Judy Garland lived again at the London Palladium last night. Or at least her spirit did, reincarnated in a wonderful act of homage and cultural appropriation by singer/songwriter Rufus Wainwright. Last summer Wainwright brought her back to Carnegie Hall, to recreate the legendary 1961 concert she gave at that hall, song-by-song, as I blogged here at the time, and about which New York Times critic Stephen Holden wrote, “What unfolded onstage was a tour de force of politically empowering performance art in which a proudly gay male performer paid homage to the original and longest-running gay icon in the crowded pantheon of pop divas…His courage to stand as a surrogate for every audience member who ever gazed into the mirror and fantasized slipping into Dorothy’s ruby slippers spoke for itself.”
I was extremely sad that I hadn’t been there myself, especially when a friend, Bill Rosenfield, who was, wrote to tell me:
“For a lot of us it was truly a profound moment in the Gay Pride movement. Let’s face it that album for a certain group of gay men is part of our DNA and yes we all mimed to it alone in our rooms in front of mirrors. However, more than that Judy was/is this source of strength and inspiration and to sit in Carnegie Hall –where it all originally happened - and see an openly gay man and a singular entertainer on his own – sing The Man That Got Away with her original pulse pounding arrangement – was an act of political and social liberation – he was there on that stage because SHE was there on that stage – for us all. It was as if he was saying : Thank you for making us possible and inspiring us to achieve this moment.
And that was just the first act.
In the second act he sat down on the apron of the stage and introduced his mother who entered and sat at the piano – and he sang ‘Over the Rainbow’. And there it was – he topped the first act stuff because now we were seeing an openly gay man, singing Over the Rainbow with his Mother’s blessing – what was once a dream of acceptance had become a reality for all of us little boys out there who didn’t fit in and felt unbearable loneliness all those years ago – here at last was Mom saying: You’re my son and I love you and whoever you are going to be.
And the fact that musically it was thrilling as well didn’t hurt. This was no stunt – this was powerful politics.”
Well, last night that phenomenal act of artistic and political power was reprised at the London Palladium – another room forever associated with Garland (and daughter Liza Minnelli – I never saw Garland here, as I was only seven when she died, but how well I remember watching Liza in her 1986 tour here, perched at the front of the upper circle). Sometimes buildings themselves can hold the history of the performances that have taken place within them – and right now, a performer who had once held centrestage here so unforgettably was brought back, for two nights only (Rufus also did this concert last Sunday, but it clashed with the Oliviers), and the past, present and future collided for two and a half hours, for this will surely, too, join the pantheon of historic performances that have been witnessed here.
Of course there’s nothing new about tribute shows – this very stage recently hosted Sinatra at the London Palladium, in which restored film footage of the singer brought him back into the room floating on moving film screens above and around a choreographed floorshow. But there was something necessarily “manufactured” about that – Sinatra’s presence was absent. Wainwright’s audacious show attempts something far bigger: to channel Garland in one of the most thrilling acts of homage ever. And there are also extraordinary affinities between them that made it all the more moving: Garland, of course, was part of a whole showbiz dynasty, and so is Wainwright, whose parents and sister are all performers; and Wainwright, like Garland, has had his own well-documented battle with drugs. Rufus also revealed that his dad had had a childhood crush on Liza – they both attended Beverley Hills High School together and would hang out together!
And on hand last night were members of both families: Rufus’ mother and sister; and Judy’s “other” daughter, Lorna Luft. “Thank you Rufus for doing this in my mom’s memory”, declared Luft last night, giving the event an official seal of approval. But then Luft has herself spent much of her career memorialising her mother: a few years ago she brought a solo show to the Savoy that she even had the nerve to make the connection explicit in the title of: Songs My Mother Taught Me (One wag wittily redubbed it at the time, “Songs My Mother Taught My Sister While I Was in the Room”; and in one of the most caustically trenchant reviews I’ve ever read, the Time Out review referred to the shoulderless dress she was wearing in the second act and said it was designed, presumably, “to reveal the absence of a chip”).
But last night there were no axes to grind – just a full-on celebration of one performer’s love for another that took us on a rollercoaster of associations and emotions.
Where, in another age, Garland would supply solace for generations of isolated gay men, she’s now just a source of celebration – and it’s wonderful just how much the world has changed. In the stalls last night, was one of the icons (if not agents) of that change, Ian McKellen – but he waited till he was well advanced in his career before coming out. The day before, I was in Manchester, and saw the Royal Exchange’s production of Coward’s The Vortex – starring out gay singer Will Young making his theatrical acting debut. The show has been selling out on the strength of his name. As, also in Manchester, has been the musical theatre debut of popular TV comic Peter Kay, playing Roger de Bris in the regional premiere of the stage version of The Producers – and singing “Keep it Gay!” as he does so. I saw that on Friday, and although this is a heavily caricatured role, there is something so warm and loving about Brooks’ all-embracing satire that we can’t be offended. Gay life is now so uncontroversial that we can laugh and cry with equal joy – and I’ve been crying with laughter and laughing through tears all weekend.