Wednesday, December 3, 2008
LIZ SMITH ~ Liza Minnelli
December 02, 2008
"IT IS the best of all trades, to make songs, and the second best to sing them," said Hilaire Belloc.
TONIGHT, ONE of the greatest women to perform in that second "best trade" -- Liza Minnelli -- opens at the legendary Palace Theater on old Broadway, for a three-week stint.
This was the site of three of Judy Garland's famous comebacks -- others occurred whenever Judy performed ... anywhere. "If I leave the ladies room, it's a 'comeback,' Judy once remarked.
Liza herself had a great triumph at the Palace back in 1999, in a show called "Minnelli on Minnelli," which saluted her brilliant father, movie director Vincente Minnelli. This time around she's celebrating herself and her godmother, the remarkable singer/dancer/writer Kay Thompson, who is probably best known as the author of the "Eloise" books. (During her years at MGM, Kay coached a lot of the talent, but her style rubbed off most on Miss Garland, who appropriated many dramatic Thompson gestures.) But, let's face it, people come to see Liza; she could sing two acts in homage to Joe the Plumber, and she'd pack 'em in.
It will be thrilling (and nerve-wracking) as it always is, to sit in the audience and watch Liza. Especially at the Palace. After her own success there, she faltered and regained herself, several times. In the nine years since "Minnelli on Minnelli," she has lived a thousand lives, but she has endured, with a remarkable amount of her dignity intact. This is a feat in itself, because Liza, like so many of us, was often her own worst enemy.
Aside from her talent (Frank Sinatra once said he thought Liza was even more gifted than her mother!), Liza has in double doses what Judy couldn't sustain -- real discipline. Liza, after hip and knee replacements, still takes dancing lessons every day. Liza, after damage to her throat during an operation to remove some nodules, takes singing lessons every day. When Liza glances twice at a drink, she checks into a rehab center to avoid disaster.
Judy was certainly taken advantage of, and exploited, but what star isn't? The real problem was that Garland seemed never to bear any responsibility for her troubles. I have never heard Liza Minnelli publicly blame anybody else for her issues. (However, Liza has been much smarter with money. She has been able to afford her discipline. Judy Garland literally sang for her supper. There was no escape from her monetary grind after MGM.)
Liza, now 62, has outlived her mother by 15 years. And it hasn't been luck, but determination. Many, many years ago, Liza altered the famous lyric from "Cabaret." In the movie, for which she won an Oscar, Liza sings it as Kander and Ebb intended: "...and when I go, I'm goin' like Elsie!" (Elsie, died from "too much pills and liquor," but life was still a cabaret.)
In concert, however, Liza sings, "and I'm NOT goin' like Elsie!" The audience always goes mad, because no matter what her travails, Liza has kept her promise to them.
She hasn't ended up like Elsie. Or like Mama. Recently, Liza, who is usually loath to draw comparisons between herself and her mythic mom, did contrast their musical choices, saying that she, Liza, preferred more basically optimistic material, while Judy's choices -- certainly in her later years -- tended toward the dramatically tragic. (Garland knew how to use her fragile victim vibe to drive her audience crazy; she could turn it on and off. "Sympathy is my business," she told Liza.)
Whenever Liza first appears onstage, along with the trepidation -- will she be "okay?" will she hit that note? -- I always think I hear those Munchkin voices from "The Wizard of Oz" trilling: "You're out of the woods, you're out of the dark, you're out of night/ Step into the sun, step into the light. ... Hold onto your breath, hold onto your heart, hold onto your hope."
Liza has stepped into the light, and held onto to hope countless times. She'll do it again tonight. And I'll be in the audience, cheering.
P.S. IF YOU want a dazzling blast of early Liza, in all her fresh-voiced glory, pick up "Liza Minnelli: The Complete A&M Recordings." The two-CD set contains her entire A&M catalogue, from 1968 to '72, including her great "Live at the Olympia in Paris" concert.