In 1999 and 2002, Liza Minnelli performed a pair of one-woman concert shows in Broadway and West End theaters. Both were recorded as live albums, and they form a fascinating pair of opposites…the low point and the high point in the autumn of a musical legend’s career.
In theory, 1999’s Minnelli On Minnelli sounded like a great idea for a show—Liza Minnelli performing a tribute to her father, the great Hollywood director Vincente Minnelli, made up entirely of songs from his many classic musical movies. But due to a combination of unfortunate factors, the end result turned out to be one of the biggest embarrassments of Liza’s career.
This is particularly odd because Minnelli is especially famous for her spectacularly great live albums. In fact, the best albums of her career other than her Broadway cast albums and the Cabaret soundtrack are all live albums…the London Palladium concert with her mother, the Winter Garden album, the Carnegie Hall recording, Liza With a Z…the list goes on and on. But this is easily the worst live album Minnelli ever made (trust me, I own all of them). The entire show and the recording it left behind is just a sad spectacle all around, and one of the few blemishes on a truly great performer’s otherwise illustrious career.
First of all, she’s in absolutely terrible voice here…she sounds like she has a severe sore throat and can’t seem to catch her breath. On top of that, she slurs her speech so much that she sounds like a stereotypical drunk in a bad comedy (her version of “Taking a Chance on Love” is particularly problematic in this regard; it’s become something of a running joke among those who know this album to refer to it as “Chakin’ a Shansh on Love”). For all I know, given the well-known problems she’s had with substance abuse, she may actually have been drunk on stage. To be honest, I actually hope she was, because frankly, I don’t want to live in a world where a legend like Liza Minnelli could give a performance this bad sober.
This wasn’t just an issue of one unluckily-timed bad performance on the night the recording was made, since album was recorded over two nights and she sounds pretty much the same throughout. And you can’t blame it purely on her advancing age, either…obviously her voice wasn’t going to be what it was in her prime by this point, but I’ve heard recordings by her made a decade later than this one that sound far better.
Compounding the problems with the performance itself are the poor choices made in structuring the material. Most of the songs are compressed into fragmentary medleys, so even if Liza had been in better form, very few of the songs last long enough to give her the opportunity to really stop the show.
She also relies much too heavily on her backup chorus here…there are times they seem to be carrying the songs more than she is. The only place where she seems to be having any fun is on an amusing rendition of “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore”, complete with a set of new lyrics written specifically for her (“I don’t even flinch each time I see/a seven-foot drag queen dressed like me”).
Apart from “Taking a Chance on Love”, the other low point comes at the climax, where Minnelli sings a desperate-sounding duet with a recording of her mother on “The Trolley Song”. Granted, she has a personal connection to the dead person she’s singing with, just like Natalie Cole did, so the result doesn’t come across as disrespectful like so many “duets” of this kind. Still, not only is the duet-with-a-preexisting-recording format severely unsuited to being done live, but putting Liza next to her famous mother at her professional peak only serves to highlight what spectacularly bad form she was in on this album.
Fortunately, this story has a happy ending…a hard-won one, but that just makes it all the more meaningful. Shortly after Minnelli On Minnelli was recorded, Liza was diagnosed with viral encephalitis, and was told she would probably never walk or speak again, let alone sing or dance. Liza refused to accept this, and after dedicating herself to a regimen of dance and vocal lessons, took the stage barely a year later with the greatest triumph of her later career, the one-woman show Liza’s Back, which was preserved on the album of the same name.
This production, which played first London and then New York, found her in vastly better form than Minnelli On Minnelli. Given the circumstances, her voice is absolutely phenomenal; it doesn’t equal the ecstatic belting of her heyday, but it’s the best she had sounded for quite a while, and she’d certainly never sound as good again. And the songs she sings here, such as “Never-Never Land” and “What Did I Have That I Don’t Have?”, are perfectly chosen to compliment the weary-but-triumphant sound of her voice at this stage.
Liza’s Back offers vintage renditions of her trademark standards (“Cabaret”, “Theme from New York, New York”, “But the World Goes Round”) that could hold their own with the versions recorded in her prime. Particularly impressive are “Mein Herr”, which is preceded here by a superbly delivered dramatic monologue, performed in character as Sally Bowles, and “Maybe This Time”, which gets arguably its most touching performance ever here…it feels like she understands the song’s meaning here on a level she never quite had before.
Her rendition of “Some People” from Gypsy showcases a galvanizing, triumphant energy that seems to be exulting in her knowledge of her own resurgence. She does seem to be losing her breath a bit on her performance of “Rose’s Turn”, but this just makes the song sound more like the onstage nervous breakdown it was always meant to be…rather like Tyne Daly’s version, only significantly better sung.
She also offers a devastating trio of songs about the simple act of crying, and a deeply felt version of “Something Wonderful” supposedly dedicated to her difficult but rewarding relationship with then-husband David Gest. The album’s title-song, a newly-commissioned composition by longtime collaborators John Kander and Fred Ebb, is first-rate, a jubilant and defiant announcement of her return with lyrics that are surprisingly honest and forthcoming about her problems (‘I took my bottle of pills/and tossed them away/I emptied the booze/Went back to AA’).
The show even features a song from Liza’s disastrous first attempt to bring her nightclub act to a Broadway theater, the 1977 Kander and Ebb pseudo-musical The Act. The team’s score for that one was far from their best work, but the showstopping cakewalk “City Lights” is generally agreed to be the best thing in it, and this explosive performance easily outdoes the one on the earlier show’s cast album.
But the most special moment of all on this album is a brief but breathtaking fragment of her mother’s legendary classic “Over the Rainbow”, a song she had always refused to perform before: she capped it with a heartrending cry of “Thank you, Mama!” You can hear from the album alone that the audience at these performances was in absolute ecstasies, as well they should be—this was the Liza we all knew and loved, and the show and its accompanying album were easily the highlight of the later phase of her career.