No string of New York City tributes would be complete without this classic theme from Martin Scorsese’s gritty and depressing 1977 musical of the same name. (Scorsese may be a poet of violent machismo, but he’s a fish out of water in the world of musical theatre.) Liza Minnelli, the quintessential Broadway baby, occupies a very different corner of NYC cultural life than Nina Hagen, or Suzanne Vega, which serves to illustrate the vast range of worlds that all coexist on one small plot of land. In this take, we see it as the city of dreams, the road to which (according to the movie) is paved with alcoholism and dysfunction. Which, ironically, only goes to make the dizzy heights seem more glamorous. Liza Minnelli, spawn of Hollywood, hardly embodies that narrative every step of the way, but she’s certainly a case study in the contrast of wild success and personal turmoil. She’s song-and-dance-ed her way through thick and thin, and remains a trouper of the old school. There’s nothing more New York that a show that must go on.
The Liza Minnelli song that’s served as lifelong inspiration. Maybe neither the character of Sally Bowles or Liza herself seem like the greatest role models, but I see a lot to look up to, not least fashion goals. Sally Bowles appeals to me because she’s such an unrepentant train wreck. The glamour lies not only in the spangles, but in the insistence upon leading the life you want, even if it’s not a socially acceptable one.
Once I had a lover who played for me, in bed, on his phone, a song that was, I guess, not ‘our song’ but his song for me and our relationship. I won’t say what that song was, but it was depressing and not very optimistic. The affair ended badly, as most of them do. He never asked me what I thought our song was, or what I would have picked to summarize my own feelings. He was both kind and impenetrably self absorbed like that. I never volunteered the info, and we never spoke about it again. But if he had thought to ask, I would have picked this one. It’s an optimistic song, which makes it all the more depressing, because optimism is so often dashed to pieces. Like Sally Bowles, I sometimes get caught up in optimistic illusions that deep down I don’t truly even have faith in. Like Sally, I know I’ll always go back to criss-crossing continents; inch by inch, mile by mile and man by man.
Just as true as when Billie Holiday wrote it in 1939. Holiday knew well about the harshness and unfairness of being poor, and she knew about the fair weather friends money can bring. Holiday was one of those people born to endless night, as the poet said. She had a brutish childhood, and the wealth and fame didn’t make her much happier. She was addictive, self-destructive and unlucky in love, with or without money. She wrote God Bless the Child, perhaps in resignation to living hard, and sang it with knowing sorrow. It’s become a standard since then, covered by many. One popular version, which might sound light-years away from the spirit of Billie Holiday, is Liza Minnelli’s. While Holiday crooned as if to herself, Minnelli is not given to understatement – she starts out slow but by the final verse she’s belting it to the rafters. It might seem at first a cynical song choice for a glitzy star like Minnelli. She was, after all, born to a mama and papa who had it all (except happiness) and she is a broadway baby, all showbiz and spangles. But she and Holiday have a lot in common. Like Holiday, Minnelli has been an alcoholic and an addict, which caused her health and career to suffer. She went through a series of unhappy marriages, and her early life, though financially privileged, was dysfunctional and chaotic. Maybe she can’t resist turning every number into a show tune, but she knows what she’s singing about.
I just saw Liza Minnelli in concert, fulfilling a longtime ambition. I’ve adored Liza ever since I first saw Cabaret at an age when nearly everything that movie is about went directly over my head. I loved the hair, loved the lashes, loved the spangles, and especially loved the vivaciousness of Sally Bowles. I wished really hard that I could be that way too, vivacious and charming, because I was quite the opposite. (Now I’ve learned that vivaciousness is usually deployed to disguise crushing insecurity.) I always admire people who live life with gusto. Of course, Sally was an extension of Liza, because Liza’s job is to be Liza. So, anyway, I went to her concert, and Liza was Liza, like a champ. She looked fantastic, and she’s a trooper. She’s had some severe health problems in recent years, including hip and knee replacements among other things, so she can’t hoof it like she used to. She was a tiny, sparkly, extremely dynamic figure. She coughed and wheezed a little between numbers, but she delivered the big songs, belting ’em like there’s no tomorrow. Poor Liza, as legendary as she is, gets a lot of flak, I’m not sure for what – being too campy, perhaps, or being an icon for gays-of-a-certain-age. Perhaps it that she’s less a singer or an actress than a delivery girl for her own persona. Because whatever she does, no matter how well she does it, she’s always Liza. That’s what makes her so appealing (or not). It’s almost impossible to separate the performance from the person underneath. She’s a larger-than-life personality, except that being larger-than-life is her life – she is, after all, born and bred for the spotlight. The emotional gymnastics of the theatre are second nature to her. For her, being a living legend is just, life. Only somebody who knows she’s a legend (and feels quite comfortable with it) can pull of a song about her own name. Say LIZA!!!