Suddenly Liza

Photo: Richard Burbridge

You may think you know what bootylicious means, but after you see a young woman shimmying and shaking across a stage this month (if you cop a ticket to the benefit premiere on March 13 at the Ziegfeld) or next month (if you catch her on Showtime starting April 1), you will want to revise your definition. A rubber-limbed 26-year-old hottie in a flame-red micro-mini halter-necked dress bumps and struts, keeping time with two mustached, sideburned men in sunglasses, black shiny boots, ruffled shirts, and black cowboy hats. She punctuates her molten progress with little pelvic jounces as she sings and sometimes howls, “Come on, give it to me—waaah!” The song is Joe Tex’s seventies hit “I Gotcha,” and the woman is … Liza Minnelli, as pulsingly aglow as a neon sign, preserved and digitally remastered at her apotheosis—before three more husbands (at the time, she was separated from her first, Peter Allen, who died of AIDS in 1992), three decades, three knee surgeries, two hip replacements, various addictions, and a case of viral encephalitis had the chance to dim her current.

The spectacular, humorously raunchy number is one of a dozen songs in the one-night production Liza With a “Z,” which was, according to Minnelli, the first filmed concert ever broadcast on network television. “It’s hipper than anything today,” she says. “Fosse made things so funny-sexy.”

Performed in May 1972, the show was directed by Bob Fosse, costumed by Halston (who’d just broken through), and packed with songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb. Liza with a “Z” won four Emmys and a Peabody—and deserved them. It has not been rebroadcast since 1973, and it amounts to a missing Fosse–Minnelli–Kander-Ebb (also the team behind Cabaret) classic. Minnelli owns the rights to it. In 2000, she recalls, she got a call from film restorer Michael Arick. “He said, ‘Do you know your copyright’s up?’ ” and asked if she wanted to renew it. She did.

Arick cleaned it up well. Last year, Minnelli showed the restored version to her friends the producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (who are helping to throw her a 60th-birthday party on March 12). “I’m sitting there holding Neil’s and Craig’s hands. I turned to Neil and said, ‘I was sexy!’ And both of them said, ‘Yeah!’ ” She cackles in delight. “ ‘No shit!’ ” And then they called Showtime.

In a suite at the Regency Hotel, as she smokes, breaks into song, and occasionally leaps up to illustrate lunges “down in one” (i.e., up front, on the edge of the stage), Minnelli—wearing the same tousled Sally Bowles bob she’s worn since 1972—recalls the creation of the show. It was Ebb’s idea, she says, and “Fosse said, ‘I’ll do it, but there’s only one thing I demand: Nobody sees it till that night.’ ” He was—rightly, it turned out—worried about the censors.

And so, during eight weeks of rehearsal, they tried to keep spies for Singer, the show’s corporate sponsor, from glimpsing the half-clothed ba-dunk-a-dunk high jinks Fosse and Halston had created. “When the sponsors would come around, and they’d have to let them in, Fosse would call a break. As soon as they left, we’d get back to work.” It wasn’t until a dress rehearsal that a mole from standards and practices got an eyeful of what would air on national TV. “This lady comes down the aisle and says, ‘Hold it!’ ” Minnelli remembers. “She says, ‘You’re naked, you can’t wear that.’ You’ve gotta understand, these are costumes. There’s not a bra within 35 miles. Fosse said, ‘Come with me, ma’am,’ and led her away. I’m out there thinking, What am I gonna do? But then the lady comes out, and she looks different. She looked lit. I said, ‘Is it going to be all right? May I wear the costumes?’ And she looked at me and said, ‘Yes. It’s fashion.’ ” Minnelli laughs raucously.

This has been a surprising year for Liza Minnelli thus far: You could almost call it a comeback, except that it’s really a continuation of her first act, which has been—ever since Frank Sinatra showed up to meet her in the hospital room where she was born—the highly dramatic role of Being Liza Minnelli. As she told James Lipton, “My mother and father [Judy Garland and the Italian director Vincente Minnelli] always told me they’d been trying to think of a name if it was a girl, and my mother sat up bolt upright one night and said, ‘Vincent, wake up! Liza Minnelli! It’ll look great on a marquee.’ And went right back to sleep.”

In January, Minnelli sang “New York, New York” at Mayor Bloomberg’s second inauguration—a song Kander and Ebb wrote for her in 1977 (Sinatra made it his too, three years later). And on February 10, just as the uproarious series Arrested Development (in which she played an amorous, vertigo-stricken widow named Lucille Austero) shuttered on Fox, she flew to Paris to perform at the Opéra Garnier. Whether guests would be going to hear the voice (which, though still distinctive, is not what it was) or to see Liza Minnelli the marquee was up for grabs. But that was not a subject to raise with a diva—although the actress cites a sense of humor as one of her various gifts: “Nobody knows that I’m out-and-out funny.”

Photo: Courtesy of Showtime

She recently finished filming a comic spot in the upcoming movie The Oh in Ohio, in which she wears a blonde wig and a pink poncho with glittering letters on the back that spell out MASTURBATION. “My friend Parker Posey said, ‘Do you want to do a part in this film?’ ” Minnelli explains. “I said, ‘Do you like it?’ She said, ‘Yeah.’ I said, ‘What do I play?’ And she said, ‘A sex therapist.’ ” She declines to recap her role—“I’m too embarrassed to say it out loud,” but “I’m willing to do anything ridiculous.” (This includes, perhaps, marrying David Gest, now her fourth ex-husband, in 2002.)

Part of Minnelli’s curious lingering appeal has always come from the seeming lack of distance between her characters and herself—not a surprising confusion since, for the last 30 years, her primary role has been that of concert performer of (in great part) her familiar repertoire. In the finale of Liza With a “Z,” she performs a medley of songs from Cabaret. The audience is visibly electrified as they watch her sing the songs for which she is still known, like “Married,” “Money,” and “Maybe This Time”—“Maybe this time, I’ll be lucky / Maybe this time, he’ll stay …” As the young Minnelli sings, the whites of her eyes glisten preternaturally, as if dabbed with belladonna.

Fosse said, “I’ll do it, but there’s only one thing I demand: Nobody sees it till that night.”

The pathos of seeing her singing that song—knowing that, for her, the idea that “he” would “stay” was no more realistic at 26 than it would be at 56—is overwhelming. But so is the finale. As Minnelli, in tap pants, garter belt, and sequined wrapper, struts, down in one, she builds to the triumphant title song, “Cabaret,” and sings of the doomed hoyden Elsie: “The day she died the neighbors came to snicker: ‘Well that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor.’ But when I saw her laid out like a queen, she was the happiest … corpse … I’d ever seen.”

“I think my belief in the songs is what made you like them,” she says. “If I don’t believe in them, I can’t do it.”

There is not much of a line between Sally, Elsie, and Liza these days; maybe there never was. “I made my mind up, back in Chelsea: When I go, I’m goin’ like Elsie!” Minnelli roared on that May evening 34 years ago. But for now, she’s stayin’.

Suddenly Liza