Wednesday, May 30, 2007

My Night With Liza and Liza


What starts out on a lark ends up with another adoring recruit from the ranks of Minnelli's most fervent fan base

By Steve Friess
05/30/07 - NVToday.Com
Liza Minnelli grabbed my arm painfully tight. Her ecstasy was understandable, I guess. She just couldn’t believe this was happening to her. It was a dream come true! She was a mere six rows from her idol, Liza Minnelli, and she was having a really difficult time containing herself, of not leaping on stage to help belt out the numbers she’s performed countless times.

For me, of course, it was a gag. A journalistic stunt. Something I could joke about later and write about on my blog and possibly include in a piece I was writing for Tuesday’s New York Times about a celebrity impersonators convention at the Imperial Palace. I envisioned regaling people at cocktail parties for years to come with this tale. “There was this time that I took a Liza impersonator to a Liza Minnelli concert in Vegas,” I’d be able to say.

And so here we were — Liza dead-ringer and former "Legends in Concert" performer Suzanne Goulet and me — at the real Liza’s historic “gypsy” show, a free, intimate performance after midnight at the Luxor for hundreds of performers and show-related people on the Strip, just as the Rat Pack used to do back in the day.

Yet by the time the remarkable night was over, it no longer seemed quite so funny. Not only did spending those hours with my Liza humanize her and alter my mocking impressions of people who make a living dressing up as a famous icon, but I also finally understood for the very first time in my long gay life what it is about the real Liza that sets so many queer hearts aflutter.

You see, I’ve never been that kind of gay. You know the ones I mean, those who become flamboyantly flustered at the very notion of a certain legion of female musical legends: Judy, Madonna, Cher, Tina, Liza. True, I carry a torch for Bette Midler and yes, anyone who began her career performing in a gay bathhouse has earned their bona (boner?) fides in divadom. But oddly my intrigue began not over a cocktail at a gay bar but as a teenager watching a film nobody else seemed to like, “For The Boys,” which charmed me to death and received lousy reviews and box office. And I never obsessed about her or wanted to be her; no, my lifelong musical obsession has been over Simon & Garfunkel. Make of that what you will.

So it’s never been my thing. I’ve never seen “Liza With a ‘Z.’ ” I only saw “Cabaret” in the past year and only because I was about to interview director Hal Prince for USA Today. Liza herself (the real one) actually chastised me last summer when I interviewed her for “The Strip” podcast and clearly was out of my depth. “Honey, you haven’t seen my show, have you?” No, I sure hadn’t. And, while I’m generally familiar with the Garland-Minnelli family history, it just never held a lot of intrigue to me.

It does now. I walked into the Luxor showroom prepared for unrelenting camp such that I felt it funny to bring my own in the form of Suzanne. But Suzanne herself was no joke; she had the moves, the hair and the voice down pat, although she felt slightly embarrassed showing up in her Liza look and having so many real-Liza fans gawk at her. Some were amused, some behaved as though we were defiling the real-Liza experience.
Later I’d understand. Liza took to the stage at about 12:30 am Monday in a shimmery white outfit and endeared the audience to her instantly with her frank talk of her efforts to lose weight and then sings a silly ode to “the greatest American woman in history,” Sara Lee. She spoke lovingly of and to her audience, as though she was astonished they felt she was worthy of their attention, and she told story after story of her life as Judy Garland’s daughter.

There was an explanation for every song she sang, many of them pieces of music she came into contact with thanks to her godmother Kay Thompson, most of which few of us had heard and many numbers of which she insisted she was trying out in public or the first time. She went through three or four costume changes, never cut a single corner vocally and performed a litany of dance numbers that few would have believed her capable.

There was a sense in that showroom that we were witnessing something historic because Liza herself was speaking of people, places and times that few who were present knew of or could personally recall. I wasn’t planning to stay the whole two-plus hours, but it was difficult to turn away when this 61-year-old, who had battled all sorts of health, marital and addiction issues, was working that hard to entertain, to reminisce, to be adored.

More than that, there was a sense that this was as close as any of us would get to the nostalgic eras of Vegas. Suzanne Goulet and her kind earnestly try to recreate it, but when the real thing is on stage, you just stay where you are and watch.

And so I did, until Liza belted out “New York, New York” as a tribute to her “Uncle Frank” and then lavished the audience with gratitude. Which just made you love her even more, of course, since we had done nothing for her but cheer her on.

Perhaps that’s all she craved.

Steve Friess is a Vegas-based freelance writer and podcaster whose book "Gay Vegas" will be published in June from Huntington Press.


Amy said...

I'd love to read the rest, but I'm "not authorized to view this resource." I'm told "You need to log in." Can you post the rest here?

Anonymous said...

yeah..what amy said!!!

Valastairekelly said...

Liza belted out “New York, New York” as a tribute to her “Uncle Frank”

I don't think she sings that as a tribute to Sinatra, that song was written for her and always sang it...

TheStripPodcast.Com said...

well, that's what she said during the concert. maybe she was just namedropping.

Anonymous said...

"You see I've never been that kind of gay"!!?? First of all friend, if you were charmed by Midler in "For The Boys" you are somewhere on the gay chart between Truman Capote and Paul Lynde--guaranteed. But why say that in the 1st place. I adore Liza's workand Bruce Springsteen's. What kind of a gay am I?