Minnelli looks back at a life on stage

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Liza Minnelli’s appearance at Sheffield City Hall is officially cancelled - but here’s our interview with the star, which was due to be published this week in The Star and the Sheffield Telegraph.

It’s getting late in Sheffield - but thousands of miles away in Los Angeles, it’s barely past lunchtime, and Liza Minnelli’s reluctant to come to the phone.

An assistant explains cagily that Miss Minnelli has ‘done three interviews just now’.

“Is it possible to do tomorrow at around this time? Or one hour earlier?”

I reply that she’s had a series of interviews lined up - and, well, this is one of them. There’s also the small matter of her visit to South Yorkshire for a special show at Sheffield City Hall next week, which she’s duty bound to promote.

“She has a rehearsal with all the boys. What do you suggest to do? Tell me and I can tell her,” says the assistant.

Failing to realise that I’ve wound up calling the shots with an Oscar-winning showbiz legend, I suggest we do the chat now.

There’s a noncommittal response but, nonetheless, Liza relents and is summoned to speak; cackling, breathless and sounding instantly familiar.

Where to start is the tricky bit. The actress and singer has lived one of the great celebrity lives, from her starry upbringing (mother Judy Garland, father director Vincente Minnelli) to her Broadway appearances and film roles in Cabaret and New York, New York.

Of course there is the gossip column fodder - her four marriages and divorces, and the health battles which have plagued her for years.

Only six months ago the 69-year-old was admitted to rehab again for substance abuse treatment and last September she underwent back surgery to relieve an injury which kept her from the stage for most of 2014.

“It was nothing, I just fell trying to get out of the pool,” she says, suddenly laughing bawdily, any earlier awkwardness apparently forgotten. At other times she’ll also pause lengthily, giving the impression she’s stopped talking. You get the hang of it.

“And it was a little high up, the edge. I feel a little clumsy but nothing severe happened. And I feel great now. I’m so looking forward to doing this show.”

The City Hall affair - billed as ‘An Intimate Evening with Liza Minnelli’ - is one of two dates, including a night at the London Palladium. She’ll be taking part in a 90-minute Q&A conducted by broadcaster Mike Read, answering questions from the audience and performing some numbers accompanied by loyal musical director and pianist Billy Stritch.

Rehearsals are going ‘really well’, Liza thinks.

“I think I’ve put together a pretty good show to bring to you. I hope you’ll come. Are you coming? Come backstage after.”

Sheffield is something of a mystery to her, but that doesn’t matter. All audience members are pals to Minnelli.

“When I walk out there I don’t think of them as fans, I think of them as friends,” she says. “They’ve paid money to come and see me so I’m going to give them a good show.”

The show’s ‘interview’ format is new territory for her, and she isn’t keen on honing her anecdotes in advance, either.

“I don’t plan. So I keep it fresh. I’ll be interested to do it, I’ve never done anything like it.”

There will be plenty of ground to cover. Liza is true Hollywood royalty, and was born into performing - she was three when she appeared in the 1949 MGM musical In the Good Old Summertime. She was never a child star, but did form a close bond with Elizabeth Taylor and, later, Michael Jackson.

“I kind of grew up at MGM,” she says.

“She was wonderful, my mother. We were good friends, we stuck together, she was great. And funny. We used to go to her shows, we all did, all of the kids, and we’d love it. So we were all exposed to it early.

“And my father, I went to visit him after school all the time.”

Three years after Garland’s death from an overdose, aged 47, Liza portrayed Sally Bowles in the 1972 musical Cabaret, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress. Indeed, she is one of a handful of stars to have scooped Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony awards.

Other film parts included the Arthur movies with Dudley Moore, and in the 1980s Minnelli flirted with pop, recording an album, Results, with the Pet Shop Boys.

She singles out songwriters Kander and Ebb - who wrote Cabaret and New York, New York, along with Chicago and other musicals - for particular praise.

“All of the hits are wonderful. They were great to me, they wrote so many songs. They’re just really good. And when I sing I take each song, find out who the woman is like - what is she like, what does she like to do - and think of the character, an acting character, so that it’s really believable.”

Working as a tight-knit team with Stritch, and singer-dancers Jim Caruso and Cortés Alexander, is also ‘wonderful’.

“You work with people you like and who don’t act like divas and all that.” There’s that laugh again.

Anyone expecting a rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow will come away disappointed. Liza doesn’t sing her mother’s signature tune, or any of her songs, for that matter, and gives her reasons.

“I always respected and loved her so much, I didn’t want to use her in any way. I wanted her to be proud of me. And she was.

“I just do what I’m supposed to do, and do it the best I can, so that every performance is slightly different according to what the audience reacts to.”

The final curtain call will be kept at bay for as long as possible - Minnelli’s in it for life.

“Of course I am - look how old I am. It’s already been the long haul. It’s what I do.”