Rufus Wainwright lives a life in service to song

Nobody does it better

Rufus Wainwright
Rufus Wainwright Photo by Matthew Welch
RUFUS WAINWRIGHT, 8 p.m., Wednesday-Thursday, Feb. 7-8, Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater, Dr. Phillips Center, 445 S. Magnolia Ave., SOLD OUT

If you read anything at all about Rufus Wainwright, you'll surely run into The Quote: From Elton John's lips to God's ears, Wainwright is "the greatest songwriter on the planet." Equally crucial, though, is that Wainwright has described himself as "basically an old Jewish woman."

Mutually exclusive? Hardly. It takes both perspectives to get a sense of the man/musician/persona that is Rufus Wainwright. Both life and work exist in the funny-sad space between megalomania and self-loathing. Really, though, could anything else have been expected? The progeny of Kate McGarrigle and Loudon Wainwright III, boon companion to Leonard Cohen (and clan), devourer of all life's excesses – from cigarettes to chocolate milk. In many ways, it seems, Wainwright was born to carve out space for a performative self in the public eye.

The reality of this situation never eluded Wainwright, though, and from a young age, he was able to understand the weight of the musical dynasty into which he'd been born: woken up each morning with McGarrigle on the piano, usually Bach's Goldberg Variations; touring with a family band, the McGarrigle Sisters and Family, by the age of 13. Much has been made of the way Wainwright's parents immortalized their family life together in song – his upbringing, too, endured its fair share of musical documentation. Who needs a baby book when you could just write a folk song about your son's breast-feeding? (That would be Pa Wainwright's "Rufus Is a Tit Man," for the curious.)

In some ways it was a charmed life, but if it seems like public dirty laundry-airing may have presented challenges, it did, especially in the wake of Wainwright's parents' messy divorce and his coming out as a teenager. "When there were rumblings about my sexuality at 13 or 14, [my mother] was scared. It was 1987 and AIDS was everywhere, so I forgive her staunch, negative attitude. My father just didn't want to talk about it," he told The Guardian in 2016.

Like his parents before him (and his sister Martha after), Wainwright has woven together his set of struggles and a wide range of influences into the musical tapestry that's become his life's work since his eponymous debut album in 1998. Songs draw from cabaret, Gershwin standards, opera, pure pop – all aided by a brief flirtation with classical training at McGill University, a stint cut short because, as he told The Telegraph in 2015, he knew his "spark would be eliminated" if he stayed there.

Despite those admittedly-outside-the-mainstream influences – or maybe because of them – Wainwright's "spark" and his effortless tenor have commanded the attention they deserve. Beautiful songs, personal songs, songs about literature and opera and storytelling – a touch of almost-anachronistic Bohemianism amidst the noise. As he's grown older, he's tried it all: two operas, Prima Donna in 2009 and Hadrian this year; compositions for ballet; All My Love, a record which sets nine Shakespeare sonnets to music; marriage; fatherhood, even – he and childhood friend Lorca Cohen, daughter of Leonard, partnered in gloriously non- traditional parenthood and had a daughter in 2011.

The Wainwright of today is rather grown-up, a bit less indulgent, but the wholeness of his lived experience makes him all the more compelling as a solo performer. Wainwright's two nights in Orlando promise a taste of residency, maybe a hint of Judy Garland at Carnegie Hall (and Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall, for that matter). Expect orchestral arrangements, his hallowed "Hallelujah" cover, and a moment or two of often-unseen intimacy.


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