In 1972, Liza Minnelli was on top of the world. She had made a critically-lauded turn in collaborator/lover Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, eventually winning the Best Actress Oscar the following year.
The dream team behind that cinematic triumph—Minnelli, Fosse, and the songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb—got together again later that year to produce Liza With a Z, a filmed concert for television that would go on to win four Emmys and a Peabody Award the same year Cabaret snatched eight Academy Awards.
Liza With a Z—much like everything in Liza’s life—had the fingerprints of gay men all over it. Besides Kander and Ebb, Liza BFF Halston handled the costumes, Marvin Hamlisch served as musical coordinator, and later, when Liza was trying to restore the concert’s original negatives, gay producing duo Neil Meron and the late Craig Zadan facilitated its release in theaters, on TV, and on DVD in 2005. Around that time, Liza had made yet another comeback, this time in the role of Lucille Austero on Arrested Development.
While modern-day audiences were falling head over heels, literally, for the vertigo-challenged Lucille Two, they had no idea of the dynamic performer Minnelli was in her prime.
As a fan of both Cabaret-era Liza and Arrested Development-era Liza—and of just larger-than-life divas with problems as big as their personas—I quickly snatched up the DVD and immediately developed a newfound respect for Minnelli. Admittedly, my love for Liza has always been mired in a level of irony; if I had a favorite genre of humor it would be Studio 54 cocaine jokes, of which Liza was often the star. But once I saw mother at her peak, dancing and belting and holding an audience in her perfectly manicured jungle-red claws, I understood why she is considered one of the greatest entertainers of the 20th century.
Fosse, Kander, Ebb, and Minnelli worked like one finely-tuned machine. Kander and Ebb loved to write for Liza, Fosse loved to choreograph for Liza, and to the detriment of poor Gwen Verdon (Fosse’s wife) loved to do other things for and to Liza.
Minnelli was the perfect muse and avatar to channel their creative talents, but Liza was, and always has been, her own person and performer. She had to be! Her mom was Judy Goddamn Garland. So while she had talent in spades, she also knew she had to work those gams off in order to stake her own piece of the entertainment pie. And with Liza With a Z, she’s slicing it, eating, and coming back for seconds.
The concert takes its title from the song Kander and Ebb wrote especially for Minnelli about the ways people mess up her name, and Liza delivers it with rapid-fire dexterity.
Minnelli also covers some standards (“God Bless the Child”), some contemporaneous pop hits (“I Gotcha”), and finishes off with a show-stopping medley of Cabaret tunes. But my favorite number, and perhaps the most Fosse of all Fosse musical numbers, is “Bye, Bye, Blackbird.”
Here, you have all the Fosse trademarks: bowler caps, black tights sans pants, white gloves, strange bodily angles with gorgeous lines, cheeky sexuality, a surprising level of athleticism, and an exacting precision of movement. In the middle of it all is Liza May Minnelli turning. It. The fuck. Out.
To this day, I can do the choreography to "Bye, Bye Blackbird" at the drop of a bowler hat, and it should really be a part of our national scholastic curricula moving forward.
Other highlights include another Kander and Ebb original "Ring Them Bells," a truly stunning rendition of "My Mammy," and the aforementioned Cabaret medley, including "Money, Money," "Maybe This Time," and, of course, "Cabaret." For a fag like me, however, there's nothing better than seeing Gwen Verdon in the audience gamely applauding a woman who's most likely sleeping with her husband.
Ah, the '70s. If I've said it once, I've said it a thousand times: Peak Diva.