Saturday, March 12, 2016

Birthday Girl: Shine On

The planet spins, and the world goes 'round - and suddenly, Miss Minnelli is 70. Happy birthday, Liza May.

With her familial legacy of disaster, simply surviving this long is a genuine achievement. That's she done so - after so many decades of ups and downs, triumphs and ghastly messiness - with a measure of perspective and grace is more like a miracle.

Here we see her circa 1980, taking the most unlikely material - a vaudeville/Tin Pan Alley chestnut, associated, yes, with Mama, but going back long before that - and turning it into another of her anthems of hope against hope, of the redeeming, magical power of some kind of love. She pulls that love - with a need that seems something beyond bottomless - from her audiences, and she draws it out with a staggering mass of contradictions. What artist is more disciplined - dancing on two replaced hips, going on when obviously at the end of a very long rope - and who more overindulged, eccentric, fantastical? Subtle and vulgar, belting and tremulous, always teetering, with one is never quite sure how much control, on the brink equally of tragedy and glossy show-biz perfection.  When it works, it's a magic that only starts with a voice that was never more than an approximation of her mother's clarion instrument (and a great deal more fragile, as it turns out), but that builds from there based on her own very specific and individual charisma, a steely core that is far more than merely genetic (as one can see, if in no other way, by comparing her sororally; Lorna is a fine, perfectly correct, and generally quotidian presence - too sane to catch fire, albeit in private life probably all the better for it).

I only saw her once, in concert, and it was not a night, alas, to remember. She was badly presented, in startlingly unflattering costumes and in only middling - at best - voice. One felt unkind just being there, as she tried, and tried, and tried again, to make it work, to - in the phrase now so immortalized by our dear Thombeau - keep it together, and make it all work, one more time. It didn't. Sometimes you can, sometimes you can't; kicks, then kicks in the shins. It didn't help that 'round about the same time, in the same challenging venue, I'd seen two wholly different singers: Ella Fitzgerald and kd lang. One was in the homestretch, a frail wraith of a woman who at first seemed almost unaware of her setting, a ragdoll gently placed center stage on a stool, alone on the vast stage, but who when the music played turned, as if by sorcery, into a consummate artist, gripping, mesmerizing, total. The other was pure youth and energy, taking her audience on a wild ride, strutting and kicking and teasing the mass of enthralled mostly shall-we-say tailored ladies, who by the end were screaming and more wrung out than the seemingly inexhaustible performer. Next to them, Liza was... wan - and that's one thing a star of her calibre simply can't be.

But she goes on; falls, rises. The planet spins, and, as few other performers have quite the same right to say, she's still here. There's life in the old girl yet, and I doubt we've seen the last of her. Her voice is just a memory, her diction impossible, her spacey, wide-eyed daffiness now almost overwhelming; but at the core, she's a hard-edged survivor, and don't you forget it. You don't get where she has, even with all her foolishness and at times appalling personal and artistic choices, just on luck. In the end, all of the nonsense, well - it doesn't alter a thing. Take it from her: life is a cabaret, and she can make it any where. Ring them bells, turn on those colored lights, and, hey leader, strike up the band: Liza's birthday is more than enough cause to celebrate in my book. Divine, decadent, and damn near indestructible: shine on, shine on, for this and many more Januaries, Februaries, Junes, and Julys...


  1. “Don't listen to anyone who doesn't know how to dream.” ― Liza Minnelli

    She is (as you know) one of my all-time heroines... Jx

  2. Well, she's outlived her mother but still has some catching up to do in the husband department.

  3. Thank you for such a well considered piece -- there is something miraculous in her ever having invented herself, let alone having survived as long as she has. I've seen her in various stages of ability, from the Liza With A "Z" tour in '74 through some recent surprise gigs at benefits and in cabaret rooms around NYC, and even at those when she was in top form vocally (the Steppin' Out Tour at Radio City Music Hall), her choices (artistically, musically, sartorially) were alternately thrilling and nauseating in equal measure, but the love she inspired (hell, begged for, demanded) was served up happily by us minions. Good, bad, stunning, or lackluster, Liza was never less than an event, a force of nature, and humble mummer all rolled into one, and there will never be another.

  4. In her spectacular successes, she is the consummate pro that I envision myself being (despite a profound lack of musical talent) in my dreams and fantasies.

    In her frailties and failures, I see my real self - muddling through, trying, falling, getting up, and trying again.

    I am Liza.