Rufus Wainwright isn’t a ‘prima donna’—he was just born to play one
By Nelson Branco
He’s one of Canada’s foremost musical and performance artists. Which is why it’s stunning that Rufus Wainwright has never won a Grammy Award for his spellbinding work.
That may be rectified next year, thanks to his throwback yet postmodern ode and tribute to William Shakespeare: Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets. The masterful soundtrack pulls together an electric cast of stars to stage Wainwright’s trademark operatic-rock sound in an adaptation of the Bard’s works: Helena Bonham Carter, Florence Welch, William Shatner and Carrie Fisher. And just like any great Shakespeare work, the album plays with sly, ironic and accidental timing: it dropped on the 400th anniversary of the Bard’s death this past April.
In addition, the Juno winner is recreating his critically acclaimed masterpiece—his tribute to Judy Garland’s 961 sold-out concert at Carnegie Hall—for its Canadian premiere in Toronto during Luminato in conjunction with Pride Month on June 23 and 24. The New York Times said of his tour-de-force performance: “Not even Madonna has attempted anything so ambitious.”
Born in Rhineback, New York, to iconic folk singers Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, the 42-year-old considers himself just as much Canadian as American, since he grew up in Montreal.
IN Magazine caught up with the gay superstar to chat about his obsession with Judy, why he’s pro-Donald Trump and whether Pride is still relevant.
You’re performing your Rufus Does Judy show, which is rare. Why now? And by the way, thank you!
One of the main perks of doing the show years ago was that afterwards I noticed a real improvement in my singing. Whether it was breath control, lyrics, intonation or pronunciation … doing that concert really forced me to rein in and hone in my voice. So I wanted to restage it to see how my old voice is faring [laughs]! It becomes kind of a litmus test of where I am vocally.
Why does Judy Garland still resonate with audiences after all these years?
I still think Judy is one of the greatest singers and movie stars who ever lived. I will say that before I did the Judy show, many years ago, I was much more possessed by her. It was almost like I needed an exorcist or something [laughs]! I would stay up late watching her Vincente Minnelli films. Yes, my love for her was a bit over the top. When I did the show initially, it was to get her out of my system, frankly. But now she’s back. I’ll always love Judy but I needed a break from her for a little bit. She’s intense.
What’s it like working with your hubby Jörn Weisbrodt, who is the artistic director of the Luminato Festival, on Rufus Does Judy?
I’m so proud of him and what he’s been able to do with the festival over the years. For any musicians out there, I highly recommend marrying someone who is on the other side of the professional fence. You need someone who can support you artistically in these shark-infested waters. It’s a great business partnership as well as a great marriage as well.
It’s just too bad about his looks!
I know, right? [Laughs]
What was the genesis of this industry-defying album, Take All My Loves: 9 Shakespeare Sonnets?Not a lot of artists today have the autonomy or swagger to get away with such a unique passion project with such historic roots.
I didn’t pitch it; it was pitched to me. I lead a very gifted existence [laughs]. The fact the album was released in April on the 400th anniversary of William Shakespeare’s death speaks to the fact that none of this album was planned out. Many years ago, I wrote some of the sonnets … and a few years later, people wanted to listen to them. Needless to say, at a certain point, I said, “We have all these songs here; we should make a record.” There’s a weird cosmic element to this project—which is not surprising with Shakespeare.
What do you think Shakespeare would think of the record?
No one’s asked me that yet! I think he would be pleasantly surprised. He would enjoy at least one of the pieces because there is such a variety to choose from, whether you’re an opera or hard-rock fan. There’s something for everyone.
Why did you cast a slew of stars on the album?
I always knew I wanted to have a lot of guests on it because the heart of the record is half classical and half pop. If I was going to do the classical bits, since these sonnets are poems, we realized the poems should be spoken first. The more you hear them, the more they fit in your subconscious. It helps the listener understand the words. William Shatner is my producer’s neighbour, so we literally walked over to his house and recorded him. After that, one star led to another … and it became a huge, mixed jamboree of a production.
Since Rufus Does Judy is premiering during Pride Month, let’s talk gay politics. Do you miss the glory days of the queer community back in the ’80s and ’90s—even though many of us had to endure the deaths of our loved ones due to the AIDS epidemic and a lack of human rights?
What I miss the most about the community are the days without social media, smartphones and Grindr. Used to be, when you went out at night to bars or clubs, it was an event. You went out and didn’t know what would happen. You spent all week preparing to go out on the weekend. You also had performers stage these spectacular shows. Now, it seems like the gay world’s an accident. Yes, you might pop into a gay bar or club now and see something interesting, but it’s rare. I miss the attention paid to the nightlife back in those days.
Let’s talk about Pride. It began as a political revolt and march, but now it’s evolved into a corporate-sponsored, mainstream spectacle. Is it still relevant? Wasn’t the point not to have Pride one day? Thoughts?
Honestly, there were a couple of years where I was over the self-aggrandizement and also the commercial overtones of the whole situation. That being said, there does seem to be a very real backlash in the darker parts of the nation. I’m primarily speaking about the US and throughout the developing world. Homophobia is brewing up again. In the US, you have major human rights issues being fought again in North Carolina and Mississippi, for example. The fight isn’t over—we’re just in mid-battle.
Is the young gay community (*cough* millennials) becoming increasingly unaware of our gay history? The other day, I had to explain to a gay in his mid-20s who Oscar Wilde was. In contrast, members of the black community are aware of their Malcolm Xs and Martin Luther Kings. That’s why I think projects like yours are very important.
I think it’s very split. There’s a side of the young gay community that is incredibly ignorant and dense. They’re just along for the ride—which is infuriating to see. But on the other side of that demo, there is a generation that is so much more advanced than we ever were on so many issues. From both gay or world history, they know what’s up. We’re splintered; there’s a wide gap out there, whereas in the past we were more united.
You live in the US and Canada—what’s that dichotomy like? In Canada, we’ve fully realized the gay community as a part of our country, while America is struggling despite the Supreme Court of the United States passing same-sex marriage federally.
I know. It’s like, once you get one side on track, the other side unravels [laughs]! Even though we had Obama, we had [former prime minister] Stephen Harper. Now, it’s reversed: we have Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and god knows who down south! It isn’t clear with Donald Trump in the running.
Trump is a miracle: he’s dismantling the GOP brilliantly.
Oh, I am pro-Trump, believe me! Keep going, Trump!
Living in Toronto, what are some of your fave places or things?
I love the cuisine in Toronto. My favourite restaurant is the Harbord Room. And also the artistic venues. Toronto has two of the greatest theatre experiences in Canada at Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts and Massey Hall, the latter being the greatest space for music in our country. I love the Chinese food in Toronto. Listen, I eat a lot these days—I’m over 40 now! From the seminal court to the food court [laughs]!
Social media: good or bad?
It’s interesting. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve gotten in contact with a lot of high school friends. I do feel strongly that the best thing for me at some point is not to have an iPhone or computer for a month. I think it would be amazing. I’m pretty cynical: I don’t think social media and technology are very healthy.
Do you binge-watch?
I’m a Rachel Maddow addict. Every night, Rachel tucks me into bed at midnight. There’s nothing like being tucked in at night by an intelligent lesbian [laughs]!
Would you ever consider an acting career à la Judy?
If I were forced to, maybe. It’s not high on my priority list. I have trouble portraying myself, to be honest!
Canada seems to be having a moment with music right now. You must be proud.
Canada’s always been on the forefront of music, at least for all my life. I hold that dear because it is really understood in the US, Europe and the Far East that we’re power players, which is great!
You were born to famous parents; do you think talent is nature or nurture? Or is it just the luck of the draw?
I think it just comes down to practice [laughs]! All I know is that—whether it’s nature or nurture—is that all of it’s irrelevant. It’s really more about the time you invest in your career. It’s 10 per cent talent and nurture, and 90 per cent work.
NELSON BRANCO is the Editor of 24 Hours Toronto newspaper. As a contributing editor, he’s penned pieces for magazines like Hello Canada, People, TV Guide and online sites like Huffington Post. He’s also worked as a TV producer for Breakfast TV, The Marilyn Denis Show, CTV News, and Sun News Network.