BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com
Her mother may have been born in a trunk, but since day one Liza Minnelli has lived life in the glare of a spotlight.
After countless interviews, the Oscar-winning musical star says she’s still managed to keep her real-life self to herself.
“I learned to grow up in the public eye and I learned how to keep my privacy,” Minnelli says. She won’t reveal how.
“I’m not going to tell you! That’s going to keep it private,” laughs Minnelli, who performs in concert Tuesday, April 10, at Hard Rock Live in Hollywood. “It’s true. When I go home, my home is my home. I have three dogs and they don’t bark. They’re very calm because I raised them.”
Minnelli sees her half-century career as a series of “lucky breaks.”
In 1964, she appeared with mother Judy Garland for several concerts at the London Palladium. The next year, at age 19, Minnelli became the youngest woman to win a leading actress Tony, for the Broadway musical Flora the Red Menace, directed by George Abbott with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb.
Her longtime association with Kander and Ebb is etched in a canon of famous songs and shows: Cabaret, Liza With a "Z," Theme from "New York, New York."
In 1974, Kander, Ebb, Cabaret director Bob Fosse and musical director Marvin Hamlisch created a show called Liza, which she performed at Broadway’s Winter Garden theater, winning her a second Tony. The album, Liza Minnelli Live at the Winter Garden, will be re-released Tuesday, April 3, on CD and download from MasterworksBroadway.
Everyone seems to know Minnelli’s turbulent life story: The only child of Garland and MGM director Vincente Minnelli; married four times (to Australian singer Peter Allen, film producer Jack Haley Jr., sculptor Mark Gero and promoter David Gest); a worldwide star who’s also won two additional Tonys, a Grammy, an Emmy and two Golden Globes. She’s publicly battled alcoholism; had several worn-out body parts (both hips, a knee) replaced; and recovered 12 years ago in Fort Lauderdale from a near-fatal illness.
“I had brain encephalitis. That’s a bit of an issue, yes,” Minnelli says. “It’s funny because they told me I would never walk or talk again, which is a bit of hard news to take. ... They told me that and I said, ‘Nah, that can’t be right. There’s got to be a way, got to be a way. What do you know how to do?' And I thought, I know how to rehearse. So I started with counting and saying the alphabet over and over and over again. And I did the same thing with walking. One step at a time.”
Two years later, Minnelli performed in a New York City concert appropriately titled, Liza’s Back.
Since then, Liza’s never left. She’s lobbied for gay rights, been on all the network talk shows and won young admirers through guest spots on the quirky sitcom Arrested Development. Minnelli had a big year in 2010: She appeared in the movies’ Sex and the City 2, a funny Snickers TV commercial with Aretha Franklin and released an album of standards called Confessions — made in her New York City apartment, she says.
“I recorded it in my bedroom because I had a broken knee. [Music director] Billy Stritch, who’s just wonderful, I called him and said, ‘I’m going nuts. Let’s do something.’ So he brought a small piano in and we just started to play, and to laugh, and to remember songs together. [Decca Records] heard it and thought this is good. So, it ended up being released.”
Much of Minnelli’s current concert act is comprised of material from Confessions. “More ballads, more intimate songs,” Stritch says. “She doesn’t have to work so hard. Those are songs she did so well, anyway.”
Minnelli still performs the numbers her fans demand, including Cabaret and New York, New York.
"I sing them every night like I’ve never sung them before," she says. "Like it’s the first time I’ve ever sung them, because someone in the audience might never have heard it."
Stritch, 50, who began working with Minnelli during her 1991 Radio City Music Hall show, was with her in 2008 when she returned to Broadway in the Tony-winning Liza’s At The Palace engagement.
During that four-week run, Minnelli paid tribute to her mother by singing Garland’s “Palace medley” (Shine On, Harvest Moon / Some of These Days / My Man / I Don’t Care), which Judy first performed during her Tony-winning run there in 1951.
One song Minnelli won’t sing, ever: Over the Rainbow. “It’s been sung. I don’t like when anybody sings it,” she says.
Stritch says it’s not unusual for concert fans to shout requests for the Garland anthem. “I’m still shocked and surprised how many times people will scream out from the audience, ‘Sing Over the Rainbow.’ So many people have her so locked in with her mother.”
Fans often approach Stritch and say, “I saw you a couple of years ago playing for Judy.’ He gently corrects them: “Oh, no, it was Liza.”
The public treats Garland as “an icon,” Stritch says. “It’s not like she’s a real person.”
And fans often don’t consider that Minnelli was just 23 years old when her mother died of an accidental prescription drug overdose at age 47 in 1969.
“People don’t think about that. They can be very insensitive,” Stritch says.
He recalls the first December after they met, eating with Minnelli in a restaurant when a radio began to play her mother’s holiday standard, Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.
“She couldn’t stand it. She had to leave. It was just too much,” Stritch says. “She’s fine with all that now.”
Time has helped.
For years, “there was a fear she would end up the same way and not outlive her mother,” Stritch says. “When she hit 50 there was a sense of relief.”
“She’s a lot more centered in the last few years,” he says. “She’s relaxed and doesn’t get bothered by anything.”
Minnelli has remained close with Garland’s two younger children, Lorna and Joe Luft.
These days, she's cautious cultivating personal relationships.
"You learn as you go along. If you like somebody, it's great, but don't tell them things that you don't want them to talk about," she says. "Be careful. Think about it. And you learn if you can trust them or not."
Now 66, Minnelli is comfortable enough to reveal another detail from her personal life:
“One of the promises I made to my mom was I said I will never, ever use you. Ever. I won’t use you to get a job. I won’t use you to get in the papers. I love you, I respect you. And she said, ‘All right darling, I know that.’ And so I just kept my promise.”