What's New on the Rialto
Adds Another Award to her Theatrical Achievements
By Scott Schechter
"Everybody loves a winner . . ."
It was a fitting prophecy that Liza Minnelli sang those words in her Academy Award-winning performance for the 1972 release Cabaret. The song "Maybe This Time" was added to the film's score from the catalog of Fred Ebb and John Kander (who had written the 1966 Broadway version's words and music, and although "Time" was first sung by Kaye Ballard in her nightclub act, it had been recorded by Minnelli for her solo album debut in 1964: Capitol Records' "Liza! Liza!") Though nearly 40 years old, there is no song more timely than that Kander and Ebb tune during this season of awards when the world is reminded of who its "winners" are, and thus who is "loved."
Monday evening, January 29th, the Theatre Hall Of Fame shifted a particular focus back to a more appropriate stance, when during it's annual ceremony at the Gershwin Theatre here in New York, Liza Minnelli was given their Lifetime Achievement Award. The honor could not have come at a better time for this living legend, who is lucky to be living at all. Last October, Minnelli was stricken with viral encephalitis, a potentially deadly brain inflammation. Two heavily publicized stays at a hospital near her rented home in Florida ensued, although all reports are that she is getting stronger.
Liza first retreated to the warmer climate last May, just after double pneumonia along with a need for back and hip surgeries forced cancellation of the planned two-year world tour of Minnelli On Minnelli. The show, a revue/tribute to the music from the movies directed by her father, Academy Award-winner Vincente Minnelli, had enjoyed its world-premiere at NYC's legendary Palace Theatre in December, 1999. This setback had followed recent surgeries Liza endured for her hips, her knees, and even on her celebrated vocal cords. It was therefore a relief that Minnelli was making media news yet again, via the Theatre Hall of Fame, for her acclaimed talents and body of work instead of for her personal tribulations (although as she laughingly said last spring, "What's personal? There's nothing personal about my life!") Just as her mother's iconic body of work is too often ignored in favor of focus on her offstage life, the public needs to be reminded of all that Liza has achieved - and what she still has to offer the world.
If "everybody loves a winner," then most assuredly Liza Minnelli is loved. An Oscar, Emmy, Grammy, Golden Globes, People's Choice, Entertainer Of The Year, and three Tony Awards all prove this. Her amazing body of work is vast in all medias, but for Talkin' Broadway we'll concentrate on the work Minnelli has done in the theatre.
Like the multitudes of young performers who hit NYC every year, 16-year old Liza Minnelli actually did pay her dues, if only for a short time and despite her parent's fame and wealth, when she arrived in New York on her own in 1962. Not long after her arrival, however (and only after a few reported nights sleeping on a park bench, when her savings ran out), she was cast in the off-Broadway revival of Best Foot Forward. The musical opened at Stage 73 on April 2nd, 1963, and earned her the Theater World / Danniell Bloom Award. The NY Daily News stated the show was "worth seeing if only to remember back someday to having witnessed a Broadway star in her professional debut." A single of her show-stopping ballad "You Are For Loving" actually sold a half-million copies (helped no doubt by her appearances on the TV variety circuit, including "Ed Sullivan," and even "The Judy Garland Show," where she crooned her new record), which in turn helped Best Foot run for seven months and 244 performances, closing on October 13th, 1963 (shortly after Liza left the show to return to Los Angeles.)
Following tours in Carnival, Time Out For Ginger, The Fantasticks with Elliot Gould and two sold-out concerts at the London Palladium with mama, she had to audition many times for director George Abbott before he was convinced to cast Liza as the star of Kander and Ebb's first Broadway musical, Flora The Red Menace. Although the show lasted only 11 weeks at the Alvin Theatre (May 11th - July 24th, 1965), Time magazine called its leading lady "a performer of arresting presence who does not merely occupy the stage, but fills it." At the age of 19, Minnelli became the youngest performer to win the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical.
It took 9 years for Liza to make it back to the boards, following her triumphs in nightclubs, TV, and in film (an Oscar-nod for Sterile Cuckoo and the win for Cabaret, of course.) Although in July, 1968 she had come close to signing for the lead in the Broadway musical Promises, Promises her January, 1974 return to a NY stage was in an expanded version of her "live" stage show Liza. The entire 3-week run at the Winter Garden sold-out in 36 hours to the tune of $413,815. Variety reminded it's readers that Minnelli was "not just a song and dance girl but also an actress," and the star was awarded a special Tony Award for the engagement.
Following three films that were the not the huge successes envisioned for the Oscar-winner, Liza returned to Manhattan and proved she was still potent box office. By the time of its October 29th, 1977 opening, the advance sales for The Act were $2 million, more than any other advance sale in the history of the theatre (and at a new all-time high price of $25 per ticket for Saturday evenings). The NY Times raved about the star's "breathtaking presence," and the theater community awarded Liza with her third Tony Award for her performance in the musical ("I think the thing I like most is to work, and to work hard, and I think the thing I like second best is when someone says 'you did a good job.' I'd like to thank everyone connected with our show; they know who they are. Thank you," was Liza's eloquent acceptance speech.) The Act closed on July 1st, 1978, at the end of its star's one-year contract, as there were certainly few, if any, performers of her caliber that could fill the Majestic Theatre in what was essentially a one-woman show.
Only a year later she returned to Manhattan with her Carnegie Hall concert, which became the longest-running engagement by a single artist (11 nights, September 4th - 14th, 1979) to date at that venue. Newsday declared her "maybe the greatest musical-hall artist today. Are there any other performers these days who knock themselves out for an audience the way Liza does?"
The answer was given again six years later when Liza concluded her run (and her one year contract) in the Broadway musical The Rink at the Martin Beck Theatre (February 9th - July 11th, 1984). Neither her replacement, Stockard Channing, nor the show's other star Chita Rivera were apparently sufficient box office draws (despite the fact Chita had just won the Tony Award in competition against costar Liza). It became clear Minnelli had been keeping the show opened, as it closed shortly after her run ended.
Following her much publicized stay at the Betty Ford Center and her return to the concert circuit, a revitalized Liza came back to Manhattan for 3 Weeks at Carnegie Hall (May 28th - June 18th, 1987), breaking her own 1979 record at the landmark for longest run by one artist.
Minnelli started her fourth decade on NY stages by playing another concert engagement, and her first at Radio City Music Hall, in her new concert show Stepping Out (tied-in with her movie of the same title). The engagement grossed a record $3.8 million, making it 1991's highest-grossing engagement anywhere in the U.S., and prompted a week's return in February 1992, for recording of the show's album and video, which was shot on high-definition tape, one of the first U.S. productions to do so.
A year later, Minnelli hosted the 1993 Tony Awards while in the midst of another Carnegie Hall engagement, this time sharing the bill with Charles Aznavour.
Although Liza's next Broadway engagement concluded 4 days early due to damaged vocal cords, her 3-week stint subbing for an ailing Julie Andrews in Victor/Victoria in January, 1997 still grossed over $3 million.
Perhaps none of her other runs on the Great White Way had as much meaning for Minnelli than her most recent stint on Broadway's boards, when Minnelli On Minnelli played four weeks at the Palace Theatre (December 1st, 1999 - January 2nd, 2000). Here Liza was paying tribute to her father at the very venue where her mother's career was resurrected during the historic 19-week run back in 1951-52 (followed by a 17-week return during the 1956-1957 season, and a 3rd run in 1967, less than two years before Garland's passing in 1969). When Liza sang a duet of "The Trolley Song" with the soundtrack of Judy's voice, it proved fitting that the initials of the show were "MOM." Breaking the Palace's first-day sales record when $438,000 worth of tickets were sold, Minnelli received raves from the national press : "Liza's Voice Is Back" was USA Today's headline. Oddly, most of the local press seemed miffed that the eternal waif, at age 53, had dared to add a few inches to her waistline. They didn't mention she'd actually dropped 40 pounds before the opening, nor that she literally had to learn to sing and dance all over again following her much-covered vocal and hip surgeries, which had kept her concert career sidelined since May, 1998.
Two years later that career would be stalled again, but just as the NY critics forgot the fight Liza had fought, and won, to return to the audiences that still wanted to share her heart and still-magical gifts, the media and the public needs reminding of just how strong the lady is. Do not be surprised if you yet again pickup your Sunday NY Times, and see a full-page ad for tickets to another Minnelli "comeback." As sure as us mere mortals need air to breathe, so does Liza need the interaction, the exchange of love back and forth with those that have supported her career into its fifth decade: a new "Minnelli-um" started-off with the Lifetime Achievement honor. Everybody may love a winner, but they also love a survivor, and a lady who falls into both of those categories is most certainly Liza Minnelli.
Scott Schechter is a noted Judy Garland historian, who has produced Garland CDs - including the Judy Box set from 32 Records, consulted on TV shows, plus the DVDs of The Judy Garland Show, and has written on Minnelli and Garland for the Advocate as well as the essay in Capitol Records' Judy At Carnegie Hall - The 40th Anniversary Edition that hits stores February 27th. He also is the editor and publisher of the Garlands For Judy: The Legend's Legacy tribute magazine. Liz Smith recently broke the news of his first film project, the movie version of Tom O'Neil's acclaimed off-Broadway play Judy At The Stonewall Inn. For additional information on these and other projects, send an SASE to Schechter at PO Box 2743, New York, NY 10163-2743 or an e-mail to GARLANDS63@AOL.COM)
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