Liza Minnelli @ Southbank, London 1 March
As the publicist escorts a small army of photographers to the photo-pit, the bars at London’s Royal Festival Hall are full. Mostly middle-aged same-sex couples which isn’t surprising; Minnelli is a massive gay icon.
As we take our seats, the seven-piece band in snow-white tuxedoes and grey-hair start spreadin’ the news, with the unmistakable opening stabs of ‘New York, New York’.
Minnelli, met with an immediate standing ovation, snaps into Irwin Berlin’s classic ‘Alexander’s’ with gutsy breathiness. One of the greats, as if we need reminding, then she’s seamlessly into Sinatra’s ‘Teach Me Tonight’, pausing to share an appreciative moment and persuasive “please sit down”, “let them see”, “thank you my babies”.
She works an audience really well, joking, interacting; that front-room feel that’s so easy, so natural yet so few can accomplish.
Shuffling across stage, breathless, there’s concern for her and the demanding vocal of ‘Liza with a Z’ only partially dispels doubt, until wham!, from reclining position against the piano, like a boxer on the ropes, Minnelli delivers the sucker punch, the voice, the power, the crescendo of ‘He’s Funny That Way’. Liza Minnelli is in the building! ‘Maybe This Time’ then ‘Cabaret’, the phrase ‘once in a lifetime experience’ comes to mind.
Minnelli’s mastery of her craft is no surprise; her mother Judy Garland, described by Fred Astaire as; “the greatest entertainer who ever lived”, her father Vincente Minnelli, one of the most famous musical directors of the 20th Century.
It’s no surprise either that she’s so cherished in the gay community; “Fifty years ago things were very different, a person could have their passport confiscated, get jailed, beaten” she confides, “just for being yourself…” she pauses, the band start ‘What Makes a Man’, “…just for being gay”, and the audience are on their feet, ecstatic before she even sings a line.
Liza Minnelli, born a star, begat of stars; we want to know them, hear about them, be close to them. They are magic and untouchable, and tonight she is our conduit.
But our stars are human too; Judy’s drink and drug dependency is well documented. Vincente’s biographer Emanuel Levy writes; “He was openly gay in New York”, and perhaps this is the root of both Judy and Liza’s relationship with the gay community; they were women who knew, loved and understood a gay husband and father.
When introducing ‘On A Night Such As This’, mere mention of Dorothy, Garland’s character from the Wizard of Oz, gets rapturous response. The film is thought to be the origin of ‘a friend of Dorothy’, a coded phrase which gays recognised each other by when homosexuality was illegal.
The evening comes to a close in wonderful cyclic fashion with New York, New York heralding the climax. “I’ll remember this all my life” she promises, singing ‘Every Time We Say Goodbye’. There are flowers and Billy Stritch escorts her delicately, arm in arm from the stage.