On the surface, Minnelli on Minnelli, which opened at New York's Palace Theater on December 8, is a highly personal musical tribute to her father, Vincent Minnelli, who directed Meet Me in St. Louis, Gigi and many other classic films. But the mesmerizing Minnelli pours such self-revealing raw emotion and pathos into songs from those films, like "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?" and a new rendition of "I'm Glad I'm Not Young Anymore" (tailored specifically for her), that the evening really is more the story of Minnelli herself. Liza with a Z, as she has sometimes been affectionately called, is now Liza with a B -- brilliant.
To be sure, Minnelli, the survivor of numerous trips into rehab and of multiple hip replacements, is not always able to reach the upper registers of her erstwhile wide vocal range in this the 17-song-long show. For example, in "On a Clear Day You Can See Forever," Minnelli does fall a bit short of her former glorious singing self. But what we see, and what we get, in Minnelli on Minnelli, especially at a time when special effects and hollow, unaffecting emotion seem to be taking centerstage in so many Broadway shows, is a superstar, and not so much a fading one either but one who's burning all the brighter with the passage of time--or, as Shakespeare's Hamlet put it so well, "all the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune".
In the second act, positioning her stylish self before a big screen projection of herself as a child (along with her famous father and a birthday cake), Minnelli sharing with the audience some stirring recollections. "When we were trying out this show," she says, "I found a trunk that my father had left. And in it I found stuff [pictures]....After school, other kids went to the playground. I went to MGM [the movie studio] and I had my birthday parties there. Actually, my father taught me when I was a kid how to see things from a whole new point of view -- his view -- and I was so lucky!"
Truth to tell, she was lucky -- Liza grew up at the center of Hollywood during its mid-century prime -- and maybe it was this unique "point of view," partially instilled by her father, which helped Minnelli through all her well-publicized professional and personal setbacks in recent years, arming her with the courage to take on Minnelli on Minnelli.
It was just this past summer, for instance, when Minnelli appeared to be at a low point. First, Kay Thompson, her godmother, with whom she was very close, died. (The dancer and singer was most famous for writing the "Eloise" children's stories.) Then a supermarket tabloid showed an overweight Minnelli leaving a clinic -- yet, apparently, she is already on the mend. In fact, the lead in Liz Smith's July 9 column in the New York Post was composed of direct quotes from Minnelli herself:
"I want the people who care about me to know I'm taking care of myself. I'm looking forward to performing again and giving back to my fans and friends the love they have shown me by being healthy. I feel there is no shame in taking positive action."
Liz Smith then went on to write: "those valiant words come to us exclusively from the great entertainer Liza Minnelli. Liza, one of the earth's darling girls, is an oft-troubled icon, but one always looking toward a brighter future....I have known many stars in many situations over many years. I have rarely, perhaps never, known a star as genuinely sweet and loving and needy and deserving of affection and support as Liza."
First appearing Off Broadway in 1963, Minnelli subsequently landed a succession of starring roles on Broadway and in the movies, and in 1965, at the age of 19, won her first of her three Tony Awards for her starring role in Flora, the Red Menace, an early Kander and Ebb musical directed by the legendary George Abbott. Minnelli also won an Oscar playing down-and-out singer Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 1973, but like her mother, Judy Garland, some of Minnelli's greatest success has come from the live concert stage.
"Liza's the ultimate survivor," says Minnelli friend Stewart F. Lane, who is co-producing Minnelli on Minnelli and who is also co-owner of the legendary Palace Theater with the Nederlander Organization.
And, as a survivor, Minnelli is as vibrantly alive with sheer emotion, humor and tenderness as Garland was on the big screen as well as in her own comeback performances on the Palace Theatre some three decades ago. Sure she's no longer at the top of her vocal technique -- but so what? It's what she says about our lives, how much she moves us, that's important. And a lot of what she's saying is: love your family, damn it, love your fans, damn it, and, yes, love your enemies. Have the guts to do the best you can even if you might fail.
Supported by fine dancers and singers Jeffrey Broadhurst, Stephen Campanella, Billy Hartung, Sebastian LaCause, Jim Newman and Alec Timerman, other songs in Minnelli on Minnelli include a lively song-and-dance rendition of "Shine on Your Shoes," "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" and "I've Got Rhythm". The show is directed by Minnelli's longtime friend, lyricist Fred Ebb, choreographed by John DeLuca, and has musical arrangements by Marvin Hamlisch, vocal arrangements by Billy Stritch, dance arrangements by David Krane and Peter Howard, scenic design by John Arnone, costumes by Bob Mackie and lighting by Howell Binkley.
Minnelli on Minnelli runs through January 2, 2000.