Liza Minnelli, Celebrating a Milestone: Turning 70 and Still Doing What Comes Naturally
By Ellis Nassour
Who in the world had the clout to have the immortal George and Ira Gershwin and Gus Kahn song “Liza,” introduced by Ruby Keeler in a 1929 Ziegfeld show, pulled out of mothballs and sung by none other than Judy Garland to her newborn? None other than Miss Liza Minnelli. The tune not only became a Garland classic, but has been forever connected to Liza with a Z.
Skies are gray
But when you smile at me
All the clouds’ll roll away.
Come keep me company
And the clouds’ll roll away ,,,.
Oh, my Liza.
Name the day
‘Cause you belong to me
And the clouds have rolled away.
[Lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group]
Li’l Liza grew, and grew. You can watch, too – from infant photos in her doting mother’s arms, to her screen debut in The Good Old Summertime (1949) held in the arms of Veronica Fisher, played by Garland, then on to her teen years guesting opposite her mother on The Judy Garland Show TV series, springing ever forward as a famed fairy tale heroine in the TV movie The Dangerous Christmas of Little Red Riding Hood (1965).
Minnelli has seemingly done it all. Blessed in the talent gene pool, she not only starred on stage, screen, TV, and in concert, but also became a top-selling recording artist.
The yellow brick road her mother skipped on her way to fame and legend was filled with more than its share of potholes. Minnelli’s rise to fame, some might say legend, has also been hit with roadblocks: rocky relationships, stints in rehab, and serious medical challenges.
But she’s still here! And on Saturday, turns the ripe young age of 70.
Not letting any moss grow under her feet, in 1965, Minnelli made her Broadway debut at age 19 in the Kander and Ebb, George Abbott [who also was director] and Robert Russell musical Flora, the Red Menace, winning the Tony for Best Actress in a musical – becoming the youngest actress in Broadway history to win that honor.
Hot, hot, hot she returned to the screen in Charlie Bubbles (1967), a very adult film opposite no less than Albert Finney; won critical raves for The Sterile Cuckoo (1969); and Tell Me That You Love Me, Junie Moon (1970).
In 1972, she took home an Emmy for her stellar TV special, Liza with a Z.
Then came her career-defining landmark: not only being nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal of Sally Boles in Cabaret, but also winning. The screen adaption of the Kander and Ebb and Joe Masteroff musical also won eight 1973 Oscars, including Best Picture,Best Director – Bob Fosse, and Best Supporting Actor – Joel Grey. Her legendary director of a father was able to celebrate this momentous occasion, but, sadly, her mother didn’t live to.
Later, Minnelli had roles in numerous films, including Lucky Lady, New York, New York, Arthur, and the TV movie The West Side Waltz, adapted from the Ernest Thompson play and co-starred with Shirley MacLaine.
In August ’75, she stepped in for five weeks as Gwen Verdon’s replacement in the original Chicago, portraying Roxie Hart.
Minnelli successfully returned to Broadway in 1997, starring in Kander and Ebb and George Furth’s original musical The Act, set against a dancer’s Las Vegas milieu. Minnelli won her second Tony. In January ’84, she made a triumphant six-mohth return to Broadway co-starring with Chita Rivera in Kander and Ebb and Terrence McNally’s The Rink., winning Tony and Drama Desk nominations.
Minnelli’s played the Palace starring with her mother and half-sister and half-brother Lorna and Joey Luft and, years later, returned twice. In December ’08, she starred in a SRO month-long engagement in Liza’s at the Palace, directed and choreographed by Ron Lewis and with longtime friend Billy Stritch as musical supervisor. The revue won a Special Event Tony.
In January ’97, she subbed for three weeks Julie Andrews in Henry Mancini, Leslie Bricusse, and Frank Wildhorn and Blake Edwards’s Victor/Victoria. Minnelli fulfilled a longtime dream of doing a tribute to the musicals directed by her father in December ’99: a three-week concert, Minnelli on Minnelli, with book and direction by Fred Ebb and Marvin Hamlisch and Stritch as musical supervisors.
She’s made successful concert appearances at Carnegie Hall and Radio City Music Hall. In fact, Minnelli holds the Carnegie Hall honor of being the only singer to sell out for three consecutive weeks.
Last July, following back surgery and a stint in rehab dealing with health and abuse issues, she returned to the concert stage at a Mississippi Gulf Coast casino accompanied by Stritch.
“I was so delighted to be back on stage with Liza,” says Stritch, who’s worked with Minnelli since the early 90’s. “She was in top form in front of a sold-out house.”
In September, she’ll do concerts in the U.K., where Minnelli will headline at the London Palladium, where she did a memorable concert with her mother. On her return to the States, she will embark on a concert tour.
Minnelli is quite the trouper and is known to rise to challenges. When turbulent weather conditions interrupted her flight from L.A. to Wilmington, NC for a black-tie gala with the North Carolina Symphony, took an Uber 200 miles overnight to make it.
Recently, following a private performance in L.A. at friend Ben Vereen’s home, she was reminded she had a big birthday coming up. “I’d forgotten all about it,” she laughed, “which works if I want to stay younger. I’ll keep it that way. I think of celebrating my birthday as celebrating my Minnellium.”
Stritch, following the Gulf Coast concert, said what Minnelli’s legion of fans have long known: “There’s no performer like Liza. Every night onstage with her is a thrill.”
In a 1973 interview, Minnelli said, “I love what I’m doing. It makes me very happy. I feel so at home on the stage. It’s fulfilling. There’s an incredible sense of joy. No matter how much you give, you get it back. You can always feel the energy level … I connect with what’s around me. I can’t bear self pity and depression. I don’t have time for it.”
That must be what keeps Liza with a Z going.