Liza Minnelli, an extraordinary entertainer, turns 75 today. I have been a fan of hers ever since I was a little boy and saw her perform with her legendary singer/actress mother, Judy Garland, on Garland's Sunday night CBS music/variety show. Teen Liza had a vivaciousness, look and talent that made me smile and won my heart.
Since then, I watched her on other TV appearances, I went to see her movies, I saw her onstage, I met and interviewed her on national TV. I will tell you this -- Liza Minnelli is one of the smartest celebrities I've ever interviewed. I often wondered if, like Vincente Minnelli, herOscar-winning dad, she was ever interested in directing films. Having watched him and her mother at work, I'm sure she learned a lot. I'll explain later, but I never looked at GYPSY again in the same way after the discussion Liza and I had about it off-camera.
Liza Minnelli was sort of good luck charm for me during my VH1 years. I did a special one-hour interview of her when she was promoting the sequel she did to ARTHUR. Management was so impressed with my work that the Minnelli interview led to me getting my own prime time weeknight celebrity interview show.
On one edition of it, Meryl Streep was my guest for the whole show. Streep was promoting her 1988 Australian drama, A CRY IN THE DARK. In some of the pre-interview research I did, I read that Meryl Streep had been greatly influenced by Liza Minnelli. Streep, at the beginning of her career, had seen Liza on Broadway in the 1977 musical drama, THE ACT, directed by Martin Scorsese. For her performance, Liza won the Tony for Best Actress in a musical.
Here's the clip of Meryl Streep explaining how Liza Minnelli influenced her craft.
About GYPSY. Liza and I talked about that Broadway show. Word was out that it would be revived on Broadway the following year. The part of Rose, originated by Ethel Merman, would go to Tyne Daly. Liza had been hungry to play that part. She felt that composer Stephen Sondheim and Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book for the Broadway show, wouldn't let her because they only saw her one way. However, had he lived, Bob Fosse was interested in directing a new movie version of GYPSY -- one that would bring out the dark psychological parent/child drama of the play. He wanted the burlesque house and the middle-aged strippers to resemble what was seen in Rouben Mamoulian's 1929 film, APPLAUSE. Liza would've played Rose, Gypsy's mother.
Liza reminded me in conversation that Rose was not a sweet, selfless mother. She's obsessed with her two kids and obsessed with her kids making her frozen dreams come true. As Liza said, "Remember that she calls Louise (Gypsy) a 'no talent ox.' What kind of loving mother says a thing like that about her child?" Rose will use anybody to get what she wants. Liza added that, although some people may have thought her too young to play the role in a production that covers about 15 years, she said that folks often assume Rose was older because Merman was about 50 when she did the play. Liza said that, in real life, the Rose character was in her early 40s and, at that time in society, women married a lot younger.
As for the burlesque, Liza had done research about attitudes at that time in society. She told me that, during and after the Depression, America needed some kind of emotional release. For men, it was burlesque. At burlesque houses, according to real-life former strippers, it was customary to see men in the audience pleasure themselves with newspapers over their laps. That gave some burlesque houses a seedy reputation. Rose was manipulative, irresponsible and had a huge ego. When the young, shapely and pretty newly-named Gypsy Rose Lee goes out the make her stripper debut, it's not for a sexual thrill. It's to help her mother financially. They're broke. There's emotional conflict because Rose has always wanted the star spot, to be the center of attention, and to be sexually attractive to the men. It's Rose who coaxes her insecure daughter to do the strip in that seedy joint. Rose sabotages herself. In that strip debut, Louise becomes a new star. She finds her voice as an independent person.
With all that said, the "Mr. Goldstone, I Love You" number is an upbeat number that's really a chilling example of Rose's parental irresponsibility. Louise and her sister, June, are in their teens. Rose passes them off as pre-teens in their vaudeville act. Rose has recruited about a half dozen teen boys to be in the act as back-up dancers and go on the road with them. She has those boys and her girls sleeping in the same room with no barriers, no privacy. When boys are in their mid-teens, their hormones are spinning like they're in those giant teacups at Disneyland. What kind of parent would allow that?
The way Liza Minnelli broke down GYPSY to me is why I've never look at it in the same way since. I see it as a strong musical drama that could've been done without musical numbers.
Ironically, Arthur Laurents told National Public Radio some years ago that he wanted Judy Garland to play Rose in the 1962 Warner Bros. adaptation of GYPSY. Garland, the daughter of an irresponsible show biz mother, was on a career high point the time having done a sensational, now-famous, 1961 concert at Carnegie Hall and scored a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her role in the 1961 Nazi trial drama, JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG. But studio head, Jack L. Warner, to Laurents' ire, nixed his' wish saying that Garland was 15 pounds too heavy. Laurents felt that was ridiculous as Garland would've been playing a middle-aged mother in a story that covers about 15 years. Said Laurents on NPR, "So we wound up with Rosalind Russell in two-tone shoes."
Happy Birthday, Liza. I learned a lot from you that day. And thanks for inviting me to your party afterwards. It was fun.