Friday, December 5, 2008
Liza, Liza, Liza
PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Liza's at the Palace... — Garlands for Minnelli
By Harry Haun
04 Dec 2008
Not that extra voltage was needed, but on Dec. 3, about the time the light switch was thrown on Rockefeller Center's Christmas tree, Liza Minnelli struck Broadway in Liza's at the Palace... (formerly known as Big Momma's House). Liza — veni vidi vici!
Superstars come in short supply, and they never come in straight lines. They always undulate between extreme highs and extreme lows — it's in their DNA — and Minnelli had much to come back from on this particular cycle. But her fans are the faithful sort, ever hopeful, and the Palace was packed with partisans anxiously attending the reconstruction of a superstar — a spectacle to be celebrated, cheered and cherished.
She didn't let us down. Virtually every number — every number — was received with rousing applause and dotted here and there by standing ovations (especially by the spike-haired enthusiast in front of me). It was back-and-forth love tennis all night.
Broadway's upcoming Hedda Gabler, Mary-Louise Parker, recognized the mutual magic going on. "It's direct reciprocity," she weighed in. "Liza gives so much love, and the audience just seems to take it and give it right back to her. The whole thing is so moving. It's so rare. You don't get to see that so much in the theatre anymore."
Lured by this unsinkable Circe, a steady grind of glamour rolled into the Palace: Shirley MacLaine (who'd played the place in 1976), Vincent D'Onofrio, authentic M-G-M royalty Arlene Dahl and husband Marc Rosen, twice-Tonyed Christine Ebersole and husband William Moloney, Mario Cantone (known for his hilarious Liza imitation), Tamara Tunie, "Ugly Betty's" Michael Urie, playwright Terrence McNally (who wrote The Rink for Liza and Chita), Tony winners Linda Lavin and Elaine Stritch and virtually every practicing theatrical scribe in New York, NY.
As for herself, a self-professed "shy girl," Liza Minnelli has shied away from this show-biz mecca for obvious, if unspoken, reasons. Truth to tell, she has played the Palace only once before (Dec. 1, 1999-Jan. 2, 2000), and then justifying it by invoking the family name. Minnelli on Minnelli gave her a chance to sing for her father and review his film work. Vincente Minnelli was the definitive music man of movies, despite the fact he could also do damn good dramas.
This time out, she reserves the first act for her own greatest hits, but she turns over a major portion of the second act to the music of her "fairy godmother," Kay Thompson, who more or less created "the M-G-M sound" for the Arthur Freed unit and thus was a person of considerable consequence to both of Liza's parents. Singer, dancer, actor, author, vocal coach, music arranger — Thompson's talent knew no limits. If you need a mental image to go with this, "Think Pink" — from "Funny Face."
A good part of the Thompson segment is a re-creation of Thompson's celebrated nightclub act with the four Williams brothers (including Andy, who had four years earlier been hired to dub Lauren Bacall's singing voice in "To Have and Have Not," and who later became a TV variety-show star). You had to be there — and Liza was, at age two, sitting in her father's lap, seeing the act from stage level a bit distortedly.
Liz Smith, a kindly chronicler of Minnelli's ups and downs and long-time friend, wore a mile-wide smile all evening from Row A in great seats that were tantamount to Liza Concentrate. Quipped Liz's assistant, Denis Ferrara: "I can see her tonsils."
Other contented Row A mates were Gavin Lee and his wife, Emily Harvey, who start rehearsing Jan. 25 in Chicago for their Mary Poppins tour. "I loved being that close," said Lee. "Fantastic! I loved the fact by the end she was dripping with sweat because of just the passion and energy she puts into it. And it's a three-hour show!"
One of the great theatre-poster artists and the illustrator of Thompson's popular series of "Eloise" books, Hilary Knight said at intermission that the notion that Eloise has a little Liza in her is a pleasant myth but just a myth. "Certainly, Kay would've never admitted it," he said. "Liza was fantastic to Kay, really. She did the most extraordinary things — letting her live with her for her last four years."
At the end of the show, Minnelli had enough wind in her sails — barely — to give credit where credit was due. "There is a man in the audience who made my dreams come true," she said. "I first worked with him in 1970 — and I had to audition for him for four years to get that job — right until tonight. He directed and choreographed and made happen this entire production. Ladies and gentlemen, Mr. Ron Lewis."
An unprepossessing-looking, gray-haired man in the first row stood up and bowed.
Later, Lewis admitted it was not easy directing a dynamo. "Every time Liza gets up to rehearse, it's like what you saw on the stage tonight," he said. "Sometimes, we'll tell her, 'Hold back. We don't want you to blow your voice. Hold back. You can just mark it.' Maybe for four bars she'll mark it, but by the fifth bar she's right back in."
Lewis, like the back-up boys, knew Thompson well and can attest to the truth of her goddaughter's tales. "Kay was exactly like Liza was telling the audience in those stories. She was sophisticated and funny and flamboyant and chic — all those things. The stories are true, by the way. Those were incidents and events Liza remembers. We have enough for a ten-hour show. It was very hard to edit the stories down."
Even harder was trimming down Thompson's nightclub act so Minnelli fans would not feel short-changed. "We had four more numbers that aren't in. Originally, we were going to do the whole second act of Kay Thompson, so we had more numbers ready. And we just realized we had to do 'Liza in Concert' first and then Kay, because Kay is not a well-known woman now, just well-known to the people in the business."
Turner Classic Movies host Robert Osborne, arm in arm with Louise Kerz Hirschfeld, exited the theatre, lamenting that loss of Thompson — but, otherwise, "I loved it. I thought it was great. And I've never seen Liza better," said The Silver Fox.
Another twosome, persisting since their 1995 flick, "Circle of Friends" — Alan Cumming and Saffron Burrow — was likewise laudatory. Cumming, who hails from another time and another Cabaret — had one up on everybody else at the theatre: "I saw Liza perform last year brilliantly. It was her Glasgow deboo."
Cheyenne Jackson, who has already played the Palace (in All Shook Up), seemed sufficiently stirred by the evening's entertainment, talking it up buoyantly with pals.
A "small reception" held in the bowels of the Palace after the show went unreported in the press — till now. No newsfolk were allowed, so I went disguised as a fan. It was easy to blend in. They weren't kidding about "small reception" — a modest platoon of waiters dispensing finger food and splashes of champagne. But the basement was the place to be — it was wall-to-wall starlight. As subterranean gatherings goes, it was a pretty glittery group, humming "You Made Me Love You" or variations thereof, while The Great Lady repaired and received a small trickle of celebs and intimates.
Special people — on the order of Phyllis Newman, who trilled "This is what show business is about!" — made it to the inner sanctum of The Star Dressing Room. Newman's daughter, Amanda Green, was delirious with delight about what Minnelli had done with "If," a novelty ditty by Daddy Adolph and Betty Comden.
"She exceeded all the expectations that anybody might have had," opted Tony Danza. "I mean that. Y'know, you worry about Liza. That's just your natural thing to worry about her. Tonight there was no more worrying about her. Holy mackerel!"
Sandra Bernhard, who is more polite than she is given credit for (she says "thank you very much" to the attending caterers), confessed to a good time. "Actually," she qualified, "it was beyond good. I cried so hard at the end of the show. Liza's a real reflection of genuine artistry and somebody's who's just amazing year after year. She keeps coming back doing it better and better. That really inspires me. As a matter of fact, she has inspired me since I first started to want to be a performer."
Another cry-for-happy customer unashamed to admit it was Michele Lee: "I cried. Over and over again. I'm so happy for her. It was such a joy for me to see her so happy and so there. And they stood up after every song —c'mon, gimme a break.
"Liza's such an actress. It makes every moment in everything she sings that much more special. The Charles Aznavour song she did [a crossdresser's lament, "What Makes a Man a Man?"], as a little playlet, was an amazing piece of acting that was so poignant, and it was poignant obviously for Mr. Aznavour to write it to start with."
The acting chops were duly noted by James Lipton, who has had Minnelli on "Inside the Actors Studio." Said he: "She reads a lyric like nobody else I know. Great actress!"
Tommy Tune, above it all as ever, posed with Lipton for photographers at intermission and implored him to "Stand tall!" Later, The Long-Stemmed One from Wichita Falls, TX posed for amateur photographers at the party with the show's music supervisor from Sweetwater, TX — pianist and conductor Billy Stritch.
"I had a spectacular time," Tune happily conceded. "She was better — better than ever — and she makes me feel better than ever, you know what I mean? It makes me feel so good because we're so happy for her. What a great show! And Ron Lewis did a terrific job directing the whole thing. I just met him, and I've admired his work through the years, since the '50s in Vegas. I was really so happy to meet him."
Stritch, in addition to pretty much running the whole shebang, shares credit for vocal arrangements with Kay Thompson's originals. "I deciphered them," he explained. "The whole point is to honor the lady. Not enough people know about her."
Lyricist David Zippel is credited with writing "additional material" for the show, but in person he modestly minimized his contribution. "I just kinda helped shape things a little bit," he proffered. "It's really Liza. She's a funny lady, and she was very easy to work with. I felt so appreciated and so very honored to be a part of this. I saw it when they were first putting it together, and I loved the numbers so much that I guess they sensed that and asked me if I would come along for the ride."
If you just know Jim Caruso as a weekly Birdland impresario, you will realize from his aggressive song-and-dance overdrive here that he has been painting with only a partial palette. "Nobody has ever asked me to do this before," he shrugged blissfully.
Prior to Broadway, the show put in a week in Woonsocket, RI, he said. "We went from Milan to Woonsocket. This was out of town. We've been out of town for two years. Audiences were wonderful, like tonight, standing after every number. When the Palace medley started, they'd applaud, and you think, 'Why would they know that?'"
Another of the Williams brothers, Cortes Alexander, toured with Minnelli for four years a decade ago. "This is crazy the way this show happened for me," he said. "I was driving across Santa Monica Boulevard in California, and I saw this huge Rolls Royce — my hand to God — coming toward me. It was Liza. I did a U-turn right in the middle and honked my horn. She almost had a heart attack right in the middle of Beverly Hills. We parked our cars in a parking garage on Rodeo Drive, walked up and down Rodeo Drive and caught up. The next week it was in the Enquirer that I was Husband No. Five. She said, 'I want to do this new show with Kay's material.' I knew all the songs because we used to sing them in her apartment. And she said, 'Are you up for that?' — I love this part — she said, 'We'll stand in a blue light in suits and sit on stools around the piano and sing, and that's the show.' I was, like, 'That's my kind of show — sitting down for two hours. I'm in for that.' Then in came Ron, who saw we knew left from right, kind of, and now we're just like dancing fools.'"
The hard-driving dancing, said Tiger Martina, the Andy Williams facsimile, was not re-created from old kinoscopes. There aren't any. "We haven't seen anything but the photographs of the act. Ron re-created a little bit of a language out of those photos."
Among the Thompson numbers that went by the wayside en route to Broadway were "That Old Feeling" and "Just One of Those Things," he said. "'Louisiana Purchase,' we learned musically early on, but it never went into the show. And then the only other one we had out on the table, just for a second, was 'Suzette.'"
Johnny Rodgers, who plays Bob Williams, has never met his real-life counterpart but did meet two of his brothers when the show played the Hollywood Bowl. He has also logged up four years on a Minnelli tour — plus he penned with actor Brian Lane Green (a Tony nominee for 1989's Starmites) the second song in, "I Would Never Leave You," a gorgeous ballad (melody by Stritch) that Minnelli sings about the audience.
Minnelli left the building upright, unaided and not requiring stretcher-bearers, which was all the more remarkable after That Performance. She emerged, circulated a smidgen and then gracefully glad-handed her way through the respectful throng to the exit, pausing only to chat with Rex Reed, whose words widened her wide eyes.
I asked Reed what had transpired, and he told me: "Well, she was pleased with what I had to say about her. She said, 'I'm calling you tomorrow. I want to put on tape what you said to me.' It's all the history at the Palace that came before my time. It's Fanny Brice and Sophie Tucker and Eddie Cantor. It's the history that I missed. You see it when she walks on stage, and the light hits her. It doesn't matter what she has been through, how many lives she has led — when that light hits her, she remembers everything. The bottom line is that she had never forgotten how to entertain."
And entertain she did — in spades — signing off both acts with classic Kander-&-Ebb that are her signature songs: the title tune from her Oscar winner, "Cabaret," and the Oscar-nominated song from "New York, New York." Before the latter, she did a shout-out to John Kander, who, "with these few notes, made a city stand up again."
There are few things better than sitting in the audience of the Palace Theatre hearing Liza Minnelli beckoning "C'mon, come through New York." Needless to say, we didn't sit long. Every man-jack of us was standing for the dizzying round of solo bows. Then, she brought on the four Williams bros and eventually — unheard of! — the entire 12-piece orchestra. As Joel Grey said in Cabaret, even the orchestra was beautiful.
And still it wasn't enough for the hungry audience so she brought out Stritch again and they improvised a period-paragraph closing — a song Minnelli said was very much in her heart this evening. She wished us all a merry little Christmas.
That brought her a mother-lode of love, to be sure. Big Momma's House rocked.