Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Friday, March 27, 2009

Liza Minnelli's triumph of the will ~ 'I've tap-danced for every buck I've ever earned!'

Liza Minelli: 'They told me I’d never walk, talk or move again, and I decided not to believe them.' (TONY CENICOLA/NYT)

From Saturday's Globe and Mail
E-mail Elizabeth Renzetti
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March 27, 2009 at 11:08 AM EDT
LONDON — There's something I've wanted to ask Liza Minnelli ever since I went to a Halloween party dressed as her – not the first person to wear the Liza costume, of course, but possibly one of the first women. The end of the evening found my wig askew, leotard covered in wine stains, cigarette butts stuck to the bottom of my tap shoes. So far, so authentic. But the damn false eyelashes wouldn't budge for days, resisting the combined efforts of turpentine, forceps and a couple of off-duty paramedics.
So how does she do it, day after day? “Oh honey,” she cackles, over the phone from New York. “I only wear those things onstage.” Fair enough. In her 63 years, she has had to deal with a few issues more weighty than the caterpillars on her eyelids. The injuries, for example – knee surgeries, hip replacements, encephalitis (a brain inflammation). The drug and alcohol addictions. The tormented family history. The four ex-husbands, at least some of whom were not, for the most part, heterosexual.
If show business has a Leaning Tower of Pisa, it's Liza. It's hard to believe she's still standing, and it feels important, at least once in a lifetime, to see her perform and witness the triumph of willpower over nature. (Canadian audiences will be able to see for themselves when Liza brings her act to Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto on April 7.)
Even Liza, it seems, can't believe Liza's still standing. “They told me I'd never walk, talk or move again,” says Liza, again with a cackle (that's cackle with a K!), “and I decided not to believe them.” It was 2000, and she was stricken with encephalitis, from which the doctors told her she wouldn't recover.

“I thought, what do I know how to do? I know how to rehearse, so literally I rehearsed my way back to health. I kept practising – talking, taking tiny little steps. Inch by inch.”
Liza's pretty magical company, because she has no dimmer switch. When she talks about the joys of seeing Charles Aznavour perform, she produces a phone-splitting shriek: “He is extraordinary!” From Aznavour, she learned about drama in singing, and to this day she prepares little back stories for the characters in each of her songs: Where does the woman in the song live? When she looks out the window, what does she see? “They're not just songs. I go from one piece of acting to another.”
Even a phone conversation is a little performance: She hoots, sighs and at one point begins to softly sing: “I came to see a lady who/ in fact I was related to/ who packed my lunches, wiped my nose/ and cooked me Cream of Wheat.”
That's a song from her triumphant stretch of comeback concerts last December at the Palace Theatre in New York: It's about Liza, as a child, watching her mother Judy Garland perform one of her own famous comebacks at the Palace. The Palace is something of a repository of family ghosts – a decade ago, Liza performed a tribute there to her father, the great film director Vincente Minnelli.
After years of ghoulish interest, Liza is adept at protecting her childhood from prying eyes: Garland was “just my mom,” and life in Hollywood and on the MGM sets, she insists, was normal. (Then again, when Lana Tuner and her knife-wielding daughter Cheryl Crane are your next-door neighbours, “normal” assumes a fresh meaning.)
Liza says she doesn't spend much time listening to the songs of her mother, who died of an overdose in 1969, the same year she and Liza appeared onstage together in London for the first and only time. Listening to her mother's records, she says, “makes me too sad.”
But she did sing some of Garland's more famous numbers at the Palace last year, including Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. Mainly, though, the show was a tribute to Liza's beloved godmother Kay Thompson, a high-living dame of the old school, who was MGM's music director, the author of the Eloise books and the primary force in getting Liza, as a teenager, off her keister and into tap shoes.
“People think that I've always been wealthy,” says Liza, and then – this is a first – I hear an actual guffaw. “From the time I was 15, I never took any money from my parents. Times are tough now. I've tap danced for every buck I've ever earned!”
For half a century, Liza's been high-kicking and jazz-handing across the world, picking up an Oscar, an Emmy, a Tony and a Grammy along the way – not even the brief detours into Studio 54 and pill and alcohol addiction could halt her show-must-go-on momentum. She has spoken of her relief when the gene for alcohol addiction was identified: “Some people still think it has to do with lack of willpower. But you look at some of the greatest scientists, poets, playwrights – they've been alcoholics. It doesn't have to do with lack of willpower.”
Romance, perhaps, was another addiction. Just as she was recovering from the encephalitis, she hooked up with the music producer David Gest, a match so ill-starred that it made Romeo and Juliet look like the Cleavers. What did we expect though, with Michael Jackson in the wedding party, and photos showing the bridegroom appearing to eat, rather than kiss, his new wife's face?
That was Liza's fourth failed marriage. (The other husbands were producer Jack Haley Jr., artist Mark Gero and composer Peter Allen, who ended his days with his long-time boyfriend.) She was also engaged to Peter Sellers. Surely you can't take that many rides on the bridal express and still expect to end up in a mythical land called Happily Ever After?
“Oh, I still believe in romance,” Liza barks. “I just don't believe in marriage.”
Liza Minnelli performs at Toronto's Roy Thomson Hall on April 7.

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