Making Friends with Your Demons: Rufus Wainwright Tackles Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and Life
A decade on Wainwright returns to restage his acclaimed Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall show. For both stars harnessing the darkness was integral to their art.
Photos by Matthew Welch
“I was the last generation enveloped in The Wizard of Oz in such an intense way: I think by the time the next brood came along, it had gone to The Little Mermaid,” says Rufus Wainwright, looking the definition of dapper in a signature well-fitted blazer, sipping a cup of tea in the Algonquin Hotel. Today he’s also wearing dark sunglasses, which he keeps on throughout our chat. He’s had a frantic day of press. “I’ve had a full day of poking and prodding which is to be expected, since I have so much to offer. I should know that if I want to do so many things I have to explain them, since they are so kind of varied and eclectic and rather large undertakings.”
The most pressing of these “things” will take place this week, on June 16 and 17, when Wainwright returns to Carnegie Hall to restage Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, an ode to Judy Garland’s historic 1961 Carnegie Hall performance. Ten years after his original ode, he remains the only living person qualified to do Garland justice. For film and musical theater aficionados, Garland’s 1961 Carnegie Hall performance is a night-you-should-know-about. Her place as an icon is indelibly etched and this was one of the highlights in her career cemented her as such, not least because it was a moment of redemption. Touring Europe, singing the standards in her signature quaver, Garland had at this point (momentarily) quelled her addiction to alcohol and drugs, surviving a severe bout of hepatitis, confounding doctors who warned her that not only would she never sing again, but that her days were numbered. At Carnegie Hall she rose a bedazzled phoenix from the ashes. For Wainwright to tackle such a historic performance, casting himself in Garland’s role, was a ballsy move—like if Lady Gaga attempted a multi-day recreation of Bowie’s historic 1973 show at London’s Hammersmith Odeon. And yet in 2006 Wainwright pulled it off with aplomb. The original Rufus does Judy shows were such a hit that the production was extended to run over six nights. It was a star-solidifying run and so, 10 years later he’s back to give fans what they want: More Rufus does Judy.
Wainwright was first exposed to Garland through his mother, folk singer Kate McGarrigle, who performed with her sister as Kate & Anna McGarrigle. It’s just the tip of the artist’s rich musical lineage: His father is acclaimed folk singer Loudon Wainwright III, and in their heyday his parents were a musical power couple, lauded and adored. They were also each other’s respective muses. (Grammy-winning music aside, you might also recognize Loudon as Captain Calvin Spalding on M*A*S*H.) Even his aunt Sloan was a respected jazz-folk artist and his younger sisters Martha and Lucy also followed in the family’s footsteps. Music is in Wainwright’s blood, which on the one hand is a useful pedigree, but it’s one that casts a shadow he’s worked hard to step out of.
After Wainwright’s parents divorced when he was three, he grew up largely in Montreal with his mother where come Easter every year around Easter, The Wizard of Oz became staple viewing.
“I got into singing ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ and my mother coached me,” recalls Wainwright. “That became this show-stopper to sober up drunk adults when they’d go home at a party, get them ready for that drive. I would fluctuate at that age, we’re talking five, six, seven years old, where I was either the Wicked Witch or Dorothy, depending on my mood.”
When discussing his performances—from current day Judy shows to “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as a child—he uses big, bold terms. He is (rightfully) well versed in this kind of discourse and interaction, but when he mentions his mother, Wainwright softens. Kate McGarrigle lost her battle with cancer in January 2010, but her influence is a strong through-line in his work to this day. Along with Judy Garland, his mom intro-ed young Wainwright to Shakespeare. Not as the bard every cultured kid must study to pass in English Lit 101, but rather as a vessel for a discussion on male masturbation.
“My mom, who’s sadly no longer with us, was a great intellectual and cultured woman: she knew a lot about Shakespeare, but I don’t think she was the most comfortable parent of young teenage boys,” he explains. “At one point she realized when doing my laundry that I had been spending a little too much time in my room, and said, ‘Rufus, Shakespeare was writing about what you’re doing to yourself!’ and that was ‘The expense of spirit in a waste of shame.’”
These very words are plucked from Shakespeare’s “Sonnet 129,” the centerpiece of Wainwright’s latest album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets, featuring a reading by actor William Shatner, and contributions including Helena Bonham Carter, Carrie Fisher, his sister Martha and an international cast of songwriters. Released earlier this year, the album of sonnets set to music dramatically commemorates the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with interpretations that are quintessentially Wainwright—piano-driven, the occasional flurry of strings, his florid tones front and center. Meanwhile, the album cover features Wainwright rouged and trussed up in Renaissance finery, flowers blooming in his hair.
For this writer—whose Shakespeare education began in high school and ceased shortly thereafter, and whose current music diet includes Blood Orange imminent new record and Lemonade—Take All My Loves… wasn’t exactly my sweet spot. The mere mention of the feted dramatist may have many scurrying in the other direction: too lofty, inaccessible, pretentious. But if it’s pretentious, then it’s ignorance on my part for electing to basically ignore one of the greatest literary figures of all time. Wainwright knows what he’s doing—staying true to himself and his audience. In talking with Wainwright I’m exposed to a side of Shakespeare that’s anything but stuffy. Sonnets about masturbation? Read by William Shatner? Yes, I would like to listen.
“Shakespeare was part of my birth to these conversations as a young kid,” he recalls. “Which is appropriate in a lot of ways, because it’s all in there: It’s sex, and beginnings, and gender confusion. She was wise in bringing up those sonnets.”
Wainwright himself is a parent to a five-year-old little girl names Viva Katherine Wainwright Cohen, who he had with Leonard Cohen's daughter, his friend Lorca Cohen. Meanhile, his husband Jörn Weisbrodt is “deputy dad.” Naturally his daughter has been exposed to The Wizard of Oz, but she’s a Little Mermaid fan too, making the astute observation that Florence Welch, who also collaborated on the Sonnets album, is a living Ariel.
“Working with Florence was incredible,” says Wainwright. “I met her in LA while I was playing with my daughter in the pool. She came up very dramatically, dove in in this beautiful antique bathing suit and my daughter said, ‘It’s Ariel from The Little Mermaid!’ They proceeded to play together and I was like, there’s something about that girl. She is really the most Shakespearean pop star around—in a positive sense.”
Wainwright’s daughter may still be in single digits, but she’s already showcasing a predisposition for the family business. “She’s been to a couple of my shows and each time I finish, she’s on the side of the stage and I think she’s waiting to run into my arms and tell me how wonderful she thought I was, but when I get to her she goes: ‘It’s my turn now!’ he says with a laugh. “So there we go! Who knows?”
Wainwright first emerged in 1998 with his self-titled debut, but it was his fifth record, 2007’s Release the Stars, a lush collection of baroque-pop that foisted the singer from critical darling to an artist with international and commercial clout. He followed this release mere months later with Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, the live recordings of his Rufus Does Judy Shows, first staged the previous year. “Ten years ago, I had just come out of a very dramatic period, and ten years before that it was utter lunacy,” he reflects.
In the early 2000s, Wainwright struggled with an addiction to meth, a topic he’s previously discussed candidly with Noisey two years ago. “I was in a bad place and eventually decided to seek help,” he explains. “Once I did that, I was able to stop everything and focus totally on myself and what I needed as a human being, not as an artist, not as a New Yorker, not as a gay man, but as a human. That was a tremendous privilege and I was very lucky that I was able to do that.”
While there’s no conclusive genetic connection between addiction and creativity, a cursory glance at history demonstrates the correlation. For many artists their creative elixir is also their kryptonite, and finding one’s artistic rhythm in the wake of recovery can be challenging—an artist must find new ways to make friends with their demons. “With any artist there’s always a dark shadow in your peripheral vision, that is not necessarily a positive aspect of life, but nonetheless generates a certain amount of power,” he explains. “You have to be mindful of it how dangerous it is. But by the same token, to extinguish it is foolish.”
This battle with inner darkness is certainly something that characterized Judy Garland’s life as much as her art and theater defined it. While for many kids today Garland’s simply synonymous with ruby slippers, the performer’s struggles were as severe and well-publicized as any of the stars caught on TMZ today. In an era when Marilyn Monroe and Grace Kelly were often made to feel unattractive, Garland’s self-image was dangerously controlled by film executives. Not to mention it was totally normal back then to give child stars pills to pep them up and pills to settle them down—something to think about next time you watch The Wizard of Oz.
“Back in those days, with Garland and Sinatra and Peggy Lee, once you were on stage, it was about harnessing those varied tumultuous feelings and honing them in, making them do your bidding as opposed to letting them control you,” says Wainwright.
Although her Carnegie Hall performance seemed to signify a new leaf for the five-times married star, Garland eventually succumbed to her demons, dying of a barbiturate overdose at just 47. While her struggles may create a relatable kinship with Wainwright, he’s worked hard to find control, and within that space, a calmer muse: “It’s the little moments that matter, waking up with your husband, or playing with your child, or sharing a smile with your sibling, those things make life profound. I do appreciate that I’m 42 and need a good night’s rest.”
After his impending Carnegie performances, Wainwright will get back to writing a new opera, and “like 8,000 pop tunes!” He admits: “I do feel like I have to return back to the mainstream at some point.”
From sonnets to operas to a gestating pop record, striking that balance is tough, but key. His family currently splits time between New York, Toronto, and Los Angeles. Wainwright observes that both professionally and personally this set up appears chaotic, but he’s found the eye of the storm, able to move with focus in spite of all that orbits around him. This ability is what makes him the multi-faceted Rufus Wainwright, if you will, our generation’s Judy. “There was a time when I was really young where I was so obsessed with success that it was a little off putting,” he says with a smile. “But that’s what it took to get me here today. It’s a Catch 22, because had I been less hungry, I wouldn’t have gotten so full.”