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COVER STORY

She's Still Chasing Rainbows

At 51, Liza Minnelli shakes off rumors and ailments to embrace her mother's legend.

July 20, 1997|Patrick Pacheco | Patrick Pacheco, based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

MONTREAL — Liza Minnelli is searching for a way to explain who she is and what it is she does. Her brow is furrowed, her familiar dark features lost in concentration.

"I've got it!" she says, her large eyes suddenly gleaming. "Look at circus families, go right down the line, the Fratellini Brothers, the Flying Wallendas, whatever. That's what I was born into. That's what I do. That's why I love it so much. It's in my blood. I could never do anything else any more than any of them could've left the circus."

It's an apt parallel for Minnelli--daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, granddaughter of vaudevillians Frank and Ethel Gumm--combining as it does the thrill of high-wire, daredevil professionalism with the threat and punishment of perilous falls and broken lives.

Minnelli is celebrating the professional lineage in a concert tour, now 6 months old, that arrives at the Pantages Theatre for three performances, July 31 to Aug. 2. At the same time, the darker side of "circus life" has swirled around the 51-year-old star, fed by reports that she has lapsed into past self-destructive behavior, following all too closely in the footsteps of her mother. The rumors have been exacerbated by a hospital stay in February for removal of a polyp from her vocal cords (this on top of hip-replacement surgery two years ago).

Minnelli dismisses the stories as sensationalist rumor-mongering. "It just sells more papers," she says.

It was the joy and unalloyed sentiment of a family tradition of making people feel good, however, that was on display in the final concert of her engagement last month at the Casino de Montreal in Canada, from her opening number of Irving Berlin's "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and her signature "Cabaret" to a closing anthem of "The Day After That" from Kander & Ebb's "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

At her best, Minnelli is what her friend and mentor, French singer Charles Aznavour, has exhorted her to be since he first presented her, at age 19, as his discovery to the people of Paris: "The voice of the people. Whatever they've been through, you've been through it too."

*

Backed by the Cortes Alexander Trio and wearing a black sequined dress with a long pink boa, Minnelli charms an audience of mostly middle-aged and elderly Montrealers who have paid as much as $500 Canadian to hear her sing a mix of standards, warming when she includes some in French. Still recuperating from the operation, Minnelli's voice is wobbly and she struggles to hit and hold notes she could nail effortlessly 20 years ago. It's not until late in the concert, however, that she gives the reason for the raspiness.

"So if it's crummy, we'll stay until we get it right," she says good-naturedly before launching into a medley of soft, jazzy ballads from her latest CD, "Gently," a departure from the brassy style she perfected early on. Although it is arguably one of the best moments of the night, the audience begins to fidget. But it falls into a hush when the singer starts to talk about her family.

"This was my father and mother's favorite song, they were so very much in love," she says. Then she launches into "Embraceable You," a romantic Gershwin ballad that conjures a harmonious picture of what her family may have been like in 1949 when 2 1/2-year-old Liza made her film debut in "In the Good Old Summertime," starring her mother. For a moment it obscures the fact that less than three years later they would be divorced and that 20 years later, Garland--bankrupt and nearly unemployable--would die of a drug overdose in London. After the song, Minnelli explains why she has been more concerned with her lineage of late.

"This year my mother would've been 75," she says, the line alone earning sustained applause. "And I promised her that I would never sing one of her songs. But I think it's time to break that promise. And I think she'd understand."

A cappella, Minnelli sings her mother's standard "You Made Me Love You." The effect is eerie. The phrasing, the vibrato, the sobbing catches of emotions in her voice evoke Garland, whose a cappella rendition of "Over the Rainbow" at the lip of the Palace Theatre stage in New York in the early '50s is legend. From then on, the audience is, as they say in French, beurre (butter). After two encores, Minnelli gets a standing ovation.

*

In the narrow hall outside her dressing room after the show, Minnelli is wound up like a top, spinning around greeting guests, agreeably signing autographs, hugging friends and strangers alike--not in the air-kissy manner of most celebrities but pressed tightly. Everyone from grip to dresser to security guard appears to be on a first-name basis.

"It's sincere," says Minnelli's friend Willa Kim, the Broadway costume designer. "She really is everybody's best pal. She's generous to a fault."

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