mr. Wainwright will perform two sold-out shows at Carnegie Hall with a full orchestra, recreating Judy Garland's entire 1961 concert. We're pleased to be joined by Rufus Wainwright in our New York studios.

Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Thank you.

SIMON: The inevitable question. Why?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Why have you chosen to do this?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, you know, I didn't really know the original album too well, itself. I mean, I knew - I certainly heard tracks from it. But when they re-released the record on a double CD set, I bought that. Whenever I put on that record, that Judy Garland record, that concert, everything brightened. And I just couldn't help but sing along, and so it was like a vision or a calling. That was the initial thing, but then there is a lot of other reasons as well.

SIMON: Somebody told me, somebody who works with you, that your grandparents were at that...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: ...original concert.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I don't want to give too much away. But there is - my grandparents were there. And there is proof of that.

SIMON: Your grandfather was Loudon Wainwright...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, Loudon Wainwright II, who was...

SIMON: ...the columnist/journalist.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. Yeah. He was a journalist/columnist for Life magazine. Yeah. And I don't want to give too much away because there's sort of a surprise in the Playbill...

SIMON: Hmm.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...when you go to the show that talks about that further. But yes, they both were there.

SIMON: It's just between us and 4.2 million listeners...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: There you go.

SIMON: ...okay?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: When you began to try and do those songs...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: ...one right after another, what did you learn about the artistry with which that whole playlist had been selected? And what did you learn about what it took Judy Garland to sing those songs one after another?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Anyone should be able to sing those songs. I mean, they're just such amazing songs. The lyrics are impeccable and the arrangements. And really, if you have half a voice and those orchestrations, you can just kind of glide along. Really.

I mean, but on the other hand, as a singer, or when you actually sit down to do it, and you really want to have that synthesis of artistry and intensity that she was able to do, then you kind of have to defeat them in a certain way. You know, you have to sort of go to war with the material.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And you could have a happy war. You know?

SIMON: We'll remind people of some of the songs that Judy Garland did and you'll be doing. Of course, The Trolley Song.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: And Over the Rainbow, The Man That Got Away.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: That's Entertainment, Come Rain Or Come Shine.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

SIMON: What songs reached into you the most that you're doing in this show?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, there's one song that is my favorite called If Love Were All. And it's a song by Noel Coward. And it's performed in a section of the concert where it's only piano and voice.

SIMON: That's the song in which the Noel Coward lyric is, All I have to give is a talent to amuse.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah, All I have to give is a talent to amuse.

SIMON: Hey, if love were all, I should be...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Hey, ho, if love were all, I would be lonely.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing)

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing): If love were all, I should be lonely. I believe the more you love a man, the more you put your trust, the more you're bound to lose. Although when shadows fall, I wish that only somebody splendid really needed me, someone affectionate and dear, cares would be ended if I knew that he wanted to have me near. But I believe that since my life began...

SIMON: May I ask, because I think people will inevitably point out, Judy Garland obviously had her problems with drugs.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah.

SIMON: Some of which was, given the times, news of which was suppressed, or at least not known.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Right.

SIMON: And you, of course, haven't benefited from those times.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No. No.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Your own experiences have been, by contrast, widely publicized.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Oh, I don't know. Some critics are going to - are going to...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I - you know, I in no way want to publicly announce this parallel as any kind of milestone. You know?

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: But I will say that though I think that Judy's songs, and her performances, her renditions are imbued with hope and beauty, but there is this sort of dark side.

SIMON: Hmm.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And if in some way I can steer it to a more hopeful place, and to sort of take it out of that destination, then I'm happy about that. But I don't want to like express that desire to do it purposefully. But if people want to do that, that's great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Whoa!

SIMON: Twenty-six songs, there are an awful lot of lyrics to remember.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes. Yeah. And I'm not...

SIMON: And there also...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I'm going to make a lot of mistakes. I'm just going to say that now. Yeah, I know, there's a lot of lyrics. And all my life I sang if happy little bluebirds fly above the rainbow, why, oh why, can't I? Where, in fact, it's beyond the rainbow.

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Because I was always above the rainbow, darling. Not above and beyond.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: But I do - yeah, I know, there's a lot of lyrics. And some of them, I make mistakes at times.

SIMON: There's a part of me that wondered about what kind of cheer and ovation might be set off in Carnegie Hall when you begin to sing, when you begin to go clang, clang, clang went the trolley?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I think that people are just going to be in utter shock. Every time, you know, I take off with that number, there is that sense of Oh my God, this is really happening.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: I can't believe this is actually taking place right now. And I'm sure there'll be a large amount of the audience, especially people who may be grew up with that...

SIMON: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: ...you know, that song, or you know, have seen it in so many different, you know, incarnations, that it's just, it's still unbelievable. You know?

SIMON: It's their private business, but would you happen to know if either Lorna Luft and/or Liza Minnelli will be there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Judy Garland's children.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: No comment.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: No comment?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: All I'll say is that, you know, when you resurrect such a sort of momentous character and icon as Judy, you really do wake a lot of people up. And you know, some people's feathers are ruffled. Some people want to fly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: You know, I didn't realize I had stepped on such a kind of mantle.

SIMON: Really?

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And you know, I can only speak in sort of vague terms about all this stuff. But it is...

SIMON: But you're from a show biz family.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yeah. You know, I know. I mean, I think what it is that she just means so much to so many people, still.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And that's including her family and her fans. And so it is - everybody has got an opinion.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Let me ask about - well, these are two nights we're talking about at Carnegie Hall. It's sold out even as we speak.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: Lot of interest in it. Now, I guess I didn't know until I re-read the liner notes of the original Judy at Carnegie Hall recording...

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Yes.

SIMON: ...that she did tour with this show. She hit 16 different cities. Our present information is that, for some reason, you're not interested in touring with it.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Well, I'm just going to do it this time and see what it's like, and then decide afterwards. I have my own kind of agenda to fulfill, which is mainly, I want to be known for my own songwriting.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And for my own music. And in fact after this project and after my next album, I - my real dream job, which is to write an opera for the Metropolitan Opera, I was just commissioned to do that. So that's sort of where my heavy-duty passions lie. Heavy-duty passions. So I'm going to kind of ease into that.

That being said, you know, I know a good thing when it happens.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: And I'm not a fool. And I would certainly - I'd love to, you know, may be do it at the Hollywood Bowl or - because I know she did it there, and certainly, maybe at the Palladium in London.

SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: She was famous for playing there. So, but I always want it to be a kind of special thing. I don't want to be my next career move.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIMON: Mr. Wainwright, awfully nice talking to you.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Thank you.

SIMON: And good luck.

Mr. WAINWRIGHT: Thank you.

SIMON: Rufus Wainwright, he, of course, the son of Loudon III and Kate McGarrigle. He will recreate Judy Garland's 1961 Carnegie Hall concert next Wednesday and Thursday at Carnegie Hall. Sorry, shows are sold out, but I bet you know someone who could get you tickets. Besides, he might be coming to a city near you.

You can come to our Web site to hear his thoughts on reinterpreting Judy Garland, as well as his explanations why he thinks a gay man is a good idea to take on this concert. It's all on our Web site, npr.org.

Clang, clang, this is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

(Soundbite of Judy Garland singing)

Ms. GARLAND: (Singing) As he started to leave I took hold of his sleeve with my hand. And as if it were planned, he stayed on with me. And it was grand just to stand with his hand holding mine to the end of the line.

(Soundbite of applause)

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