Liza in Her Prime
By Peter Filichia –-
Liza Minnelli certainly started off 1974 with a bang.
Not that 1973 was so bad. On March 27 of that year, Minnelli became the youngest performer to have won a Best Actress in a Musical Tony (for Flora the Red Menace in 1965) and then an Oscar for Leading Actress in a film (for Cabaret).
Granted, Judy Holliday and Vivien Leigh had won both prizes too – albeit the other way around, with the Oscar coming first. Still, Holliday was thirty-five when she accomplished the double-dip, and Leigh forty-nine. Minnelli was merely fifteen days past her twenty-seventh birthday.
And if that weren’t enough to make the first quarter of 1973 memorable for the star, fewer than two months later, Minnelli received an Emmy for Liza with a “Z”: A Concert for Television.
So Liza Minnelli was white-hot and at the peak of her powers when she took the stage of the Winter Garden on Jan. 6, 1974 in Liza (as it was officially called). She would remain there for only 23 performances – not that business didn’t warrant more. In fact, the day tickets went on sale, they were gone by the afternoon. Remember, too, that this was in the era when people couldn’t lackadaisically call from a push-button telephone or saunter on-line when they felt like it. There was no other choice but to go to Broadway between Fiftieth and Fifty-First Streets and wait in a long, torturous line.
Luckily for those turned away – and us — Columbia Records recorded the concert. But the sad fact was that the company couldn’t do much with the recording. The fly in the ointment was Minnelli’s doing the title song of Cabaret; because of “contractual conflicts” with ABC-Paramount Records, which had issued the soundtrack, Liza had to be withdrawn. Now it’s back – and for the first time available on CD and digital downloads.
The excitement starts with a generous overture that mostly celebrates that memorable 1973. The first two songs are from Liza with a “Z” (the title song and “Ring Them Bells”) and the final two from Cabaret: “Maybe This Time” and, as mentioned, the title song. Lest Minnelli seem to be solely plugging composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who wrote all four songs, she put Johnny Nash’s “I Can See Clearly Now” in between.
Theatre-centric fans may not recognize that title, for the song doesn’t come from a musical. But one thing that Liza displays is that Minnelli is also a member of her Baby Boomer generation; thus, she acknowledges the pop hits of the day and sings “(I Want a) Natural Man.” (And indeed, only 22 days before Minnelli’s Winter Garden debut, the American Psychiatric Association had declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder and instead proclaimed that it was a natural state.)
Minnelli starts the concert with a pop hit: Gordon Lightfoot’s “If You Could Read My Mind.” But Broadway fans will smile forty seconds into the song, when she suddenly brings in “Come Back to Me” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever. Yeah, she’s a Broadway Baby, which explains her return to a 1929 show song (“More Than You Know” from Great Day) and then twenty-one years earlier (“Shine On Harvest Moon” from the Ziegfeld Follies of 1908).
That one includes the grammatically incorrect lyric, “I ain’t had no lovin’ since January.” However, the thing with double negatives is that they inadvertently mean just the opposite of what’s implied. So Minnelli is really saying, “I have had lovin’ since January” – and certainly she gets it from this January audience. After she finishes, she garners an actual half-minute of applause. It’s the best kind, too: the type that starts strong, gets stronger, starts to abate, and then, because the audience doesn’t want it to die, gets louder than it had ever been originally.
It wouldn’t be a Liza concert without a self-deprecating comedy song, and Kander and Ebb wrote her a honey here: “Exactly Like Me,” in which Minnelli laments how many women she meets or hears about claim to resemble her. Like all of us who hear such a sentiment, she’s appalled when she finally gets to see these so-called dead ringers.
Although Minnelli comes from an Italian-American background, she has a penchant for French songs. Following up on her Liza with a “Z” success with Charles Aznavour’s “You’ve Let Yourself Go,” she includes two more of his here: “And I in My Chair,” about a wife at a party who becomes increasingly nervous about her husband, and “There Is a Time,” about all the experiences we all have in life. Ebb provided some English lyrics, as he did with Edith Piaf’s “The Circle,” about how tough it is to make it in Paris (or any big city, for that matter).
Kander and Ebb are also represented by other older show songs: “A Quiet Thing” from Flora (“My favorite song,” Minnelli calls it, showing excellent taste) and then three from Golden Gate – later called The Emperor of San Francisco – that was never produced. But take it from someone who’s read the libretto (by Thoroughly Modern Millie’s Richard Morris), it had terrific potential. It dealt with Angel, a young, early twentieth-century woman who had been living in a rural area, all the while yearning for the day when she could leave home and move to glamorous San Francisco. Angel arrives on Thursday, April 19, 1906 – the day after the catastrophic earthquake that left 300,000 of the city’s 410,000 homeless.
Just her luck – and just the cue to have her self-disparagingly sing “I’m One of the Smart Ones.” But things do work out for Angel, enough for a group of men to celebrate her as “A Certain Girl.” (If the title sounds familiar, yes, it’s the same song that Kander and Ebb later recycled into The Happy Time.)
Minnelli also does “Anywhere You Are” and “I Believe You,” both written for the scene in which Angel encourages the self-appointed Emperor to get the city back on its feet. By the end of Golden Gate, everything’s on the upswing in “Everybody’s Favorite City,” as the eleven o’clock song goes. Considering how splendidly that Kander and Ebb did by New York, New York, we can imagine that they’d do equally well in celebrating San Francisco.
Minnelli seemingly finishes with “Cabaret,” but then does three encores. That information will surprise those who had the original LP or cassette; the trio of songs wasn’t on it. They represent Minnelli well, for the three are evenly split among pop (Stevie Wonder’s “You and I”), Broadway (“It Had to Be You” from The Greenwich Village Follies of 1924) and Hollywood (“My Shining Hour” from The Sky’s the Limit).
Granted, the first encore was carefully planned, as the elaborate orchestration proves. But Minnelli probably didn’t anticipate the next two, because she does them merely with piano. Leave it to Liza Minnelli to give her fans a couple of lagniappes. It brings the show to a lovely, intimate late-night close.
Of course, the entire evening can be evaluated by one famous lyric: “What good is sitting alone in your room?” Those at the Winter Garden in January, 1974 certainly knew the answer to the question. But now we can give another response: there is plenty of good in staying home and hearing Liza at the Winter Garden.
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.