On April 23, 1961, superstar Judy Garland launched yet another of her legendary comebacks and appeared on stage at Carnegie Hall. Subsequently called “the Greatest Night in Showbiz,” her performance riveted the star-filled (Richard Burton, Noel Coward, Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, dozens more …) auditorium. Garland’s daughter Lorna Luft recalls the evening. “I remember 3,000 grown-ups dressed in tuxedos and fancy cocktail dresses and the sound of the audience screaming my mother’s name and trying to touch her. It was scary! I thought ‘Grownups don’t act like this. These people have lost their minds!’”
You can hear a recording of the pandemonium on the classic live album, Judy at Carnegie Hall – and if you haven’t listened to it, you should. It is one of the greatest live albums of all time.
Rufus Wainwright agrees. The indie-darling singer/songwriter has periodically mounted tributes to Garland’s landmark performance, beginning with a complete recreation (stage patter and forgotten lyrics included) in 2006, and two albums and several repeat performances since then. In honor of the centennial of her birth, Wainwright came to Chicago’s City Winery last week for four more performances of Garland’s material, backed this time by a cool jazz combo (drums, piano and bass) instead of a 36-piece orchestra.
No one would confuse Wainwright’s languid tenor with Garland’s rich powerhouse, but their shared operatic sensibility – soaring heights, abyssal lows – was on full display. And if the audience’s quiet appreciation of the soulful set wasn’t at the manic level that so frightened Luft back in 1961, it was more in keeping with Wainwright’s current pared down aesthetic and City Winery’s intimate setting.
Now sporting a mane of grain hair and grizzled beard, Wainwright is a more mature performer than the elfin chanteur who first achieved notoriety more than two decades ago. That maturity was on full display as he sang Garland classics like “Come Rain or Come Shine,” “Zing Went the Strings of My Heart,” and “The Man That Got Away” – forceful, singing-to-the-rooftops.
Corny, period numbers like “Rock-a-bye Your Baby,” and “Swanee” were both ironically acknowledged yet sung in utter earnestness, with Wainwright’s head thrown back for full-throated belts. While Wainwright’s (and Garland’s) tender side was demonstrated through Gershwin’s “Foggy Day (in London Town)” and Coward’s “If Love Were All.”
Surprisingly, Wainwright didn’t reserve for his encore the song everyone was waiting for. About two thirds into his performance, Wainwright sang his own-now-famous version of “Over the Rainbow” – not Garland’s equal, perhaps, but still heartbreaking and hopeful all at once.
Appropriately, Rufus Wainwright closed the night with a raucous celebration of “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)” – complete with Garlandesque callouts to Marshall Field’s, the Drake, the Ambassador East, the Pump Room’s shish kebab and Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. Those are references to now gone or faded Chicago icons, but, like Garland herself – and her starry night at Carnegie Hall some 60 year ago – they deserve a remembrance. We can thank Wainwright for providing one.