These days most media coverage of Liza Minnelli focuses on her private life. It’s easy to forget what a great talent she has been through most of her life when stories of her marriage to David Gest and her health problems of recent years take precedence in the press. However, having recently watched the DVD of her “Liza With A Z” special, I thought I would talk about Liza and her successes. I am not going to dwell on her personal life as, well frankly, it all gets a little boring hearing the same stories over and over again!
Well if you didn’t know by now that Liza is the daughter of the legendary Judy Garland and MGM Director Vincente Minnelli then you must have been living under a rock. With that pedigree it was possibly inevitable that Liza would go into the entertainment industry so it was no surprise that, as a teenager, she made her first steps towards a show business career. Liza’s dream when she was growing up was to be a “gypsy”, a jobbing Broadway dancer, so it was the New York theatre scene that particularly attracted her . Her big break was in 1963 in a revival of Martin and Blane’s (“Meet Me In St Louis”) “Best Foot Forward”. This small scale off Broadway revival was not a long runner but did get Liza noticed and lead to her first bona fide Broadway role. “Flora The Red Menace” was a small scale musical about a young woman who gets involved with a group of communists and, of course, falls in love with one of their number! This was the first time that Liza worked with the song writers John Kander and Fred Ebb, beginning a professional relationship that lasted until Ebb’s death a couple of years ago. Oh I should also mention that it won her a Tony award! She had already made her impression on British audiences with a live concert performance at the London Palladium in 1964 with her mother. This was televised on ITV and, viewing the DVD, makes fascinating viewing seeing her talent at a relatively embryonic stage and she displays an infectious energy that really shows her star potential. Similarly if you see her guest appearance on her Judy’s sixties TV series you also get to see a youthful Liza in variety mode!
Liza continued working through the rest of the sixties, making her first movies towards the end of the decade. “The Sterile Cuckoo” garnered her an Oscar nomination and she also appeared in “Charlie Bubbles” (her debut with Albert Finney) and “Tell Me That You Love Me Junie Moon”. This period also saw her releasing her first albums. However it was in 1972 that Liza firmly established herself as a major star. So what was it about 1972 that was so special? Well firstly a little movie called “Cabaret”, which capitalized on her musical partnership with Kander and Ebb. Liza was not obvious casting for the role of second rate British cabaret artiste Sally Bowles, however under the directorial eye of Bob Fosse the story was re-imagined quite considerably for the movie and bears little relation to the stage production in many ways. Quite often when stage musicals are chopped and changed and altered for the screen it is a recipe for disaster, however “Cabaret” is a masterpiece, and captures brilliantly the decadence of the era in early thirties Berlin as the Nazi’s came to power, not to mention some wonderful musical performances. Who could forget her “Mein Herr” and the duet with Joel Grey on “Money, Money”. Her multi layered performance was universally acclaimed so it was almost a foregone conclusion that she was nominated for and went on to win an Oscar for best actress. Also in 1972 came, the afore-mentioned, “Liza With A Z”. Once again it was Bob Fosse at the reins for this production which he perceived as a film for television. Filmed in a theatre, “Liza With A Z” is essentially a concert, featuring Minnelli alongside a full company of dancers. Fosse was careful to present many facets of Liza’s persona and talent, and he achieved this by including character songs that were essential dramatic pieces as well as plenty of comedy. Without a doubt the highlight is the iconic Fosse number “Bye Bye Blackbird” with “Ring Them Bells” a close second. The choreography works to great effect on “Blackbird” – angular movements accentuating the dancers’ physicality and encompassing all of Fosse’s trademark moves. The show went on to win an Emmy, US televisions highest accolade. Hot on the tails of the show saw Liza’s breathtaking concert for the theatre “Live At The Winter Garden” (again with Fosse) which, in turn, saw Liza winning a Tony making 1972 a record breaking year and a personal highlight. From this remarkable year onwards her relationship with Fosse proved to be an important one for Liza and she continued to work with him sporadically until his untimely death.
Whilst Liza would never again have a year quite like 1972 there were many more highlights in the years to come. 1977 saw the acclaimed movie “New York, New York” directed by Martin Scorcese and co-starring Robert De Niro. Set in the worlds of Broadway and Jazz, the movie successfully married the style of old time MGM musicals with the harder grittier elements more common to Scorcese’s oeuvre, and didn’t shy away from making the lead characters flawed and not necessarily likeable at times. Minnelli and De Niro played an active part in developing the film and much of their dialogue, and aspects of the story, stem from improvisation. The original cut was critically acclaimed, however as the cinema owners felt it was too long the movie was drastically edited and the version that had a full release failed to capture the public imagination. However the DVD does re-instate some of the cut material and offers some fascinating extras that reveal many fascinating facts about the making of the movie. Anyone with a love of jazz music and/or film musicals will find much to enjoy on the excellent soundtrack which also features it’s fair share of big band music. Much of the score is well known songs from the second world war (and post war) period although Kander and Ebb composed a handful of new tunes for the movie including the anthemic title number.
The next few years saw sporadic film appearances from Liza, most notably in the classic comedy “Arthur” co-starring Dudley Moore and a scene stealing John Gielgud. TV Specials and concert appearances followed, notably at the Palladium and New York’s Carnegie Hall, but it was the late eighties that saw two of her most memorable performances. The first was “The Ultimate Event” a highly successful world tour that teamed her with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior. The programme included solos, duets and trios – Sinatra and Minnelli shared duties on “New York, New York” which despite being written for Liza is heavily identified with Frank! 1989 saw her career go in a radically different direction when she worked with the, then extremely popular, Pet Shop Boys on the album “Results”. This album included her top ten re-working of Stephen Sondheim’s “Losing My Mind” as well as interpretations of some Tennant/Lowe compositions, notably the stunning ballad “So Sorry I Said”.
Despite successfully making it into the pop charts for the first time, the early nineties saw her returning to more familiar territory. She lead the cast of the screen version of “Stepping Out” alongside Julie Walters and Shelley Winters, as an inspirational dance teacher. Around the same time she appeared in concert with Charles Aznavour in Paris, and embarked on a world tour of her “Live At Radio City” show. I saw this tour when it came to the Royal Albert Hall (two nights running) and it was amazing, Liza sang and danced her way through two and a half hours, and when I went back the following night for a midnight matinee she actually did three extra numbers even though she had barely been off the stage from the regular performance. I think this concert was possibly the best, most exciting, thing I have ever seen in a theatre or concert hall.
It’s fair to say that since this period, largely due to her intermittent health issues, Liza’s career has never scaled the heights it had hitherto. However she returned to Broadway in her show based around her father, “Minnelli On Minnelli” where she sang a handful of her mothers songs for the first time, and not long after embarked on a world tour with “Liza’s Back”. Time take’s its toll and naturally, for a performer who has always been so physical, she will never recapture the glory years of the seventies , after all she is now over sixty, but I am sure that we haven’t seen the last of Liza with a Z!
On DVD “Cabaret”, “New York, New York”, “Arthur”, and various episodes of “The Judy Garland Show”
On CD “Results”, “Live At Carnegie Hall”, “The Singer” (for some seventies MOR selections)
On both “Liza Live At Radio City Music Hall”, “Aznavour/Minnelli” and of course “Liza With A Z”. The Judy/Liza performance is very difficult to get hold of but you can possibly find it on CD and DVD if you search hard enough.
Also worth seeking out, if you are a Sondheim fan is “Sondheim:A Celebration At Carnegie Hall” which features two Liza performances on the CD and one on the DVD. This is also worth seeking out if you like Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone or Betty Buckley as they are all amongst the cast!
In Closing (Where was it last week? I quite forgot!)
Jennifer Hudson (The new Aretha?)
Martha Jones (The new Rose Tyler?)
Sadie Lyth (The new Basil Brush?)