Mike Atkinson

Interview: Liza Minnelli

Posted in interviews, Nottingham Post by Mike A on May 16, 2008

It all began so well. Following a string of cancellations, many at the last minute, which had dragged on for several weeks, I was finally on the phone to New York, and scarcely able to believe my good fortune. Better still, my interviewee sounded bright and cheerful. (“Hey Mike, how are ya! I’m so happy to be on the phone with you now!”) Nothing could go wrong now, could it?

Venturing a mild ice-breaking witticism, I remarked that whenever Liza’s office gave me a new date, an old song of hers had always run through my mind: “Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky.” For a split second, she laughed. Or, to put it more accurately: after a somewhat dismissive “No, no, no”, she emitted a semi-strangulated gurgle that could loosely be interpreted as laughter.

Recklessly, I took this as encouragement. Oh, we were going to get along famously!

It had already been a full week for Liza. “I’ve been rehearsing, and we’ve been working on some pre-records for the sound on stage, and all the stuff. It’s been busy.”

Reflecting on my own nervousness prior to the interview, I wondered whether Liza ever feels under pressure herself, particularly when people expect her to act in a certain way around them.

“Oh yes, I think everyone always expects me to be fancy, and I’m not. I’m straight ahead, and I’m a hard worker.”

But does that ever cause her pressure? “No – I love it, or I wouldn’t be doing it.”

The response of each night’s audience has always been of central importance. What about those nights when she has to work harder than usual, in order to get the level of response that she is looking for?

“I never think of it as work. To me it’s a series of little movies that I’m making. Because in one character I’ve got, the character has blonde hair, and she wears pink, and she does this or that, and so I have a whole breakdown in each song. It’s like a method acting breakdown in songs. So therefore they don’t get bored, because I don’t wanna go and see somebody singing a song who’s bored. Do you?”

Uh-oh, she’s beginning to sound a little prickly. I might be going in too hard, too soon. Well, let’s stick to the script anyway. How does Liza resolve the conflict between wanting to introduce new material that might take her in a fresh direction, and the expectations of an audience who want to hear the old signature songs?

“Sing everything!”

A quick laugh, and an awkward pause. The briskness of the reply and the depth of the silence spoke volumes. Feeling like I had just asked the most moronically obvious question in the history of showbiz reporting, I made a grab for the lifeline marked “new material”. Will there be any new material on the forthcoming UK tour, I wondered?

“Yes, I have this stuff on my godmother, Kay Thompson.”

Indeed, the second half of each show will be given over to a 45 minute tribute to Thompson, who is perhaps best known over here for her portrayal of New York fashion editor Maggie Prescott (“Think Pink!”) in the classic 1957 movie Funny Face.

“She was a real behind the scenes person, but she was the musical force behind MGM. In her thirties, she ran the music department of MGM. It’s amazing, you know? And then of course she wrote Eloise at the Plaza.”

As I later discovered, this was one of a series of four best-selling children’s books that Thompson wrote during the 1950s, describing the adventures of a lively little girl called Eloise, who lived in The Plaza Hotel in New York City. As Thompson’s equally lively young goddaughter, Liza provided the inspiration for this much loved character.

Much loved in the USA, that is. Not wishing to display my ignorance – that “of course” made it sound like another clanger waiting to happen – I let Liza continue without interruption.

“Kay brought vocal singing into a whole other realm. You had to hear it to believe it. And she did this night club act. I saw it; I was two. I was sitting on my mom’s lap, across from my father, and I’ll never forget seeing those feet and arms flying around; it was wonderful.”

A film project based on Kay Thompson’s life has been under discussion for quite some time – it even gets a couple of mentions on Liza’s official website – but Liza was not about to be drawn on the exact nature of her involvement.

“I don’t know. I stay out of everything until somebody calls me. I find it’s easier.”

After another awkward pause, I found myself remarking – out loud, mind you – that my interviewee wasn’t exactly giving much away. Goodness, where did that little show of boldness come from?

It had an interesting effect. Suddenly, Liza was insisting that I come to the Nottingham show – even spelling out the name of her personal assistant, so that I might come backstage and see her in person.

This is the sort of pleasantry that sometimes takes place right at the end of an interview, when things have gone particularly well. It doesn’t usually take place within the first five minutes, when things aren’t going so great.

With the benefit of hindsight, various interpretations can be made. Either this was a gracious, generous gesture, intended to extend the hand of friendship towards a flustered, floundering interviewer – or else it was a last ditch gambit to get the dithering, star-struck chump onside, by any means possible. It could have been a gentle, tactful way of drawing our sorry conversation to a premature end – or it could have been the signal from a bored, testy, un-cooperative diva that this inconsequential minion’s time was well and truly up. Had Liza been strong-armed into the call against her will? Indeed, did all those endless cancellations and re-schedules tell their own story?

Bearing in mind the unmitigated fiasco that followed, it is tempting to lean towards the latter conclusion. For from this point on, Liza more or less shut down on me entirely. Virtually every question was stone-walled. Answers were mostly terse and uninformative. Those deadly pauses grew more frequent.

Still, on I ploughed. An edge of panic crept in: drying my mouth, constricting my larynx, and sending my voice squeaking up an octave. It was, in a very real sense, a ball-busting experience.

So, here’s Liza explaining how she came to guest on “Mama”, a track by the massively popular emo-rockers My Chemical Romance.

“Well, they called me.” (Pause.) “It was real simple.”

Yes, but I guess a lot of people must come calling, so what was it about them that appealed?

“I like their music.” (Pause.) “I have the first album.”

It’s quite emotional, dramatic stuff, isn’t it, for rock music? (Oh, I wasn’t giving up without a struggle.)

“Very much so. I mean, I think it’s very forceful.”

And here’s Liza talking about her recent appearance on the televised 80th birthday tribute for Bruce Forsyth: “I’m so glad that came about.” (Seriously folks, these are the highlights.)

Liza’s sister Lorna Luft recently played here – in the very same venue, in fact – performing her tribute to their mother Judy Garland. (A bravura performance, and Lorna was a charming, delightful interviewee.) But what did Liza think of the show that her sister had worked so hard on, and toured for so long?

“I never saw the whole show, but I know she was pleased with it.”

OK, back to the tour. If in doubt, let them get back to plugging the product. A fail-safe strategy. So, Liza, have you had to train hard? I believe you have a very punishing training schedule.

“Yeah, but all dancers do.” (Long pause)

And this is your first tour of the UK outside London in a long time, is that right?

“Yes, I’m so looking forward to it.”

What the hell, let’s finish on a tough one. (No, of course I wasn’t going to ask about the short-lived, ill-starred marriage to David Gest. Someone from The Guardian tried that one, and felt the full force of Liza’s wrath. Besides, I was there to talk about her work, not her private life.)

Liza, the top-priced tickets for your Nottingham show are the most expensive that we’ve ever seen here, by some distance. Can you reassure the people of Nottingham that they will be getting value for money?

“Oh, my goodness! I don’t know anything about the prices for the tickets, but they’ll certainly get the best show that I can do. I always do that. And I’m looking forward to it!”

There are many ways to tell a story. You can wield the hatchet (what a diva!), you can enter the confessional booth (what a screw-up!), or you can try to offer a thoughtful, even-handed analysis of what went wrong. (She’s Pisces and I’m Aquarius; it was never meant to be.)

But at least on one thing, we can all be clear: the legendary, redoubtable, slightly crazy but undeniably magnificent Liza Minnelli is looking forward to meeting us.

And so are we, Liza. So are we.

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