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It's just me (and Billy Stritch): Superstar Liza Minnelli to perform Sunday at Broward Center

BY STEVE ROTHAUS, srothaus@MiamiHerald.com

Liza Minnelli, the Oscar-Tony-Emmy-Grammy-Golden Globe-winning superstar, says her greatest talent is aligning herself with other talented people.

Besides her parents, Judy Garland and Golden Age film director Vincente Minnelli, Liza has worked closely with director-choreographer Bob Fosse, French composer/entertainer Charles Aznavour, and John Kander & Fred Ebb, who wrote Cabaret, Liza With a “Z” and Theme from New York, New York.

Ebb, the lyricist who died 10 years ago, had particular influence on her performing style, says Minnelli, who’ll sing in concert Sunday at Broward Center for the Performing Arts.

“I was lucky. I had Fred Ebb my whole life,” Minnelli says. “He knew me so well. He would write like I talked. It was easy. So when he passed away, and I did things without him -- even before he went -- I thought, ‘Just say what you’re thinking: You’re in a room with however many people. The doors are shut. You’re all talking to each other. What would you say?’ Hi!'"

Minnelli, 68 on March 12, grew up in the limelight. As a small child, she played on the sets at M-G-M studios where her parents ruled the musical roost.

“They were both wonderful to me,” said Minnelli, who in 1960 gave up dreams of being a professional ice skater and realized she wanted to be a live stage performer.

Even though her mother was one of the world’s greatest concert performers of the 1950s and ‘60s, Minnelli says that as a girl she rarely paid attention to the stage.

“I grew up in Hollywood,” she says. “They were all making movies at that time. When I was growing up, I didn’t realize that performing live could be that interesting and wonderful. When I saw Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway for the first time, I thought, ‘Oooh, maybe I’d rather do that.’

“The first time I really enjoyed live performance was when I saw Broadway,” she says. “As far as people’s concerts, I was a kid. Frank Sinatra didn’t influence me much.” Many years later, she would headline with Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. in a worldwide tour called The Ultimate Event.

judy-lizaIn 1964, 18-year-old Minnelli joined Garland for two concerts at the London Palladium. A year later, Liza won her first Tony Award starring in her first Broadway musical, Flora, the Red Menace, written by Kander & Ebb.

Not counting a cameo at age 3 in Garland’s 1949 musical, In the Good Old Summertime, Minnelli made her movie debut in 1967’s Charlie Bubbles. In 1972, she starred in the film version of Cabaret (winning the Best Actress Oscar) and Liza With a “Z”: A Concert for Television that brought her the Emmy.

Minnelli, who’s been married four times and repeatedly says never again, is recuperating from a broken wrist that nearly sidelined her last October from sister Lorna Luft’s breast cancer fundraiser in New York.

“It’s healed up, it’s great. I’ve got a few pins in there, but it’s great,” says Minnelli, who’s also publicly battled alcoholism; had several worn-out body parts (both hips, one knee) replaced; and recovered 14 years ago in Fort Lauderdale from a near-fatal bout of viral encephalitis. (“Yeah, a lot of fun.”)

These days, Minnelli says, she’s feeling “very, very good.”

She spends much of her time fundraising for breast cancer and AIDS research.

“I lost so many friends to AIDS. And my sister had breast cancer,” she says.

Minnelli says that despite a lifetime in the public eye and after all the illnesses, she won’t consider retiring from live performing.

“Because I like it. I enjoy it,” she says. “It creates, basically, a tremendous gratitude. And then what happens, in trying to connect -- and really connect, not just doing the show, but looking at people and singing to them and seeing if they were affected by any special subject -- I’m very close with the audience. Probably more than anybody else except the stand-up comic, and that I don’t do.”

Minnelli’s Sunday concert in Fort Lauderdale is dubbed, “Simply Liza.”

“In other words I’m by myself,” she says. “I have 12 musicians. I may tear it down a little bit because I want it to be really intimate. I may go with like seven or six. And of course [pianist/musical director] Billy Stritch. He’s great!”

According to Minnelli, “people are saying that I’m singing better than ever” and she’ll perform “the songs I like and the songs that people have requested.”

“I love songs that have a story. Like little movies,” she says. “I love Aznavour, you know. I’m doing two of his songs. One is You’ve Let Yourself Go, which I did way back. I started with that. It’s funny because I was only 19. He came to see me and he loved it. That’s when I went to France and said, ‘Will you teach me?’ Because I loved what he did. He acted every song.

“The other one I’m singing is a song that he sings about a drag queen -- being a drag queen. I’m a woman being a man playing a drag queen. It seems to go over quite well. He said ‘Are you sure?’ I said, ‘Let me try!’ It’s called What Makes a Man a Man. It's people’s inner feelings that I love, that interest me.” “What they think about and what they don’t talk about sometimes. So I thought this was wonderful because it was written so long ago. Way before an uprising or this or that. Anything. And it was like a terrible secret then. That’s the story of it. It has great pride in it, too.”

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