On the rebound
There was a time, not long ago, when Minnelli taking the stage at all was spectacle enough. In 2000, the singer contracted encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain; according to her management, she was told she would never walk, talk, dance or sing again.
Minnelli battled back and returned to the stage in 2002, and she's been prolific since, playing Broadway and Las Vegas and winning a fourth Tony Award. Still, many reviews of her recent appearances have struck a poignant balance between heralding her gifts and acknowledging the effects of time.
"If you were to apply strict criteria of pitch, tone and intonation, Liza Minnelli would fall short on all of them," the English newspaper The Telegraph declared in a review this June. "The voice wails and croaks and sometimes seems to hit every note on the scale except the right one."
Likewise, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty wrote about a 2009 Hollywood Bowl show, "Her belter's voice was unreliable on Friday night, booming one moment then reduced to a croak the next. Her acting had a bizarre, otherworldly quality, as though she were tuning into a subtext that only she could comprehend."
Even those partial pans, though, carried a subtext of adoration; The Telegraph conceded that "despite everything, Minnelli still means showbiz," while McNulty noted that "the only thing that remained intact was her singular genius for being 'Liza.' And that was more than enough to galvanize the vast majority of the Bowl's audience...."
Like her late friend Michael Jackson, Minnelli has been almost as famous over the years for her turbulent offstage life as for her craft. For Cook, though, Minnelli's ability to pull herself up is one of her most admirable qualities. And it's one that he suspects may resonate with some both on and offstage at Segerstrom.
"I think we all have our own reasons, but I think she's a real down-to-earth person that has suffered, that has forged through a lot of hard times, and I think — this is my opinion — she comes out still on top, and most gay people relate to that," Cook said. "Most gay people have experienced some hard things from society, in their families. The general thing I think people love about Liza is that she may be down, but she's never out."
The MenAlive director pointed to a personal example: Last summer, he observed Minnelli in a greeting room at the Hollywood Bowl as she was besieged by fans. Her minders, Cook said, requested that people not ask for autographs, but many of them pressed in regardless, and Minnelli gamely interacted with each one.
Minnelli, the daughter of Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli, learned early in her career to empathize with strangers. Specifically, ones outside her show business circle.
As a child, Minnelli didn't dream of following her parents' footsteps into the arts. Her first ambition was to be an ice skater, and she practiced in hopes of making the Olympics. Then, as a teenager, she saw the musical "Bye Bye Birdie" and changed her plans.
Once she opted for a singing career, Minnelli had a ready role model: her mother, who hosted a TV variety show and sometimes featured Minnelli as a guest. Garland also gave her daughter a durable piece of advice: "Tell the truth when you're singing."
Minnelli had another mentor in French singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour, whom she visited in his home country to study a technique that she described as "Method singing." Aznavour drove his protegee to out-of-the-way towns and had her simply sit and watch people going through their daily routines to help connect to the emotions in songs.
One of those anonymous people, in a small town outside Paris, particularly stuck with the artist. For hours, Minnelli watched a flower vendor on the street carrying her day's stock. When passersby declined to buy it, she looked unfazed. Finally, late in the afternoon, someone bought a bouquet, and the vendor smiled and went home.
The emotions that woman evoked — the patient honing of a simple craft, the unabashed joy when it paid off — have stayed with Minnelli ever since. And at some point at the Segerstrom Center, behind all the glamour of one of Southern California's most opulent venues, she may tap into that image again.
"She's been selling them for days and days and years and years," Minnelli recalled. "She's used to it. It's something she does automatically. Then, at the end, someone buys a beautiful bouquet, and that made her day."
If You Go
What: Liza Minnelli with MenAlive in "A Winter Spectacular"
Where: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Segerstrom Hall, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday
Cost: $45 to $350
Information: (714) 556-2787 or http://www.scfta.org