Q&A With Liza With A "Z"
Living legend Liza Minnelli did something in this interview she’s rarely done before she spoke about her past and dabbled a bit on her childhood. Maybe that’s because Ms. Minnelli’s second act of her new show is focused on her beloved Godmother, Kay Thompson. For those unfamiliar with Kay Thompson, she was a prolific songwriter, musical arranger, vocalist and star of many MGM musicals. She and “Mama,” Judy Garland, became best friends on the set of “Meet Me In St. Louis,” and when Liza came along in 1946, she bonded with Thompson until the end of her life a decade ago. Liza said Kay was “the best gift” her parents ever gave her.
Plans are also in the works for a hoped-for Manhattan engagement to showcase the Kay Thompson show / act / material that Liza has been working so hard on for the past 15-plus months. This Manhattan engagement could happen as early as June, depending on Liza's concert tour schedule, and if the right theatre can be found. It needs to be something intimate and wonderful, something that can do justice to recreating a glorious environment similar to the famed Ciros that Kay (and the Williams Brothers) first dazzled audiences in, circa 1948. Stay tuned in for all of the above. It's looking like a super summer for New York, New York and then for the world, with the Kay TV special and album.
Other fascinating topics we spoke of are the latest rumors, being labeled a diva, the screenplay she’s writing, working with her beloved father (legendary director Vincente Minnelli) and much, much more. Not enough? Eavesdrop into our phone conversation. I think you’ll end up loving Liza’s candor and sense of humor as much as I did.
Steven Housman: First of all, I’m very happy and excited to be speaking with you.
Liza Minnelli: Well, I’m very happy and excited to speak with you, too, and the fact that I’m coming to Florida! It’s a wonderful month to spend there.
SH: Will you be going back and forth to New York between the dates?
LM: Yes, between the 16th and the 28th, because of the new show that you’ll see part of in my own show.
SH: Is that the album that focuses on your Godmother, Kay Thompson, as well as a television special?
LM: Yes! We’re just finishing up the recordings for the television show and stuff like that, so we’re coming back to record a little bit and to work with my producer and director and choreographer, Ron Lewis.
SH: Who is producing this new album?
LM: Phil Ramone is doing all our sound and the recordings and everything, but my real producer is my friend Ron Lewis.
SH: I have to tell you something. You’ll never remember this, but I met you with Kay Thompson…
SH: Do you remember the restaurant, Orsini’s?
LM: Of course I do!
SH: You were at the next table from me with Kay and a few other people. I’m going back to the early-mid 70’s.
LM: This is when we all decided one night that we were going to do that fashion show in Versailles…
SH: Oh My God! You even remember what the evening was about?
LM: Yes! It was the first fashion show where they invited American fashion designers to show. It was five American designers and five French designers. It was at Versailles and we killed them. It was Halston and Donald Brooks, Oscar de la Renta, ... Oh I’m trying to remember everybody because I’m doing a thousand things today… but that’s what we were doing that night! Oh, honey, it’s so perfect that you saw her and got to meet her, because that relationship is probably one of the most important relationships that I’ve had in my entire life.
SH: I was much younger so I only knew who you were, but my mom told me about her.
LM: Oh really! Oh, you’re going to come to the show, aren’t you?
SH: Of course I’m coming! I can’t wait to see it! Speaking of Kay, I’ve been told she and your mom are responsible for the first unofficial rap song, “Madame Crematon,” that was written and performed in 1944. That information should be quite a surprise to fans of that musical genre. What do you think of that song and performance?
LM: Kay had actually been performing that for quite a while. What she did really was give that number, which they wanted to give to Greer Garson to do for some reason Kay wanted Mama to do it, and so did Arthur Freed (songwriter). So Kay trained her to do it, and that kind of changed her entire life. Between “Meet Me In St. Louis,” where my father took her from a kid star to a lovely young woman, and Kay Thompson in “Madame Crematon,” she went from a lovely young woman to a woman! (Laughing).
SH: I never knew the history behind it.
LM: Oh, yeah. They were great friends and I can’t even begin to tell you the force she was in my life. She lived with me up until she died almost ten years ago.
SH: I also understand you have written a screenplay entitled “Katie’s Blues” that Neil Meron and Craig Zadan are producing. What is that about and when can we (the audience) expect to see this?
LM: I have, but I put it aside because I really want to get this Kay show done. I wanted to do it now because I could only get the best influence in my life, besides Fred Ebb & John Kander and Charles Aznavour and Kay, and that is Ron Lewis, and I could get him at this time. You know Craig and Neil as the producers of the film “Chicago” and, of course, a million other projects.
SH: I’ve seen you numerous times, so this is going to be something very different?
LM: Oh, completely! And it’s so much fun to do. This will be the first time I talk about anything, and I’ve never talked about my past, the way I grew up or anything like that, and Kay was such a huge part of that and she made such a difference in my life. The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was making her my Godmother. This is going to be a fun, fun show. Kay performed with four guys, The Williams Brothers. It was Andy Williams and his three brothers. I got four great guys with me who are playing The Williams Brothers; Cortez Alexander, Jim Caruso, Johnny Rodgers and Tiger.
SH: I know Johnny Rodgers. Hasn’t he played piano for you, and put a CD out a couple of years ago?:
LM: Yes! He’s a big part of the show. This is the show I’ve been really working on. We hope to open this in New York, and then I want it to be a television show, “The Godmother and the Goddaughter.” We’re really hoping for June, so we’re working towards that date.
SH: You have been quite busy lately!
LM: I know, isn’t it wonderful?! I love it! I’m going to be recording on my birthday I think that’s fabulous.
SH: Early Happy Birthday! March 12th, right?
LM: (Laughing) Yes, and we’ll be singing Kay’s songs! It’s going to be a great birthday.
SH: Is it true that the cast of “Arrested Development” might be making a feature film?
LM: I don’t know. Nobody told me but I’ve heard it sort of in the wind. Until you get the official call, you kind of just say, ‘Oh all right.’
SH: Would you be interested in reprising your role as “Lucille Austero?”
LM: Of course! Lucille was hilarious!
SH: You looked as if you were having so much fun. You were hysterical.
LM: Thank you, sweetheart! Thank you! And the people I worked with were so great! It was also the first time I got to do slapstick. You know, “Arthur” was so much fun, too.
SH: Great comedy and I know you and Dudley [Moore] were very close.
LM: (In a quiet reflective tone) Ah, yes.
SH: The term “Diva” has often been attached to you. Do you think of yourself as a diva? If so, what does the word “diva” mean to you?
LM: You know what I don’t like about that word. For some reason it sounds highfalutin’ and the last thing I am is highfalutin’.
SH: Why do you think they do that to you?
LM: I don’t know. Diva in Italy is associated with the opera and then it became a word over here and… I mean, I’m complimented if they think I’m a diva. But if I am, I’m a down-to-earth diva baby! (Laughing)
SH: You had worked with your father. How did it differ being directed by him as opposed to other directors you have worked with?
LM: He was so specific, his detail and his vision of things. And because I knew him so well, I could read in his eyes what he wanted. If I did it wrong he would tell me immediately. But he was very, very gentle, and he worked with every star differently. Some actors were from the Actors Studio, so he worked like that, and some actors just wanted to know where their marks were, and he’d work like that. But he got what he wanted, always.
SH: Is there anybody you’d like to work with yet that you haven’t?
SH: The reason I ask is because I remember seeing you at the ’92 Oscars when you were co-presenting with Shirley MacLaine, and you both suggested that the two of you should get together with Barbra and do a film.
LM: We’d love to, but nobody seemed to pick up on it! (Laughing)
SH: How do you feel about something like that happening now?
LM: Oh, I’d love it! All they’d have to do is give me a buzz and I’m there! We are all great friends. We really admire each other.
SH: You have such a vast catalogue of recordings, from pop ballads to disco (Pet Shop Boys) to Broadway songs, etc. From all of your recordings, is it possible to narrow it down to your absolute favorites?
LM: I’m such an immediate person. I try very hard to stay ‘over my feet.’ I find whatever I’m doing at the moment is my favorite.
SH: Any truth to the rumor that you might be doing the film version of the musical “Sunset Boulevard?”
LM: Well, originally I was the first one he [Andrew Lloyd Webber] asked, and I couldn’t at the time because I had other commitments. I never even hear of the film happening anymore, so I don’t know anything about it.
SH: I’m always reading different actresses attached to it. Meryl, Barbra, Glenn, you.
LM: I know, it’s so weird, and all I do is read about it. I just keep working and read these things, and keep going.
SH: I’d like to end with going back to your childhood. Do you remember hosting the very first TV telecast of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1956, and what you were feeling at the time?
LM: What I remember is that you had to do it once at nine o’clock and then they’d put me to sleep because I was a kid, and then wake me up at twelve o’clock to do it again because it was live TV and it aired coast to coast.
SH: There’s so much more I want to ask you.
LM: Well you know something, Steven?
LM: Everything I’ve told you is interesting! (Laughter.) You’ve asked all the right questions and I can’t wait to see you. Right now I’m going to a fitting and I want to look great for this new show.
SH: I look forward to seeing you again, 30-plus years after the last time.
LM: (Laughs) Great! Bye honey!
For more information on Liza Minnelli, please visit her website OfficialLizaMinnelli.com
© 2008 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.