By Michael Miller
9:13 PM PST, December 11, 2012
It's a label Liza Minnelli cherishes, and one she's never fully understood.
"Gay icon." Ask her to explain it, and she'll come up empty.
On Google, Minnelli's name alongside that two-word phrase cues up 117,000 results. When she performed back east this spring, the Huffington Post's headline even credited her with economic clout: "Liza Minnelli's Borgata Hotel Performance Helps Renew Gay Travelers' Interest In Atlantic City."
A 2009 survey from http://www.onepoll.com named her the fifth-biggest female gay icon in history (her late mother, Judy Garland, beat her for first place). But though Minnelli appreciates the term, she has no idea when it first got pinned on her, or why.
"Any time you're called an icon of anything, it's great," the 66-year-old told the Daily Pilot in a phone interview. "And I think it's a huge part of my career. But if you go in there, you see not only gays [in the audience], you see families and all kinds of different people."
Minnelli would rather be seen as an entertainer for the masses than one for a niche audience. Still, the outspoken Proposition 8 opponent is happy to be connected to a cause in which she believes. So when MenAlive, the Orange County gay men's chorus, contacted her this year about joining them onstage, she agreed without even having met the group.
Thursday and Friday, Minnelli will join MenAlive in "A Winter Spectacular" at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts. The show, featuring the singer's own band along with the men's chorus, marks her first Orange County appearance in almost two decades. (She did, of course, more recently co-star on "Arrested Development," a sitcom set in a fictional version of Newport Beach.)
So what motivates Minnelli to accept invitations from groups unknown to her? She laid out simple criteria.
"When it has something to do with freedom," she said. "When it's an event that can help people, and when it's a celebration."
A kindred spirit
Robb Neale, a singer, scriptwriter and choreographer for MenAlive, has had time to prepare to meet one of his heroes.
For the last three months, the chorus has rehearsed on its own with an accompanist singing Minnelli's vocal parts; she's scheduled to join them Wednesday.
It's not the first time Neale has waited a long time to encounter Minnelli. In the early 1990s, he attended a benefit show in New York in which she sang a song. Afterward, he waited for two hours by the stage door in hopes of catching her on the way out.
Minnelli hadn't stuck around, though, and the next time Neale saw her was a few years ago at a Hollywood Bowl performance. When MenAlive artistic director Rich Cook announced this year that the group would perform with Minnelli, Neale "couldn't contain" himself, he said.
Neale began to get into musicals in junior high, and a friend introduced him to "The Rink," starring Minnelli and Chita Rivera. Neale grew to love the star's craft, but he sensed a kindred spirit as well.
"Aside from her amazing talent, there is such a need to be loved," he said. "She wants to please the audience so much. It's not like … desperation or anything like that. But she wants to give so much that it makes me want to give it back."
Cook said MenAlive confirmed Minnelli for the show in the spring but held off on an announcement until August to keep from competing with her summer Hollywood Bowl appearance. For Cook, arranging a show with the "Cabaret" star was a longtime dream.
Minnelli and the chorus will perform both together and separately, weaving in Christmas songs, show tunes and more. Creating the set list has been a collaborative process, with MenAlive leaders joining Minnelli and her longtime arranger, Billy Stritch, to work out numbers.
"We're calling this 'Spectacular,' and it will be," Cook said. "All around."
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