Liza Minnelli, a national artistic treasure.
Billy Stritch and Liza Minnelli at the post-performance press conference. Photos by Douglas Harrington
By Douglas Harrington
East Hampton - She has won three Tonys, a pair of Golden Globes, a British Film Academy award, an Oscar, an Emmy and at least one Grammy, and on May 23 Liza Minnelli won the hearts and adoration of the Hamptonians that packed Guild Hall for its grand re-opening event. Dubbed “An Intimate Evening With Liza," the SRO performance also featured the award winning composer, arranger, vocalist and jazz pianist Billy Stritch.
Stritch opened the evening with an instrumental introduction that ushered in Minnelli, and upon her entrance the audience rose in applause. As if looking into the eyes of every member of the audience individually she said, “I look at you and want you to know that I mean every word of this song." She then went on to open her performance with “I Would Never Leave You." After continuing with several solos, Stritch joined Minnelli in a duet of “At Sammy's House," the Fred Ebb homage to Sammy Davis, Jr. and the the artistic gatherings that punctuated the entertainer's famous Sunday parties. In her banter with the audience Minnelli described sitting on the steps of the stairs as a kid and watching “the neighbors" gather around the Davis piano, “You know neighbors like Lana Turner, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and, oh yeah, Humphrey Bogart." Stritch asked if Bogart could actually sing? “Oh yeah, Bogie sang." The evening vacillated between Minnelli solos that included classic standards like “But The World Goes Round," “My Own Best Friend," and “He's Funny That Way," to name but a few, and a pair of long medleys in duet with Stritch. The second of the medleys was described by Stritch as, “The mother of all medleys" and indeed it was to the cheers of everyone at Guild Hall.
Minnelli was in fine voice and the pure joy she takes in the act of performing was accentuated in every note and nuance she shared with the audience. The most unselfish of artists, she brings everything to the stage. Humble and genuine, she seems as grateful to be there as the audience is to have her. One of the greatest performers of her generation, Minnelli is indeed a national treasure. Although there was no intermission during the performance, half-way through the show Minnelli took a well deserved breather and left the stage to her accompanist. Stritch is, unto himself, well worth the price of admission, as the consummate showman performed brilliantly with a jazz virtuosity that was nothing short of astounding. His stage demeanor is truly engaging, as the audience was captivated by the repartee regarding one of his vocal heroes, Mel Torme. Stritch paid tribute to the “Velvet Fog" by singing the first song that Torme had ever sung professionally, at four years old in a nightclub in Chicago, “You're Drivin' Me Crazy."
The song that brought the house down was Minnelli's interpretation of the Charles Aznavour song, “What Makes A Man A Man?" Minnelli, a long-time advocate for gay rights, introduced the song by saying, “Forty, thirty, twenty years ago you could be arrested, imprisoned, tortured or even murdered for the lifestyle described in this song." Written by French singer/songwriter Charles Aznavour in 1973, it was considered the first song ever written about homosexuality, as its lyrics touchingly describe the bittersweet life of a drag queen defending the lifestyle he has chosen. Minnelli told me later at the press conference, after the show, that Aznavour had been a major influence on her. “I have a special connection to Aznavour. I first saw him when I was 16-years-old and I said to myself, 'Okay, so that is what I want to do! I want to sing songs like that.'" When asked how she liked performing at Guild Hall, Minnelli said, “It was wonderful, it was fun, like singing in someone's living room," referencing the intimacy of the John Drew Theater. When the performers were asked if they might consider buying a little cottage in the Hamptons, Stritch jokingly responded, “We can't afford it." The multi-million dollar renovations to Guild Hall proved to be money well spent, as the sound and lighting enhancements have restored this venue to the world class status it had for so many years and so richly deserved to have again, as it continues to maintain its position as a major resource for art and culture in the Hamptons. The love affair continues, as Guild Hall is like a beautiful diamond polished and remounted into its East End marquis fitting. Minnelli, appropriately called back out for an encore by the thunderous applause, ended the evening with the sentimental classic, “Every Time We Say Goodbye." Trust me Liza, all Hamptonians at the performance did indeed “cry a little" as they bid you farewell and, longingly, await your speedy return to our jewel, Guild Hall.