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Liza Must Go On

For showbiz’s ultimate survivor, life has been one hell of a cabaret. But it’s marvelous all the same.

It’s 11:30 p.m. on a freezing cold night in Woonsocket, Rhode Island, but Liza Minnelli is cozy at the 24-hour Patriot’s diner, with its retro bread ads pinned to the wall and a teenage waitress who calls everyone “hon.” Minnelli orders tea, then chicken soup to take back to her room. Her stomach is acting up, she explains to her director, and she turns to me. “I have so much trouble losing weight,” she says, petting her abdomen. “But I’ve lost 35 pounds just doing this show.”

Liza’s cast and crew all adore this diner. It’s become their hangout during this week of out-of-town tryouts. In only two days, they move to New York, where Liza’s at the Palace opens on December 3 for a limited Broadway run. Beneath the surgical diner lights, Liza’s black eyes fill her face. Her skin is tight and coated in a layer of orange stage base. But even exhausted, at age 62, and after decades of medical nightmares—her grueling recovery from encephalitis in 2000, the vocal-cord surgery, five miscarriages, two hip replacements, the drugs, the alcohol—she looks surprisingly good, back to that beautiful spider’s body: the cubelike high-up torso and crazy-skinny limbs.

Slouched in a red hoodie, she leans against her director, Ron Lewis, occasionally whispering in his ear. Billy Stritch, her pianist, turns to Liza to apologize. I can’t tell exactly what their dispute was, but it sounds as if she’d pushed him to change an arrangement; he’d gotten irritated. “I’m so sorry, I was wrong!” he says. “You just wanted to make it better. I want it to be better.” She leans over and cuddles Stritch like a cat, resting her head against his shoulder. In this crew, there are many cuddles and caresses. From the musicians to the dancers and Ron Lewis, these men have known Liza for 16, 20, 35 years. Three of the four chorus boys—Cortés Alexander, Jim Caruso, Tiger Martina—are over 40.

As grilled cheese sandwiches and hot cocoa arrive, the “boys” reminisce about the raucous sing-alongs they used to have, parties at Liza’s old place in L.A., with a peculiar meld of celebrities and civilians. Esther Williams, Quentin Tarantino, and Janet Jackson come up. “I remember Esther singing to you!” says Stritch, lounging on Liza’s shoulder and doing a campy, drawling impression of a not entirely coherent Williams, boozy with love. “I don’t know why I love you, baby. Baaaby, I knew your mother! I don’t know why I love you, baby, I don’t know why … I’m aliiiive!” Everyone giggles. They love gallows humor here.

We all admire the waitress. “She’s about 8,” marvels Liza.

Ron Lewis reminds Liza about her appearance on Rosie O’Donnell’s new variety show, which is coming up in four days. They need to rehearse.

“You know Rosie’s show is live, right?” asks one of her dancers.

“It’s live?” Liza asks, looking alarmed. “What kind of show is this?”

Reassured that it’s an old-style variety gig, an experimental pilot for a possible series, she begins to brainstorm, rewriting the patter that’s been written for her. In the original script, Rosie complains that she lacks the skills to do a big New York number. Liza appears, wisecracking, “Maybe I could help?”

“Doesn’t that sound too snarky?” she asks. Instead, Liza decides to tap Rosie on the shoulder, announcing, “I’m here to do the big New York number!” and she muses about adding something else, something showbizzy and affirmative, in her own voice. “And you can do it, and I’ll show you how!”

Everyone agrees that tonight’s show went well—the venue was packed, and Liza’s energy was great. They recall a charming moment of spontaneity, when the microphone stand collapsed and Liza had to call the cute stagehand to fix it.

“I had to stop myself from saying, ‘I’ve seen that act before,’ ” says Liza.

Everyone giggles naughtily.

“I’ve seen that marriage before,” riffs Caruso.

“I’ve seen that husband before,” says Stritch.

It’s the only even implicit mention in my company of Liza’s ghoulish ex, David Gest, the lawsuits, that circus of a wedding, the accusations of vodka-fueled abuse—the whole glitter-horror of Tabloid Liza that does not exist inside this warm circle. Liza alludes to it in her act early on, a homeopathic dose for an audience well versed in her biography, from teen Tony winner to the glamorous heyday of Cabaret, from the Studio 54 decadence to these scary last few years, when fans feared their diva was headed for a Judy-style, reality TV–inflected implosion. “I’m known for doing songs about falling in love,” she says, very arch, leaning against the piano. “But lately, I find I’ve been drawn to songs about falling out of love. In my very expensive research— ” She moves on, but the point has been made: I’ve acknowledged it, it’s over. Then she does a comic performance of “If You Hadn’t But You Did,” complete with a pantomime of a woman shooting her husband.