‘I’m proud a legend hates me!’ Why Liza Minnelli shunned Rufus Wainwright’s Judy Garland tribute
On a recent Saturday morning at Hollywood’s Capitol Studios, Rufus Wainwright stepped up to a microphone once used by Judy Garland and belted out the 1928 song “When You’re Smiling (The Whole World Smiles with You).” The 47-year-old singer-songwriter was performing a setlist made famous by Garland orchestrally in a packed house, but here with a four-piece ensemble (piano, bass, guitar and drums) and an audience of one: Renée Zellweger, who won an Oscar in 2020 for portraying Garland in “Judy,” tapping her feet to the rhythm.
It was a kind of seance, summoning the ghost of a night from 50 years ago.
Those who were at Carnegie Hall on April 23, 1961, described it as like a religious experience. Men and women, many of them showbiz elite, gathered at the feet of Judy Garland as she doled out numbers from the Great American Songbook, getting lost in her one-of-a-kind warble. Some even rushed the stage, just trying to make contact.
“Being a child and seeing adults act like that was very sort of scary and odd to me,” said Lorna Luft, Garland’s daughter, by phone. Luft was 8 at the time and was hoisted on stage by Rock Hudson. “They were all dressed up in their finery, and then they lost their minds and they ran towards the stage.”
“Judy at Carnegie Hall” is widely considered one of the greatest live albums — part time capsule, part sacred object. So it was almost sacrilegious when, in 2006, Wainwright decided to recreate the exact same program in the same venue. Garland’s other famous daughter, Liza Minnelli, was conspicuously absent and, according to Wainwright, she even tried to stop it from happening.
“It was definitely like a nerve that I hit,” he recalled. “You know, ‘Why would you want to do that? What do you want to do with my mother?’”
His audacity paid off, though. The sold-out crowds lapped it up, and “Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall” earned Wainwright his first Grammy nomination. (His second came earlier this year for the album “Unfollow the Rules.”) Over the years he’s continued to sing these songs — “Stormy Weather,” “The Trolley Song,” “Over the Rainbow” — and he staged a tenth-anniversary concert at Carnegie in 2016.
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Now, having performed through his catalog of albums in a series of mini-concerts streamed from his home throughout the pandemic, the only one left was Judy. So Wainwright decided to record the Carnegie set once again — but instead of staying in his house, he booked a different venue she used to haunt, full of Great American Songbook history. The filmed concert will premiere on the live-streaming platform Veeps on June 10, on what would have been Garland’s 99th birthday.
Wainwright was also joined for a duet in the studio by Kristin Chenoweth, and virtually by his sister, Martha Wainwright. He plans on releasing the new recording as an album down the road.
Even in the middle of the pandemic, Wainwright had one or two guests on the couch in his music room for the home concerts — people from his Rolodex of famous friends, including Paul Rudd, Jamie Lee Curtis and James Corden. He’s been friends with Zellweger for years, and knowing their shared love of Garland, she asked him to sing a duet (“Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas”) on the “Judy” soundtrack.
“He seems to carve out a space for himself among the iconic singer-songwriters of the ages,” said Zellweger, who was at Capitol purely for moral support (and star power, of course). “To me, he’s one of the most gifted songwriters and brilliant vocalists of my generation, anyway, and he’s on my top 10 list of, you know, everything.”
Wainwright did the home concerts, initially, out of economic necessity — his tours to promote “Unfollow the Rules” were canceled by the pandemic — and it forced him to strip his often lavishly orchestral arrangements down to piano and guitar. It revealed the inner strength of each song, as it did with the Judy Garland standards (with their famous Nelson Riddle and Conrad Salinger charts), which is something he learned from his parents.
Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle were both folk singers who “ended up at a place in their careers where they had to go out alone, mostly, and play little clubs every night,” he said, “and just the song itself, like, elevating the room into the heavens. It was never about the glitz or the money or the fame. It was about the song.”
Back in 2006, Wainwright had just experienced “a real fall from grace” before he first mounted the Carnegie show. The Canadian indie darling, whose songs including “Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk” were operatic in their lushness and sophistication, had been living a rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle of drugs and hard partying for more than a decade. “And then all of a sudden, at the eleventh hour, everything just collapsed, and I had to go to rehab and take care of business,” he said. “So I was in a delicate frame of mind.”
He felt this was an opportunity to do the show clean, “because Judy wasn’t. I’m not saying she was drunk when she did the show, but she was definitely embroiled in that world. So I did have this kind of torch to carry, for people who are in that similar struggle.”
It was also noteworthy that this openly gay performer was paying tribute to a gay icon. Add to that the newly raging Iraq War, and “the Judy Garland album was sort of this thread that kept my hope alive, in terms of what the United States can represent,” he said.
Whatever qualms Minnelli may have had with Wainwright’s tribute — she declined to be interviewed for this article — Luft supported it and even joined him on stage for a surprise duet, which she continued to do as he took the concert to Paris and London and, finally, the Hollywood Bowl.
The original show can’t be recreated, Luft clarified. “It’s like saying, ‘I want to recreate this part of history.’ Well, that’s sort of impossible. What you can do is you can pay homage to it, you can pay tribute to it, you can love it so much that this is basically saying ‘thank you.’ My mother’s Carnegie Hall is still selling, and people are still discovering it. I think when Rufus does it, he introduces all of that to a new generation. And I think that’s important.”
The Garland / Wainwright saga actually goes back two generations. Rufus’ grandfather, Loudon Wainwright Jr., was a reporter for Life magazine and living in Hollywood in the 1950s. Rufus’ father remembers going to the Garland-Luft home for dinner when he was 9 and playing outside with Liza in her battery-powered cars: She was the celebrity, he was the chauffeur. And he was smitten.
After the Wainwrights moved back east, young Loudon wrote a puppy love letter to Liza, who never replied, and his heart was “stomped.” In 1974, after he became a respected folk singer and she won an Oscar for “Cabaret,” Loudon wrote an a cappella song called “Liza” about that afternoon when they were kids. A Danish reporter played the song for Minnelli during an interview and asked her if she recognized Wainwright’s voice.
“Oh, Loudon!” she said. “Oh dear. No, but I have a great vocal teacher that he’s got to go to. He’s going to ruin his throat if he keeps singing like that.”
“Which is ironic, because guess who lost their voice?” said Rufus, sitting in the Laurel Canyon home he shares with his husband, Jörn Weisbrodt, and their daughter Viva. “But I don’t want to go do too much Liza bashing, because she’s an icon and she deserves all the fame and the success that she’s worked hard to get over the years. I will say, she hasn’t been totally into this project.”
Rufus and Liza used to be friendly, but “something rubbed something the wrong way” and she avoids him at parties, he said. He occasionally “pokes” her; taking after his father, he wrote a song called “Me and Liza” in 2014, singing: “Daddy writing unanswered love letters, why? Come on Liza, give me a try!”
She never took the bait, though, and Wainwright said, “I actually started to feel somewhat proud and excited that such a legend would hate me! But look, I wish her the best, and she’s always welcome to come back into my fold. I’m a big fan.”
There may be winking mischief to the Liza-trolling, but Wainwright’s love for her mother is sincere. When he took on the Carnegie Hall show in 2006, he realized just how Herculean an achievement it was on her part, and that’s when he began taking his vocal performance more seriously.
“I was from the ’90s,” he said, “so bad pronunciation and heavy breathing were part of the norm.”
Garland’s stamina was especially amazing, Luft said, “because she was so tiny — she was only four foot 11. Just to get the proper breathing and air and all of that, it’s a workout. It’s basically the Olympics.”
Today Wainwright’s voice sounds arguably better than ever, and — in addition to composing two operas in the past decade and continuing to write his own songs — he followed in Garland’s footsteps of becoming an interpreter of great American songs. Just before the pandemic, he did three nights of shows at McCabe’s Guitar Shop, performing everything from “A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall” to his mother’s song “Heart Like a Wheel,” popularized by Linda Ronstadt.
“There’s something so purely emotive in his delivery of a lyric, that it just touches you,” said Zellweger. “It’s very powerfully moving. And, to me, that’s something that he and Judy share.”
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