Liza with a Z

cUnited KingdomUnited Kingdom Liza Minnelli: with Billy Stritch (musical director) and Septet, Clare Teal and Trio [Grant Windsor (piano), Simon Little (double bass) and Ben Reynolds (drums)], Royal Festival Hall, London, 1.3.2013. (JPr)

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The big-screen musical Cabaret dominated the 1973 Academy Awards with 10 nominations and 8 wins, including best actress for Liza Minnelli, best supporting actor for Joel Grey and the best director Oscar for Bob Fosse. The racy story of an unconventional love-triangle was set in a pre-war German nightclub. A restored version of the film has recently been released on DVD to acknowledge this 40th anniversary. The year-long Southbank Centre’s The Rest is Noise Festival is celebrating art in general, and in particular, the music of the twentieth-century. It has now reached Berlin during the 14 years of Germany’s Weimar Republic from 1920 to 1933, so time was ripe for a free screening of Cabaret and a rare – not so free – London concert appearance by the star.

Liza Minnelli’s subsequent career has been defined by her performance as the perpetual ‘dreamer’, Sally Bowles, just as much as her character was by the torch song ‘Maybe This Time’ that Kander and Ebb had written years earlier for Kaye Ballard and was not actually in the original musical. Much more ‘defines’ Ms Minnelli of course, notably that her mother was Judy Garland, so her life has been lived out in the public eye for all of her almost 67 years. That somehow she has gloriously survived – unlike her screen character would have done – was showcased by Ms Minnelli giving her audience – many paying more than £100 for their ticket – full value for money and a night we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, like the star professed she will herself.

I must remind readers that I have seen ‘live’ most of the headline acts in what is described as the ‘popular music’ of my generation. In a recent review I explained my memory of a ‘song and dance evening at the London Palladium with Shirley MacLaine in 1976. Ms Minnelli who I also saw in the last century(!) at the height of her film career, was almost as good as I remember. As a straightforward singer of pop standards the best I have ever seen was Frank Sinatra and I was pleased to say that at this stage of her life, when hip replacements mean Liza Minnelli doesn’t have the dance moves she had before, it has brought her the ability to make each song personal to her. In this way she can make a total connection with her audience. Because she seems to have overcome all her past demons, she is not now living her life in her songs but is now a storyteller-supreme in the way she delivers a lyric. The fact that she can generate standing ovation after standing ovation as a result, was genuine star quality – Liza Minnelli truly is a ‘living-legend’ and there are not many of them left.

Being the opening act on a night like this is a thankless task but at least it enables a sell-out audience to gather without some missing the start of the main show. Without a genuine printed programme obviously some of those seated expected Liza Minnelli on from the start so it was really noticeable when a few walked out during Clare Teal’s short set – and the outspoken Yorkshire-born jazz singer ‘delighted’ in pointing out those she caught leaving. Quietening any applause because of her short time and backed by an excellent trio, Grant Windsor (piano), Simon Little (double bass) and Ben Reynolds (drums), she rushed entertainingly through some upbeat numbers such as Richard Rodgers’s ‘Mountain Greenery’, ‘Dream A Little Dream Of Me’ made famous by Ella Fitzgerald, Dory Previn’s ‘Twenty Mile Zone’ and a jazzed-upped ‘Secret Love’ (Doris Day’s otherwise rather twee ballad from Calamity Jane).

After a short interval, Liza Minnelli arrived on the Royal Festival Hall platform to the first of those standing ovations for just being there. Seemingly slightly nervous at first and backed by her own excellent ensemble of just seven, together they launched into a fairly raucous ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’. It proved to be a classy band of great musicians in their own right, including trumpeter Ross Konikoff, saxophonist Chuck Wilson and Chip Jackson on bass. Ms Minnelli’s classy pianist (and crooner) was Billy Stritch and together they duetted tenderly though ‘I Can’t Give You Anything But Love’ and he was the epitome of lounge music during the Evans/Mann classic ‘No Moon at All’. This was Minnelli’s only break and she lounged herself on a huge director’s chair that she used quite a bit because she announced: ‘I’m becoming aged!’ By that time she had already got us in the palm of her hands with her over-the-top signature song ‘Liza With A Z’ and the philosophical ‘So What’ made famous by Lotte Lenya (the original Fräulein Schneider in the stage version of Cabaret). Then there was the first of the real highlights, Charles Aznavour’s thought-provoking ‘What Makes a Man a Man?’ about the tragic life of a drag queen that was given an especially nuanced and affecting performance. It brought a tear to her eye and to many others too! There were few anecdotes and what she said to us was mostly a gushy, very breathy, expression of the sheer delight in just singing for us all. At one point she insisted all the houselights should go up ‘so I can see everyone out there’ and the joy on her face as she surveyed her audience was totally infectious.

The showstoppers soon came thick and fast and did precisely what they were meant to. Her Americanised Sally Bowles from the film now returned to her British roots for ‘Cabaret’ that promotes taking life by the scruff of the neck at all times, something that Liza Minnelli always seems to have done herself. (There was even a subtle pause for a certain section of the audience when Elsie was ‘laid out like a Queen’.) ‘On Such A Night Like This’ was a revelation with the wonderful lines ‘On such a night did Wagner write “The Evening Star” ’ and ‘ ‘Twas on a night like this Judy Garland swore … ‘. They don’t write them like that anymore! This was from a lost musical by Marshal Barer and Hugh Martin intended for Jeannette MacDonald and Liza herself. Then there was the irrepressible ‘And The World Goes ‘Round’, before my absolute favourite song of hers ‘New York, New York’, another by Kander and Ebb. On the one hand things now wound down for the encores because most of the band left the stage but that that just seemed to raise the emotional stakes to their highest. There was a poignant rendition of Cole Porter’s ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’ with just Stritch at the piano and a plaintive – and unaccompanied – ‘I’ll Be Seeing You’ that brought a tear to my eye … and that is not an easy thing to do I assure you.

Will we see her again London? Who knows? What it all meant to her was clear when she announced ‘I’ll remember this my whole life – my whole damn life’ and so will all those lucky enough to have been there.

Jim Pritchard

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