Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Liza Minnelli Stepping Out! 2015

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Bruce Fessier: Liza Minnelli's life is a series of exclamation marks....

It was another of those Palm Springs moments.
Lorna Luft said hello to me in the lobby of the Annenberg Theater and, slightly stunned, I said, “Oh, I just talked to your sister yesterday.”
Her sister, of course, is Liza Minnelli, who I had just interviewed to advance her performance Saturday at The Show at Agua Caliente Casino.
And Liza and I talked about a show she did 31 years ago at the Annenberg. She had created a one-night only tribute to her father, Oscar-winning director Vincente Minnelli, with favorite songs from his movies, including his 1943 debut, “Cabin in the Sky,” “Gigi” and “An American in Paris.”
“You saw that?” Liza exclaimed. “Oh, honey, I’m so glad. Oh, I remember that night so much. Oh, my dad! I remember it was so hard to pick (the songs) because there were so many of them from his films. I wrote the show myself. Did you really like it?”
In that 450-seat theater, it was amazing. It was the first time she had ever performed the songs of her mother, Judy Garland, and I vividly recall her bringing even more energy to “The Trolley Song” from “Meet Me In St. Louis” than Garland did.
Palm Springs’ “A” list was there: Frank Sinatra, Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, Walter Annenberg and Lucille Ball – to name just the major celebrities. It was Vincente Minnelli’s 80th birthday and he ended the party by serenading Liza, seated at his feet with her back to the audience, with “Embraceable You,” written by Vincente’s close friend, Ira Gershwin.
The show reminded everyone that Liza was the daughter of two legends. And with people like “Uncle Frank” in her extended family, I wrongly thought she must have felt pressure to follow in their footsteps.
“I never felt I had to live up to anything!” said Liza, who tends to speak in exclamation marks. “I was raised not to feel that. I was raised to be an individual and I’m so grateful to my parents for that! A lot of it had to do with them saying, ‘Don’t listen to us! (laughs) Just listen to yourself. There’s no one like you.’ I could have done anything!”
Originally, she wanted to be an ice skater. Then she saw “Bye Bye Birdie” at 13 and decided she wanted to do musicals. She became her generation’s embodiment of the song-and-dance tradition with her tour-de-force appearance in “Cabaret” and her title song from the big band film, “New York, New York.” Then she became the “kid” in the Rat Pack, touring with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. and starring with “Uncle Frank” in a Sinatra Celebrity Invitational Gala in the desert.
Funny thing is, “Bye Bye Birdie” was based on the rock ’n’ roll phenomenon of Elvis Presley. Elvis was in the Army when Liza was 13, so she fell in love with his Broadway facsimile, played by Dick Gautier -- Hymie the robot on “Get Smart.” Imagine what might have happened if Liza had seen Elvis before she saw Broadway?
Liza says, “I loved Elvis.” So I asked her why she didn’t sing like the king of rock?

“I couldn’t do that,” she said. “First of all, I was a girl! But I could dance like that! Still can!”
Actually, Liza’s roots go back to Al Jolson, the leading stage performer of 100 years ago. Jolson’s popularity was so immense, songwriters paid him to record their songs. His influence was so pervasive that, even after he died in 1950, Garland saluted him in her stage act. Liza gets her stage strut from Jolson and is proud to be called an extension of his influence.
“Thank you,” she said. “It is a vaudevillian (thing). The (song) pick of the day. But think of all that music that was written, the kind that I love and grew up with. My godfather was Ira Gershwin, so I heard good songs all the time. But I didn’t think I could sing. I wanted to dance!”
Jolson, through his influence on her mother, may have given Liza the drive to sell a song, but an international star who got his start with her mom’s contemporary, Edith Piaf, taught her how to interpret a song.
“I keep trying to find the essence of the song and what it means to me and to other people and become the character who sings it,” she said. “That’s what I learned from Charles Aznavour. I said to him, ‘Please, teach me.’”
Liza, 68, last year recorded her first album of new material in 15 years, titled “Confessions.” She’s now on a world tour in which she may sing some songs from that, plus some of her classic material by Broadway songsmiths John Kander and Fred Ebb, and maybe even some of her mother’s songs.
“It’s called ‘Simply Liza,’” she said. “It’s songs that I like that other people like, some of which I haven’t sung in a while and some that I’ve never sung (like) ‘Yes I Can,’ which opens the show.”
As someone who represents a certain place in pop culture history, Liza is often asked, “What’s it liked to be a legend?” In the past, she’s made fun of her image, appearing in a Snickers commercial as the epitome of a diva. In the Netflix series, “Arrested Development,” she plays a kooky, rich sugar mama who is the opposite of a diva.
But, after Ellen DeGeneres’ crack about her during the Oscars’ 75th anniversary tribute to her mother’s breakthrough film, “The Wizard of Oz,” insinuating that she looked like one of the male drag queens who often impersonate her, I asked if that “legend” title is helping or hindering her career?
“I don’t know!” she exclaimed. “I always feel like I haven’t earned it yet! I’m just hoping it isn’t because of age, you know what I mean? I’m still going and it’s only because I enjoy it.”

 To see her at The Show, call (866) 923-07244

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