“Liza With a ‘Z’,” the 1976 concert film of Liza Minelli directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, got a recent wonderful revival as part of Lincoln Center Out of Doors. Gia Kourles wrote in the New York Times how Minelli at 26 was a pure “knock out,” and how Fosse was completely taken with her. But aren’t we all! Her charismatic ability to woo a crowd has continued despite a series of physical challenges, particularly to her hips and knees, earned in performing for so many for so many years.
I first met Liza in 2007 when I greeted her at the Nice Airport to escort her and her entourage to a private plane for a one night only performance at the Taormina amphitheater in Sicily. On the way, I had to wonder if she could sustain the rigor and energy that would be needed to engage that crowd. She was returning to this 5000 seat venue after a lackluster response a few years earlier. When she began to playfully interact with the steward on our 30 seat plane, who was painfully awkward giving the predictable seatbelt/oxygen “lesson,” and then offered him a ticket to her performance as we stepped off the plane, I became hopeful. I shouldn’t have worried. The performance was a smash success. She received a standing ovation and continued her success on Broadway the following fall.
The gala dinner held on Lisa’s behalf in the lush gardens of the luxurious Timeo Hotel behind the amphitheater was also filled with the unexpected. My wife, knowing that Judy Garland was Liza’s mother and an intimate of the Gershwins mentioned to Liza that Leopod Godofsky, son of Frankie Gershwin, George’s only young sister, had stayed with us a few weeks before at our villa in Fiesole. It’s not easy to have an authentic discussion with an icon so she thought that mentioning Leopold might be a way of striking a common ground. I had been touring Porgy and Bess and had become quite friendly with Leopold, part of the Gershwin licensing triumvirate. Liza looked at me and remarked that her Mother was sitting with Ira and Frankie waiting to hear some news about George who was having surgery for severe headaches which turned out to be a brain tumor. Much to everyone’s horror they received a call from the hospital that George had died during surgery. Frankie, in a state of shock and unable to accept the sudden sad news, looked up and said, “Let’s make eggs!”
I am always struck by the serendipitous nature of special contacts, but this was particularly poignant: Liza herself was named, and got her Z, after the song “Liza” that George had written – maybe even for Judy!
This evening was also revelatory in more ways than one.
When we reached the amphitheater, it was filling up nicely for the 9 p.m. show. Best of all, the sky was clearing. It was a stunning, starlit evening. After making sure that Liza was happy and all her pre performance demands in place, I went to find my seats. I soon spotted our friends, who waved excitedly as I walked up the crowded aisle with a drink in hand.
“Come stai, Maria Paola. Tutto bene?”
“Si, carissimo. Siamo pronti per la diva !”
I noted with interest that the theater was completely filled except for two rows in the front, equipped with what looked like oversized leather armchairs. This seemed strange in such an ancient setting.
“What are these large chairs?” I asked in Italian. “Who sits in them?”
“Sono i posti riservati per la Mafia,” Lietta informed me.
The seats remained empty during Liza’s performance, but I imagined a number of Padrini—Godfather figures—lounging comfortably in their enormous, seemingly unprotected seats with their backs to the audience and no concern about their own safety. The amphitheater was overflowing- filled beyond capacity but no one would dare sit in those seats.