Seeing Liza Minnelli on stage can be a teeth-gritting experience. She sometimes shakes while introducing songs, and her voice quivers in and out of her punchy Broadway-esque repertoire. Yet it is Minnelli’s physicality, a monsoon of jazz hands and cancan kicks, paired with flirty, panting stage banter, that is fascinating to watch. Even when pared down, it works on the grandest of scales, and, to the untrained eye and ear, her over-the-top theatricality can come off as cartoonish, in the vein of Liberace or RuPaul. Until, that is, the 66-year-old decides to give her audience the old razzle-dazzle and show them that she can belt out a few solid, long notes.
“I’m not a very good singer,” she says on the phone from New York City, in a tone that oozes self-deprecation. “I just know how to present a song, and honey, I think I’ve been through enough to do it right!”
This whole downtrodden-diva-overcometh narrative is exactly what Minnelli’s magic is all about. Her doe-eyed vulnerability has helped her become one of the few performers in history to have won four Tonys, two Golden Globes, an Oscar, an Emmy and a special Grammy Legend Award. It has also defined much of her career, which has been one of chronic comebacks. Her current world tour has a Canadian stop at the Fallsview Casino in Niagara Falls, Ont., on Aug. 30.
“I’m telling you darling, I’m frightened about the whole thing,” Minnelli explains. “All I have on the road are six musicians and me. No dancers, no big orchestra, no nothin’. I’m learning to get out there and get used to it, but it takes weeks and weeks of work,” she says. “There’s no pre-arranged dialogue either … it’s just the audience and myself and we have to be partners.”
Bouncing back is nothing new in Liza land. She’s been married four times: the first union, to Peter Allen, ended when he told her he was gay; the last, to David Gest, ended in a messy divorce. There have been health problems—knee and hip replacements—and reports of alcohol and substance abuse, during and after her partying days at Studio 54. In fact, Minnelli’s loser-wanting-to-be-winner ambition has kept her schedule packed for years. In May she released her latest album, Liza Minnelli: Live at the Winter Garden, a reissuing of a live recording from her 1974 performance. The Canadian concert promises reprisals of her most famous tunes, including New York, New York, as well as songs from the 1972 movie Cabaret, directed by Bob Fosse.
“I can’t believe it’s been 40 years since I did that! Forty years since Bob taught me how to do that Money dance,” she says, referring to a number in which her character, Sally Bowles, sings of the evils and benefits of wealth. “It’s as relevant today as it was yesterday.”
Actress Molly Ringwald, who played Bowles in a 2001 Broadway revival of Cabaret, says survival is in Minnelli’s blood. “It’s part of her family history—she’s a Hollywood royal, so when you think of Sally Bowles, you immediately think of Liza because she was a character who so desperately wanted to come out on top after facing back-to-back betrayal.”
Of her days with her all-star mother, Judy Garland, and father, Vincente Minnelli, a big-time Hollywood director, Minnelli offers nothing but golden tales about Ira Gershwin and her idol and mentor, singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour.
“I don’t mean to sound blasé, but everybody in the house I grew up in was famous, and nobody cared. His advice to me was ‘Think about what you’re saying.’ Later on, when I saw Aznavour singing, I wanted to do what he did so I begged him to be my mentor. He taught me a lot about keeping the mystery alive.”
As for the complex relationship with her parents, she allows this: “It was how it was.”
Author James Gavin describes Minnelli as a “vulnerable phoenix who keeps rising from the ashes, no matter how hard she tries to destroy herself.” The author of Intimate Nights: the Golden Age of New York Cabaret says it’s a comforting message. “If she can survive all that she’s put herself through, there’s hope for us all.”