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Arts & Entertainment
Liza With a Z
By Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
March 13, 2006
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There’s nothing like the adrenaline kick of a devotional audience. Even before she made her entrance on the arm of Tony Danza, Liza Minnelli had the sold-out Ziegfeld Theatre in a dither. The seats were all reserved, with name cards over the seat backs – JOAN COLLINS, WHOOPI GOLDBERG, HARVEY WEINSTEIN, ROSIE O’DONNELL – and whenever a celebrity made a red carpet entrance into the cavernous red-velvet-and-gold-swagged theatre, the murmurs escalated. Is that her? Is she here? The man behind us had run into her in the ladies’ room – he was her decorator – and the woman next to him was Liza’s realtor for her first apartment on Central Park South. Everyone in the audience had a connection to the star, whether personal or emotional, and more than a few of them appeared to have been at the original taping of LIZA WITH A Z at the Lyceum Theatre on the 31st of May 1972 – which was a date that appeared to hold as much importance to them as the death of Liza’s mother.

And then the cheers rang out and spotlights popped and, row by row, the sold-out crowd rose as Liza entered the house to take her seat. Loud and long applause, it appeared to be cathartic: relief that, at last, here she was to take all of us back to that night in 1972 when a star became a legend.

Not all of us were old enough, or astute enough, to have watched television on September 10, 1972, when LIZA WITH A Z was first aired. Maybe we missed it again the second and final time it was aired a year later. If you weren’t in the audience at the Lyceum Theatre, those two airings would have been your only chance to catch LIZA WITH A Z because the show’s been in the vaults until now – when, finally, it’s been restored and remastered for Showtime and DVD.

So if you knew this show only from the title song or the chart-topping soundtrack, or knew only that LIZA WITH A Z had won four Emmys, including Best Performance and Best Director, as well as a Peabody Award, and that Halston had done the costumes and Fosse the choreography, and that Kander and Ebb were involved, along with Marvin Hamlisch and Phil Ramone, then you might be understandably thrilled to finally, at long last, see what all the buzz was about and why this t.v. special has been so lauded and loved.

From the moment she makes her entrance silhouetted in black, wearing a white Halston pantsuit with a white fox stole, singing “Yes,” the Lyceum audience goes mad – just as the Ziegfeld did last night. It was nearly impossible to determine whether the cheers and applause were emanating from the soundtrack – or the audience all around us. You’re looking at her face, that beautifully iconic face, taking up the entire screen, and you’re computing her age – she celebrated sixty years the day before this screening, which makes her – twenty-six at the time of this concert. She’s in the prime of her powers: supremely confident, openly vulnerable, mistress of her body, with no doubt whatsoever about her gifts and her talent. And Fosse zooms in on that face, letting us see every flicker of emotion in those legendary eyes. And it’s no wonder Fosse was awarded an Emmy – for his direction of Liza’s version of “It Was A Good Time” is nothing short of mesmerizing, the equivalent of witnessing a nervous breakdown in the course of a seven-minute performance. To see Liza work this medley number, with its bits of childhood lullabies and spoken declarations, is to be reminded of “Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy where a woman confronts all the demons and disappointments of life in an attempt to master their hold over her psyche. In a matter of minutes, Liza takes us through childhood and adolescence and into adulthood, from a wounded and vulnerable child, to a dutiful daughter, to a young woman on the verge of collapse, and all the while repeating the mantras of survival, singing her way to what she hopes will be strength and good health. It’s nearly impossible to watch this one number and not zoom forward from 1972, right through to the present, and consider not only Liza’s life, but your own, and be reminded again how short the distance from innocence to hard-earned wisdom. This is a tour de force performance destined to remain indelibly printed upon memory.

Similarly, Liza’s take on “God Bless the Child” provokes a reconsideration of this Billie Holiday staple, and of the import of establishing one’s independence and individuality in a world which would too often attempt to squash difference. And to see Liza romping through “I Gotcha” with its idiosyncratic Fosse choreography is to immediately recognize the antecedent of nearly every music video, and particularly those of Michael and Janet Jackson. By the time Liza hits the stage in an incredibly flattering black velvet knicker outfit with a chorus of white-gloved dancers, it’s easy to imagine that every musical theatre trope has had its origins in this one television special, and when she sings “My Mammy,” full-throated, with an emotional power to rival her mother and/or any other renowned singer from the twentieth century, you can understand why everyone in the Ziegfeld is cheering and applauding, and quickly on their feet.

The woman is a dynamo, a testament to the beauty of baring your soul to let your talents shine brighter – and after last night’s screening of LIZA WITH A Z at the Ziegfeld, you could be forgiven for believing you’d witnessed the performance of a lifetime.