How Kelli Barrett Became Liza Minnelli in Fosse/Verdon
Look inside the painstaking recreation of "Mein Herr" from Cabaret that she shot for the first episode.
Growing up, Kelli Barrett loved Judy Garland. Despite a fear of the Wicked Witch of the West that sent her hiding under her bed, Barrett remembers being completely enamored of young Judy as Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz. "Judy was my everything," she says, looking back.
As an adult, Barrett has naturally become a huge fan of Garland's eldest daughter, the one-and-only Liza Minnelli. She didn't know much about Liza back when she was growing up — her films were a little more adult, so they were less accessible to a kid — but now, "I worship her for the icon that she is as a musical-theater actress."
Getting to play Liza — specifically, Liza as Sally Bowles in Cabaret — in the new FX series Fosse/Verdon is a surreal experience for Barrett, a veteran of five Broadway shows. She knew she could create a performance that would do the legend proud, but she didn't realize how intense the painstaking process of recreating an iconic scene from Minnelli's career was going to be.
Did you seek Fosse/Verdon out, or did they come to you?
I got sent the audition through my agents. The minute I saw it, I thought two things: "Oh my god, that's my part," and "I will never book this." [laughs] There are those rare moments where something comes your way and it's a combination of knowing you can execute it, mixed with how much you would love to do it. Let me correct myself. I didn't really think I could do it, and I still don't know that I can. But even though we're constantly flooded with self-doubt, deep down, the little voice I tell to shut up all the time was like, "You've got this." I felt it.
Tell me about shooting "Mein Herr" in the first episode. Who did you work with and how painstaking was it?
Andy Blankenbuehler is the choreographer of the whole series, but Nicole Fosse is part of every piece of it. She and the Verdon Fosse Legacy brought in these iconic Fosse dancers who worked directly with Bob. I got to work with Valarie Pettiford on and off for two weeks very intensely. I also worked in tandem with Andy's assistant Morgan and the Kit Kat Klub dancers.
I had to learn all of "Mein Herr," top to bottom, exactly as they did it [in the movie], down to, "Her hands weren't at 45 degrees; they were at 47 degrees." It was so specific — even the flick of the eyes. Everything was down to the numbers and precise. They drilled me and drilled me.
You watch the number now and it's impressive, but you don't realize how much went into it. It was really intense, so it was nice to see what it became. Hopefully, we make it look easy, but it wasn't. At the beginning of "Mein Herr," she does this huge leg extension. I had to learn that and get my leg up. I'm a righty and Liza is always using her left. I remember painstakingly trying to get my leg up there, and finally getting it, and it didn't even make it in the show!
The day of shooting, we came in and it wasn't like other TV shows where a piece of warehouse is cordoned off and that's your set. We walked into the Kit Kat Klub. It was next level and completely surreal. I'm onstage and I'm looking out at what Sally Bowles would have been looking at. That really speaks to the creative team and how they're tried to make it as authentic as possible.
How did you go about developing the vocal aspect?
Tommy Kail and Alex Lacamoire kept saying that it's a loving homage, not an impersonation. I was trying to get the essence and the flavor and the vowels. What we didn't want to do was give you a direct comparison, because we'll just fail. No one will ever be Liza Minnelli, and we're not doing a Vegas act. We're trying to capture their story, not convince you that I am her. It was very cool to figure out what parts of me lined up with her, and to take the parts that didn't and say, "OK, how do I make this true to my authenticity while funneling it through her energy?" Hopefully, we struck a balance.
Stephanie J. Block, who played Liza in The Boy From Oz, is in The Cher Show now with your husband, Jarrod Spector. Did you ask her for any advice?
I remember when I found out that I got the role, I was in the Pax deli next to the New 42nd Street Studios while they were rehearsing, and she came up to me screaming. I remember being like, "Steph, I'm terrified!", and she was like, "You're gonna be magnificent. It's gonna be your version, and it'll be great, and just have trust." She was really supportive. That was really cool.
Have you heard anything from the icon herself?
I haven't heard anything from the Liza with a Z. I'm scared, but at the same time hopeful that she'll be proud of it.