When it comes to David Gest and Liza Minnelli, it seems that the honeymoon is over -- if not in terms of the newlywed couple's relationship, certainly in terms of the press and the public's perception of their creative partnership. This subject might normally be more the province of a gossip column than a CD review, but Gest has so publicly taken control of his new spouse's life and career that it's almost unavoidable. He has been credited with getting Liza back into shape over the past year or so but, even from the start, there were indications that the partnership was not entirely a good thing. Recently, VH-1 abruptly canceled production of its Liza-David "reality series" due to Gest's attempted control of the project, according to some reports.
Earlier this year, under Gest's aegis, Minnelli appeared in concert in New York after a run at the Royal Albert Hall in London. The seven NYC performances took place not in a first-class venue such as Carnegie Hall but at the run-down Beacon Theatre on upper Broadway. A sense of non-professionalism pervaded the event from the moment one entered the theater and saw unopened boxes of programs stacked high in the lobby. (I'm not kidding). The performance itself was hampered by a small, cheesy sounding band with a synthesizer in place of real strings, not to mention second-rate lighting and sound -- this despite the fact that ticket prices were through the roof. As it turned out, hundreds of tickets were given away free at the last minute, distributed in gyms and other such places.
The first thing to be said about the CD drawn from the Liza's Back concerts is that, like the live recording of the Broadway show Minnelli on Minnelli, it was not a good idea to begin with. Make no mistake: Liza is so dynamic and warm in live performance, and looks so terrific lately, that attending one of her concerts these days can still be a thrilling experience. But audio recordings of those concerts are ill-advised, as Liza's ability to sing has been sorely compromised by her well documented illnesses and life challenges. The sound she used to be able to create is now heard only in flashes; generally speaking, her voice is hoarse and husky. And a continued distraction is her inability, over the past several years, to pronounce a pure "s" sound (it always comes out as "sh").
Throughout the new album, Liza's efforts to mask her vocal problems are apparent. For example, she attacks sustained notes as straight tones -- and when the vibrato does kick in, it's really more of a wobble. This wouldn't be so big an issue if full-throttle belting hadn't always been the star's stock in trade. Ironically, the most listenable cut on Liza's Back is the encore -- a lovely, soft, moving rendition of "I'll Be Seeing You." Needless to say, the fact that several songs on the album were previously recorded by Liza in her vocal prime (e.g., "But the World Goes 'Round," "New York, New York," and three songs from Cabaret) makes for unfortunate comparison.
For the most part, the album traffics in the unrestrained expression of outsize emotions. The opening number, also titled "Liza's Back," is special material written by pals Fred Ebb and John Kander. ("I took my bottle of pills, tossed them away; I emptied the booze, went back to A.A.") For a "Cry" medley, the Peter Allen-Carole Bayer Sager song "Don't Cry Out Loud" has been rewritten so that it now expresses a point of view diametrically opposed to the original lyrics. ("Don't cry out loud, just keep it inside, learn how to hide your feelings" has become "Cry out loud, don't keep it inside, don't learn how to hide your feelings.") This is as silly as Liza's continuing to perform "Cabaret" with its climactic line changed from "When I go, I'm going like Elsie" to "...I'm not going like Elsie" -- as if the addition of one word could negate the meaning of the entire number and give it a post-rehab spin. Question for Liza: If you don't like the messages contained in the lyrics of certain songs, why sing them at all?
There are other embarrassing moments. Though many fans will surely view Liza's shouted "Thank you, Mama!" towards the end of her rendition of "Over the Rainbow" as a moving tribute to Judy Garland, others may think it a bit much. And an oddly telling sequence of the concert comes when Liza implicitly dedicates "Something Wonderful" (from The King and I) to hubby David. The song, of course, includes such lines as "This is a man who stumbles and falls, but this is a man who tries," "The thoughtless things he'll do will hurt and worry you," and "You'll always go along, defend him when he's wrong."
Unfortunately, Gest's iron control over all aspects of the concert and the album extends to his having composed the notes contained in the CD booklet. Aside from factual errors regarding dates of Liza's past recordings, his prose contains awkward phrases like: "Who would have ever thought that, after all of this time, Liza would finally record the most historic record of her career?" Gest misspells "trouper" as "trooper" and, incredibly, refers to cast albums as "soundtracks." (That common error is disturbing enough when made by some teenager; coming from a man who is supposed to be a showbiz professional, it's mortifying.) And it's beyond the pale for Gest to write that Liza's stand at the Beacon was "sold out" when this is not even close to the truth.
The poor editing of the booklet's text extends to the song list, with Jule Styne's first name misprinted three times as "Julie," "Alan Jay Lerner" shortened to "Alan Lerner" (something that famous lyricist would never have abided), and "Burton Lane" rendered as "Lane Burton." Oddly, considering how great Liza looks these days, there is only one photograph of her included here: a studio shot on the back cover. There are no pix from the concert itself.
Liza's Back is available on J Records, rated by Gest -- less than objectively, one assumes -- as "the hottest contemporary label in the music industry today." Having made the questionable decision to issue this album, J might at least have tried to get the packaging right. Although Liza Minnelli's voice isn't what it was, the lady remains a unique, beloved performer -- and, for the record, some people swear that she still sounds fine on certain nights. Here's hoping that, with or without David Gest continuing to guide her, she will choose and time her future projects much more carefully.