by Hazen Cuyler


A love letter was sung to Rufus Wainwright at 54 Below on Sunday, October 1. 54 Sings Rufus Wainwright was a gift from respectful colleagues designed especially for his adoring fans. Performed by powerful Broadway talent, the indie icon’s lightly cryptic melodies popped, emphasizing the dramatic longing of his work. Hosted by a charming and adoring Ben Rimalower, nostalgia was front and center. We travelled back in time to the place where his music affected us the most.

I’ve always appreciated Rufus Wainwright’s music but I was certainly never a die-hard fan. I was in middle school when I first listened to his second album, “Poses.” Soon after, I found a favorite song in “April Fools.” “Instant Pleasure” became a grungy high school basement party favorite. “Across the Universe” and “Hallelujah” led the way for teenage (but legitimate) comparisons to legendary musicians. Through his loosely slurred and always emotionally expressive voice, he provided an experience that was new and aching and seductive for a transitioning century.

The intimate evening celebrated Wainwright, the character. It revealed the suffering of an artist, compulsively engaged with an un-answering someone across a tense and imperceptible distance. And that makes for fascinating cabaret.

Dissatisfaction and longing fills the room during each performance. The first song creeps in like a circus to the tune of “Oh What a World.” Each story performed is riveting. And when they conclude, the room bursts into rowdy applause. The celebration slows and we dive back into the journey of a captivating actor, revealing the inner workings of a moody and disappointed Wainwright.

The performers’ talent is clearly without question and their technical abilities are, simply put, beyond what I am capable of critiquing. These singing actors are most effective when three layers are engaged: First, there is a clear understanding of the poetry, as dialogue within a story. Next, that story results in a direct emotional connection with the actor. The third step is when that emotional connection to the story is precisely driven by the instrumental music.

There were performers who excelled in this process and others who did not. When someone was less successful, the work was presented more like a concert of someone generally rocking out to a favorite song. In those cases, audiences would suddenly become distracted and interested in their dinners. However, the vast majority was engaged in these three layered areas and the results were spellbinding.

Of course Alice Ripley was an example of such mastery. When she sings, you’re bombarded by chills from unexpected moments of endless sorrow. Her seasoned instrument sends shock waves through the cramped venue. It is a very fortunate experience for such an intimate audience.

I can’t imagine someone wanting to follow Alice Ripley. But that task, whether he asked for it or not, was given to Taylor Trensch. He presents “Go or Go Ahead” and soars through the expectations of probably everyone in the room. As he sings, we imagine what Rufus Wainwright may have felt in conceiving this abandoned and tortured work. His connection to the music guides him as he moves him through space, cursing heaven’s angels. He travels across peaks and valleys of a frustrated and desperate ballad, on a journey of forever-lost despair.

Every moment of this cabaret felt like a labor of love. That’s why it was so enthralling. Past band members of Rufus Wainwright fill in the six piece musician ensemble- all of which provide the necessary support system for the evening to succeed. Ben Rimalower and others beam as they share their connection to Wainwright and his music’s place in their earlier lives. There is something interesting about our life story and the placement of music on its timeline. I know exactly where I was, and who I was, when I first heard “April Fools” for the first time. I know where I was when my friends and I would be drunk in a basement singing “Instant Pleasure” at a high school party. There’s a thread connecting his music to our epochs of honest friendship and deep searching, surrounded by the people we loved hanging out with.

When his cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” is sung at the end, we feel something ironically spiritual to it all. Some kind of captivating and confusing coming of age story. A rite of passage for boys and men and girls and women, growing up, who appreciate and need this kind of grungy, sexualized longing that people feel as we move into a new phase of uncertainty.

Feinsteins/54 Below 254 W. 54th St (cellar)

One night only event took place October 1st