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Ellen Sterling

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Liza Minnelli: Looking Back, Looking Ahead

Posted: 02/04/10 05:01 PM ET

2010-02-04-dvdcoverlizaHP.jpg Judging from her voice over the phone, Liza Minnelli is bubbling with enthusiasm and is so excited to speak to an interviewer. And why not? Yes, there are certainly circumstances under which an interview can be an ordeal. Can you imagine being a celebrity and having to talk to strangers day after day, knowing they might ask intrusive questions and demand answers that are none of their business? That must be awful.

But this day, Liza wants to talk. She wants everyone to know her new DVD, Liza's At the Palace, is in stores. (And, the reviewer in me must add, those who do, will be treated to a terrific performance.)

The show played on Broadway -- at the Palace -- from December 3, 2008 to January 4, 2009 and won a Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event. This DVD is a follow-up to the Grammy-nominated CD from the show.

Liza's At the Palace is exuberantly autobiographical. It includes her hit songs, reminiscences about her parents, Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, and a loving, lovely tribute to her godmother, Kay Thompson who died at almost-90 in 1998. Thompson was a performer vocal coach and author of the series of books about Eloise, the little girl who lived at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, where Thompson lived.

Her godmother's influence on Minnelli was profound and the second act of the show recreates numbers from Thompson's nightclub act using the original vocal arrangements and a quartet of men standing in for Thompson's supporting singers, the Williams Brothers (yes, Andy was one of them).

Minnelli says, "I adored her so and she was such a huge influence in my life. I was determined to make this show work. It took us two-and-a-half years to get it opened properly. First, we toured Europe -- opened in Düsseldorf or someplace like that --and got wonderful reviews. I said, 'Well, I guess we should bring it to New York.'

"I didn't know it would play at the Palace. At first I thought it should be in a nightclub, just like where Kay performed. I was thinking of the Rainbow Room [the restaurant-supper club on the 65th floor of the RCA -- now GE -- Building in Rockefeller Center] but it was booked for two years.

"The only place that was open was the Palace."

If you have even the slightest sense of history or tradition, you probably have an idea of what playing the Palace meant to Minnelli.

In the number called Palace Medley she recalls being a five year-old sitting up front in the audience and she addresses a person sitting up front at her show today. "Excuse me, Sir. Yes! You right there. When I was five I sat in your chair...I came to see a lady who, in fact, I was related to."

That "lady" was, of course, Garland who, 57 years before her daughter did, won a Tony for he show at the Palace. (There is video of the award presentation by Helen Hayes and Garland's acceptance speech on youtube.

"That song is all true," Minnelli says. "It is my life. Everything in that song is real. It became a memory and, in the end, it was still my memory but I was there on the stage.

"When I played the Palace I used to call on everybody's spirit. You can actually feel it in the floor."

The DVD (and the PBS Pledge Week special broadcast in December) was recorded last October 1 at a special midnight show in the Hollywood Theatre at the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas. Just as a circle was completed when Minnelli played the Palace, there was a symmetry to the fact that she played the MGM, too.

When that symmetry was suggested to her, she laughed. "That's right. If not for MGM, my parents would never have met and I would never have been born."

Speculation that Liza's At the Palace will see her again nominated for an Emmy, the award she won in 1973 for Liza With A Z, brought one word to her lips -- a very quietly uttered, "Really?"

Throughout Minnelli's career she's worked repeatedly with the same people. And, these are first-rate collaborators. Ron Lewis, the director and choreographer of the show first worked with her in the 1970s. His choreography and overall concept are key in this production. The DVD includes a nice chat between the two of them. It talks about this show and about their earlier work. The warmth and genuine affection between the two is palpable.

Much of her music is by composer John Kander and the late lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004. Kander and Ebb gave Minnelli Cabaret and New York, New York among so many others. Of her, Kander said, "One of the nice things about writing for Liza is that you don't have to write for Liza. She can do anything. You know that whatever you do write, she's going to deliver it exactly the way you intended it."

Minnelli met the duo when she was still a teenager. A friend took her to hear their music because she was preparing a club act. They played her some songs from their new show, Flora the Red Menace and she was hooked. She played Flora on Broadway and for it, in 1965, she became the youngest in history to win a Tony Award for Best Leading Actress In A Musical.

The Kander and Ebb songs have become standards but, as she notes, she sings each her own way. For example, New York, New York.

"Frank [Sinatra] called me," Minnelli recalls. "He said, 'Can I sing your song?' Of course, I had no problem with that. But we sang it differently. Frank sang it like he was already there in New York. I sing it like I'm going to be there someday."

Since she made her professional debut as the baby in the very last shot of her mother's 1949 film In the Good Old Summertime, Minnelli's career has been filled with awards -- election to the Grammy Hall of Fame, four Tonys for five nominations and countless other accolades from groups as diverse as the Drama Desk, Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club and the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. But, when it comes to the actual presentation of an award none, perhaps, is more memorable for her than the 1973 Oscar for Cabaret.

"My category, Best Actress, followed the Best Actor category that year," she recalls. "So there I was, waiting, and they give the award to Marlon Brando for The Godfather. Remember that? He had that Las Vegas woman dressed as a Native American [Sacheen Littlefeather] accept for him. Then, before they announced my name, Gene Hackman said, 'And the winner is...' Raquel Welch muttered, 'I hope they haven't got a cause...' It was something. It took away for the moment but not for me. I was thrilled to pieces."

Reading about her career, one gets the sense that Liza Minnelli has done it all. But, listening to her, it's equally clear that she's not finished. So, what's next?

Fully recovered from knee replacement surgery last month, she says she "should be back on the boards soon."

She adds, "I just know I want to keep working with Ron Lewis. And, right now, I'm thinking about that Emmy."


 

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