"Hi, everybody!" squeaked the familiar voice of Liza Minnelli as she stepped on to the stage of the Royal Festival Hall for the first time in exactly 40 years.
"We love you, Liza!", came the first of evening's many adoring cries from the audience.
"Huh?" replied the somewhat baffled living legend. But she soon recovered: "My God, I love you so much, too! God!"
Her fans and possibly God Himself could hardly love her more. Minnelli was making a one-night-only appearance as part of the Royal Festival Hall's festival, The Rest is Noise, which is celebrating 20th-century music. Minnelli, eternally tied to the role that made her famous 40 years ago, was there to represent Berlin in the 1920s and 30s.
Yet as she gamely admitted in an interview in January, "I don't know music from Berlin, I only know the stuff from Cabaret."
And thank God. No one was there to hear Minnelli do faithful renditions of Paul Hindemith. Rather, they were there to hear Minnelli do Minnelli, and she served that up on a golden platter. Alongside her long-term collaborator, Billy Stritch, Minnelli, in (what else?) palazzo pants and a black sequinned top, belted out the best of her and Broadway (bugger Weimar) during an almost two-hour set, including Liza With a Z, Cabaret, Alexander's Ragtime Band and Charles Aznavour's heartbreaking What Makes a Man (one of the many songs during which Minnelli made herself cry).
The voice was not always as strong as it was, but is still astonishingly rich for a gal two weeks shy of her 67th birthday. Yet it's the personality that makes her such a compelling figure. There is such a girlish neediness to her, her whole body quivering at times with desire for love from the audience. At the end of each song, she held her arms out beseechingly, like a child making angels in the snow. Halfway through the show she insisted the lights go up "so I can see everyone out there" and she gazed in wonderment at seemingly every single face in the crowd.
Just as Minnelli – who wears her years of experience heavily, which only makes the audience relish her more – has often seemed to sacrifice her health for the sake of performing, so she appeared almost incapable of talking – taking heaving breaths between each word during her frequent onstage asides. And yet she was able to sing with an enthusiasm that was at times exhausting just to watch. The steel thread of a determined old trouper runs through that nervy figure like Brighton rock.
In many ways, her performance was oddly reminiscent of a relatively recent but non-musical Broadway show, Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher's 2009 meditations on her life. Like Minnelli, Fisher, another battered but unbowed child of Hollywood royalty, would happily resort to self-deprecation for the sake of a laugh from the audience. Minnelli riffed repeatedly on her age, and recounted with relish the time she was teased for her inability to keep a man.
But for all Minnelli's occasionally determined efforts at self-deprecation, it was the performing that will stay in the mind: her high-stepping in New York, New York; her endearing hamminess in Cabaret; her Broadway brassiness during World Goes Round; the stillness of her unaccompanied encore of I'll Be Seeing You.
"I'll remember this my whole life – my whole damn life," she said at the end, for a moment almost sounding bitter with regrets. But she quickly turned it around: "Thank you!" And she grinned like a woman who had never known sadness.
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