Judy Garland was famous for singing and dancing her way through personal tragedy. Friday night in New York City, Rufus Wainwright tried to do the same at Carnegie Hall. Performing the entirety of Garland’s enormously popular 1961 concert from that same venue, Wainwright paid tribute to the 49 people killed in last weekend’s shooting at an Orlando gay nightclub.
While the evening was filled with campy fun and stirring renditions, Wainwright, who himself is openly gay, took a break from singing in the second act to relate to people who don’t identify as LGBT how horrific this shooting has affected his community.
“It’s been a really tough time for LGBT people — I know because I’m feeling it,” Wainwright said, his voice starting to shake. “This I direct at people who aren’t gay, to let them know we’re really f—ed up by this, even if we might not show it… If you’re not gay, check in with your gay friends and give them a hug, because it’s been very difficult.”
Rather than dedicate one of Garland’s more poignant ballads to those affected by the events in Orlando, Wainwright instead opted to combat tragedy with joy by singing the zany, upbeat “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart.” “Treat this song as a hug to the world, and making it a better place,” he introduced, before delivering the night’s most energetic and fun performances, filled with campy dance moves and even a cartwheel.
Friday was the final of Wainwright’s two-night Carnegie Hall performance, in which he performed the entirety of Judy Garland’s classic Carnegie Hall concert, famously dubbed “the greatest night in show business history.” Wainwright also performed the Garland tribute in 2006.
The song dedication of “Zing! Went the Strings of My Heart” wasn’t the only notable dedication of the night. Wainwright also announced he would perform a number of classic tracks in tribute to presidential candidates, starting with Bernie Sanders. After ensuring the audience he was not being tongue-in-cheek, but very sincere, Wainwright sang the forlorn, romantic ballad “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love.”
Later, Wainwright admitted to the audience he debated singing a controversial song that he warned was from a less racially sensitive era, but decided it was actually the perfect selection to dedicate to Donald Trump, launching into “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody.” Wainwright closed the show with his dedication to “the next president of the United States: Hillary Rodham Clinton,” singing an enthusiastic, upbeat “Get Happy.”
For a show that was basically recreating another person’s show, Wainwright’s performance felt incredibly fresh and personal. Just as Garland often interrupted her songs with fun little anecdotes, so too did Wainwright tell his own stories, including an enlightening tale about how Garland actually used to babysit Wainwright’s father, Loudon Wainwright III.
As Garland’s original performance did, Wainwright fluctuated between slower, emotional standards and up-tempo jazz tracks. While his singing was technically on point, Wainwright’s lower, operatic voice tended to lull the crowd during the slower numbers, but that only made his animated, dynamic take on the faster songs even more of an adrenaline boost. The show was at its best when Wainwright was at his campiest — stopping the orchestra in its tracks in the middle of numbers to re-do a line, or explain who 1930s and ’40s movie musical actress Jeanette MacDonald was, or note that he felt like he was in a gay porno while making dramatic eye contact with composer Stephen Oremus. It all had a breezy, unrehearsed feeling of fun that seems so rare in the largely polished, manufactured realm of modern pop music.