Sunday, May 30, 2010
Liza Minnelli: 'I'm a Broadway baby'
May 30--Nearly two decades later, it's still a performance that's impossible to forget: A sleek and glowing Liza Minnelli -- garbed in a short, summery white tunic -- singing like crazy and dancing as if immune to gravity.
On that glorious night in July 1991, Minnelli was making a comeback from a widely publicized chemical addiction. She also was reeling from two divorces, one separation and the deaths of two of her closest confidants, entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and designer Halston.
Yet when she took the stage of the long-gone Poplar Creek Music Theatre in Hoffman Estates, Minnelli clearly was at the pinnacle of her art, tearing through her repertoire with unbelievable guts and gumption. Only a few others have matched this degree of raw intensity in classic American song, most notably her elders: Frank Sinatra, Davis Jr. and, of course, Judy Garland, her mother.
Flash-forward nearly two decades, and Minnelli again prepares to take the stage -- June 6 at the Chicago Theatre -- after enough comebacks to script a soap opera for several seasons.
"It's murder getting old," says Minnelli, taking stock of all that has happened.
"Not really," she hastens to correct herself, adding that she feels "wonderful, wonderful."
"I had my whole knee replaced. I go to class every day. I do all the stuff I was trained to do.
"I'm a Broadway baby."
Well, maybe not a baby anymore at 64, but certainly a show-business icon who seems to score her biggest triumphs when the odds are absolutely the worst.
She endured surgery on her vocal cords in 1998, and was told by doctors that she might never sing again. Yet she roared back into action the following year at the Palace Theatre -- a mythic place in her mother's career -- with "Minnelli on Minnelli," a brilliantly performed tribute to her father. ("I was very frightened through that whole show," she told me afterward.)
She was felled by encephalitis -- a viral brain infection -- in 2000, and had to learn how to talk, walk, sing and strut all over again. Yet she returned to fighting form in 2002, with "Liza's Back," a concert tour that one critic dubbed a "resurrection."
And she collapsed in Sweden after a concert in 2007, hospitalized back in the U.S. for illness she attributed to a tooth infection. Yet she conquered Broadway again in late 2008, with "Liza's at the Palace," which last year won a Tony Award (her fourth).
The woman cannot be stopped.
"Knowing what she's been through, I was floored by how great she was" at the Palace, says singer Ann Hampton Callaway, a friend of Minnelli's since '91.
"She's had a lot of challenges and a lot of inner struggles. There's been a few times when she's been the phoenix rising from the ashes. ...
"I've watched her backstage before she goes on at Radio City Music Hall, and she'll be saying, 'I don't know how I'll get through this show.' But no matter if she's feeling sick or exhausted, she goes out there and knows she has to be Liza Minnelli.
"I don't know how she does it, but she always comes up with it."
Our knowledge of Minnelli's travails only seems to enhance our appreciation of her triumphs over them. She may be the gift that keeps on giving to the tabloids, but she transcends her personal tragedies the moment that single shaft of light cuts through the blackness of the proscenium and fixes upon her. Instantly, she transforms her autobiography into art, expressing rage, pain, hope, desire -- whatever the song calls for, and then some.
You need to have lived through what she, Garland, Sinatra and the rest experienced to be able to bring such deeply felt ardor to the stage, and Minnelli repeatedly proves the point.
But there's a high degree of craft at work here too, a way of interpreting a song that long has distinguished Minnelli from everyone else.
"I just think I sing differently than other people because I was always so influenced by the European way of doing it," she told me on the eve of that 1991 concert, referencing visionary art-song interpreters such as Charles Aznavour.
"What I do in singing a song is storytelling. I do acting songs. In other words, the songs I do become like little movies, with each song representing a complete profile of some character. Add to that my whole love of the theater, and you end up with my particular way of doing a song."
Still, her approach has evolved, due to the vicissitudes of age and the maturation of her tastes. Perhaps feeling less need to razzle-dazzle her fans at every turn, she's redirecting her energies, says pianist Billy Stritch, who has worked with her since 1991 "When I first met her, she felt like she had to belt everything out -- that's really what she kind of relied on," says Stritch.
"Now, she's much more secure doing the ballads and the doing the calm things, where she really just stays still. ...
"I prefer this Liza. I think the big belty stuff, of course it's thrilling, the audience expects some of that, but for me, it's not as musical as staying in one place, as when she's doing a wonderful acting piece."
Vocally, adds Stritch, Minnelli "probably has a little less range than she did when I first started working with her. ... But it's gotten richer in terms of acting.
"She really knows how to use what she has."
For the show at the Chicago Theatre, Minnelli will not be reprising "Liza's at the Palace," with its coterie of dancers, production numbers and vast homage to Minnelli's godmother, singer Kay Thompson.
Instead, Minnelli will sing repertoire from a CD she's releasing in September, "Confessions."
"To tell you the truth, it's all the songs that I learned from music that my parents played, but mostly that my father played," says Minnelli, referring to tunes such as "You Fascinate Me So," "If I Had You" (from Vincente Minnelli's movie "The Clock") and "He's a Tramp" (from the Disney film "Lady and the Tramp").
"I'm always just singing with piano around the house ... and everyone said, 'Why don't you make an album like that. ... This is really you.'
"I said, 'I don't know if I'm ready.'"
But Minnelli, who makes a cameo in the film "Sex and the City 2," took the plunge anyway.
So on the recording, and in the new stage show, Minnelli says she's going to "expose a side of myself that very few people have seen ... and that's me in my living room. ...
"It's intimate, it's all the songs that I learned from just being around."
In her case, however, "being around" meant that the likes of Sinatra and Garland and other giants were constantly in her midst.
"I'm a product of what I see," says Minnelli, "and I grew up with perfection."
Trying to capture that yourself can create difficulties -- but it also can produce indelible evenings.
We'll soon find out if next Sunday is one of them.
When: 7:30 p.m. June 6
Where: Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
Tickets: $55-$125; 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com
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