Liza spoke to The Montreal Gazette in advance of her concert.
Jazz Fest: Minnelli protects the family business
By Bernard Perusse, GAZETTE MUSIC COLUMNISTJuly 4, 2012
Liza Minnelli: interviewers raise her cackles.
Photograph by: Ruven Afanador, Montreal International Jazz Festival
Montreal showed love for its own Rufus Wainwright when he presided over the jazz festival’s opening-night blowout for 100,000 last week, but if Liza Minnelli had been in town, she might have found somewhere else to go.
During a recent conference-call interview with a small group of Montreal entertainment writers, Minnelli was asked about Wainwright – or, more specifically, Wainwright’s 2007 live album Rufus Does Judy at Carnegie Hall. In that performance, Wainwright recreated Judy Garland’s 1961 Judy at Carnegie Hall concert and album. Minnelli, Garland’s daughter, was 15 when her mother staged that legendary comeback.
“Oh, please!” Minnelli said when the Wainwright album was raised. Asked whether she had seen or heard the tribute, she wasted no time with the reply. “No! Of course not,” she said, laughing derisively. Would she like to see it? “No. I saw my mother,” she said, as the door slammed shut on the topic.
Truthfully, however, Minnelli was friendly and enthusiastic, if not loquacious, about pretty much everything else that came up during the free-form question-and-answer session set up by the jazz-festival organizers. Short outbursts of cackling laughter punctuated several of her replies.
If she can’t muster up much enthusiasm for the homage to her mother, it seems likely that she is simply being protective of her family legacy. She participated, for example, in the audio commentary when The Band Wagon – the 1953 musical comedy directed by her father, Vincente Minnelli – was released on DVD.
“I’m a fan of my father’s work,” Minnelli said. “And he would talk to me so much about what he was doing and why he was doing it: ‘Did you like this? And what about that?’ And I think that’s why I have such an interest in what the stage looks like when I perform. I love the lighting aspect and the presentation of it all, as well as the scene and program.”
Early in her own career, Minnelli, then 18, saw Charles Aznavour, who also had a major influence on her. “It floored me,” Minnelli said. “I thought, ‘Oh, my God. He’s made every song a movie. A different character.’ That’s what I want to do. So I went to him and I said, ‘Please, can I be your student? And will you be my mentor?’ And he said, ‘Sure.’ And he trained me and he wrote for me. And he’s a huge part of my life.” The two lifelong friends performed together at Paris’s Palais des congrès in 1991, and the highly acclaimed concert was released on CD in 1995.
Another archival live performance by Minnelli, a 1974 show at New York’s Winter Garden Theatre, was only recently made available again, having been withdrawn shortly after the original performance because of contractual conflicts over the material.
Minnelli won a Tony Award the year of the Winter Garden show, having also won a Tony for her role in Flora the Red Menace in 1965 and a best-actress Oscar for her role in the 1972 musical Cabaret. Her live-concert television special Liza with a Z was also broadcast in 1972, bringing her an Emmy. She won a Grammy Legend award in 1990, making her one of the elite artists who have won all four major entertainment prizes.
Minnelli acknowledged that the early ’70s were a heady time for her. “I loved that period,” she said.
Minnelli toured with Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. as a member of the legendary Rat Pack in 1988, after Dean Martin dropped out of the reunion. “I thought, ‘Wait a minute! I’m not the same generation. These are, like, Uncle Frank, Uncle Dean.’ But I said all right. And I thought it would be such fun, and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, they’re going to write great things and it’ll be so well organized.’ And then I asked Frank and Sammy, ‘What do you want me to do?’ And they said, ‘Whatever you want.’ So I ended up having to write it myself,” Minnelli said, laughing heartily.
A 1997 operation on her vocal cords was met with characteristic defiance. “In retraining (my vocal cords), I had to go to some good vocal coaches, who knew what they were doing,” she said. “So I learned
to sing more properly, without changing the sound of anything.”
In 2000, Minnelli faced an even more serious challenge: a case of encephalitis so severe that doctors predicted she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair and be unable to speak again, let alone sing.
“I never, for one second, thought that I wouldn’t get over whatever it was. Learning to walk and talk again – they told me I wouldn’t, and I thought, ‘They’re wrong.’ ”
Asked what kept her going during that setback, Minnelli first cited her faith in God. “My whole brain just went, ‘No, no! There’s got to be a way. Think about it! There’s got to be a way!’ My father always told me that,” she added.
Minnelli said her upcoming concert for the jazz festival will feature a small band and will focus almost entirely on her most recent album, Confessions, released in 2010. Some selections from the 1974 Winter Garden repertoire have been added, she said.
Amusingly, she expressed shock and delight when it was mentioned in the set-up to a question that she was the recipient of the festival’s Ella Fitzgerald Award this year. “I am?” she shot back. “Oh my God, she was my favourite. I’m so thrilled. And she was always so kind to me whenever I was with her. The nicest woman you’d ever want to meet. And my God, what a musician! She thought in terms of instruments when she scatted. She’d be a trumpet, then she’d be a flute, then she’d be a sax. Just wonderful!”
A 2006 appearance with My Chemical Romance on their album The Black Parade kept the Minnelli name in front of a new generation. “They just called me. And the Pet Shop Boys, that just happened,” she said, referring to her 1989 album Results, co-produced and written by the duo. “It’s nice that people think of me. I think it’s because I love music and I’m not stuck up.” Minnelli said she also enjoys such current artists as Lady Gaga and Keb’ Mo’.
A role in the television comedy Arrested Development also exposed her to a younger demographic. “I loved it,” she said, laughing. “And it was as funny offstage as it was on screen.”
Contemporary associations aside, Minnelli remains one of the last holdovers from an era of old-school showbiz glamour that doesn’t exist in quite the same form anymore.
“There are a lot of very glamorous people, but I find a lot of that glamour false. It’s kind of showy,” she said. “I think real glamour is someone who looks comfortable and who is considerate and relevant and present in anything they do.”