A correction was made to this article on May 30, 2006.
NEW YORK — When Rufus Wainwright re-creates Judy Garland’s 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall June 14 and 15, he’ll have some gigantic ruby slippers to fill.
It’s not just that Garland is considered one of the greatest entertainers in history. Her Carnegie Hall appearance on April 23, 1961, marked the pinnacle of her live performance career — and is usually referred to as “the greatest night in show business history.”
But no pressure.
“I’m trying to think of it as my continuing education in how to be a legend,” says Wainwright.
During the two sold-out shows at Carnegie in June, the singer-songwriter will perform Garland’s set list from the evening, which includes “The Man That Got Away,” “Stormy Weather” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But the concert won’t be an exact recreation, and he won’t be doing it in the character of Judy.
“I don’t intend to repeat any of the dialogue, although at this point I probably could,” he says of Garland’s patter, recorded for posterity on a double album that won four Grammys in 1961.
Helmer Sam Mendes, who is collaborating with Wainwright on a doc about the making of the musician’s next solo album, is informally involved in the staging of the performance. Dutch fashion duo Viktor & Rolf provide the outfits.
Wainwright, whose pop songs tend toward ornate complexity, says Mendes is helping him refine the physicality of his perf.
“This show is a way for me to exorcise all those grand gestures,” he says. “For my next album, I’d like to get more intimate, and a little starker.”
Which is not to say that the shades of opera that often color his work will be phased out completely. Also on Wainwright’s slate is a new, full-fledged legit project with the Metropolitan Opera/Lincoln Center Theater Opera/Theater Commissions.
“He really has a great affinity for opera,” says Peter Gelb, general manager elect of the Met. “He’s not writing a pop musical performed as an opera. He’s using the language of opera.”
“That’s a long-term project,” Wainwright says, revealing only that he already has an idea for the piece’s original storyline.
For now, though, he’s meticulously prepping for his encounter with Judy.
“Rufus has complete control over everything,” says producer Jared Geller (“Slava’s Snowshow”), who also was involved in downtown duo Kiki & Herb’s 2004 Carnegie concert. “He’s rehearsing it in theaters, with a rhythm section, and spending a lot of time on blocking.”
Show will be performed, like the original, with an orchestra of 40.
Initially, Geller and his co-producer, David J. Foster worried that Wainwright’s devoted base of young fans — cultivated over four solo albums, including “Poses” and “Want Two” — would be turned off by Garland’s old-school standards.
But those fears soon evaporated. “We did a pre-sale on Rufus’ website for 12 hours, and we had to pull the link, the response was so overwhelming,” Geller says.
He adds that the show is introducing those young fans to a pop-culture landmark.
“It was the apotheosis of many colliding stars,” Wainwright speculates of the reasons behind the 1961 concert’s rep. “It was the beginning of the ’60s, so it was the final heave of that old-fashioned musical sound. And it was a moment when Judy’s decrepitude added an edge to her performance; it hadn’t quite taken over.
“And I think a lot of it had to do with the gay rights movement that was just taking off, too,” adds the openly gay musician. “She was, by then, Our Lady of the Homosexuals.”
Whatever the broader cultural forces at work, the 32-year-old son of folkies Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle had long carried a personal Garland torch.
“My mom would frequently put me on top of the piano and have me decimate crowds of adults with ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow,’ ” he says.
But what sparked the idea to perform her Carnegie set in the first place?
“I felt that the concert was one of the great Olympian feats of vocal prowess,” he says. “Every singer should give it a shot to see how good they are.”