Liza Minnelli turns 75. Her famous friends have some tales to tell.
The Daily Beast
March 11, 2021
As Liza Minnelli turns 75, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, John Kander, Ben Vereen, Charles Busch, Parker Posey, and John Cameron Mitchell tell Tim Teeman about the icon they cherish.
How does Liza Minnelli say goodnight?
The playwright and performer Charles Busch knows. He had helped her into her car when suddenly, before the driver put his foot on the accelerator, she thrust her hand through the open window, grabbed Busch’s hand and screeched, “Baby, I want more!” Then she sped off into the night.
“Icon” can be a tiresomely overused word. When it comes to Liza Minnelli, it is spot-on.
The much-loved actor, dancer, and singer, whose life really has been a cabaret old chum, turns 75 tomorrow, March 12. The daughter of Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, Minnelli has had an award-laden, dramatic life in and away from show business. She won the best actress Oscar in 1973 for playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret (1972), and an Emmy the same year for Liza With a “Z”: A Concert for Television.
She has also won four Tony Awards, and has been nominated twice for Grammy Awards (a win would accord her EGOT status). Like her mother, Minnelli has battled drug and alcohol addiction, has been much married (like her mother, to a gay man), and—like her mother—is a cherished gay icon.
She has battled many physical ailments, such as double pneumonia, viral encephalitis, two hip replacements, three miscarriages and a knee operation. But she is loved for her loopy pizzazz, indomitable spirit, and songs like “Cabaret,” “New York, New York,” “All That Jazz,” “Maybe This Time,” and her brilliant 1989 album with the Pet Shop Boys, Results. Arrested Development fans know her as Lucille 2.
Below, her show business friends and collaborators, including Busch, Joel Grey, Chita Rivera, John Kander—and in John Cameron Mitchell’s case, a much-influenced admirer—tell The Daily Beast about knowing and loving Liza, and what they think belies her determination and stardom. Tomorrow, they will join others to appear in a star-studded online event, Love Letter to Liza: A 75th Birthday Tribute Celebration, at 8pm EST.
In an interview with this author in 2011, Minnelli said she did not subscribe to characterizations of her as a survivor. “That’s too dramatic for me. If my example helps others, great. But if I think of myself as a survivor I have to think about what I’ve been through. I can’t accomplish what I want today if I’m thinking about yesterday.”
The Oscar, Tony, and Grammy, and Golden Globe-winning actor is a longtime close friend of Minnelli’s and appeared in the movie Cabaret with her. Grey, 88, also appeared in The Normal Heart and Chicago. In 2018, Grey directed the acclaimed and award-winning Fiddler on the Roof in Yiddish.
Liza and I first met in the late 1960s. She was playing the very glamorous Cocoanut Grove club in Los Angeles, which is no longer there. It was fabulous. I was a great fan of her mother’s, and also Fred Ebb, who wrote the lyrics of Cabaret, and who wrote everything she ever did.
I have known Liza for over 50 years, isn’t that good? I never see the Liza on-stage as different to the Liza off-stage. She is just one person who loves performing, and loves having a laugh. She is a co-worker and pal. From the beginning she was like my little sister, and still is. I still call her that now, it’s the same relationship. I feel a sense of protectiveness towards her. I feel like her dad or an older brother. And I‘ve never had a sister.
When we were shooting in Munich for Cabaret, we would get up, and get into the car. Both of us were sleepy, and she would stay sleepy and I would play music and she would sleep on my shoulder until we got to the studio. I would play “Morning Has Broken.” I love that song. And we would talk about everything to do with the movie that we couldn’t talk about with the director.
We both knew that we were making something special when we were filming Cabaret. And we had that closeness. It was her stairway to stardom. Show business was everything to her. She ate, slept, breathed, lived for it, but look where she came from. Her mother was one of the most inspiring people to me as an actor when I was trying to be in theater and movies. Judy Garland was it for me. I still think she is one of the most amazing talents. I love watching her.
Liza also was always so excited about creating and playing and being no stage. She also has it.
We have stayed very close all this time. We see each other off and on. We check in when things are good, and things are not so good. We talk about what we’ve done that day, what we’re having for dinner, and if she is seeing Michael (Feinstein, the singer and pianist, her close friend) that day. He’s such a great caretaker for her. We can pick up the phone while we’re having dinner. She loves to laugh. She is fun and loose and so amusing. She has a great sense of humor, she will make you laugh louder than anybody you ever met.
Liza has had some medical problems that have quieted her down a bit, but that doesn’t mean anything. She can overcome those things and has—many times. She’s very stoic. She just kind of accepts it, but then she saw a lot of that with her mother. It must have been very challenging to have a mother and that kind of anxiety of whether her health would be OK.
Is Liza aware she’s an icon? I think so, but she doesn’t take it for granted. Nobody works harder. She has an incredible work ethic. She loves to rehearse. I don’t. I like to rehearse. She has a dancer’s mindset, where she does something, then says, “Let’s do it again.” She’s lovely, we’re just very tight. We are like family. My birthday wish for her? I hope my sister’s happy.
Composer John Kander, 93, was one half—with lyricist Fred Ebb, who died in 2004—of Kander and Ebb. Kander and Ebb wrote Flora the Red Menace (1965), in which Minnelli made her Broadway debut, and won a Tony Award. They also wrote Cabaret, The Act (1977), The Rink (1984), and Minnelli’s famous standard, “New York, New York” (1977). Ebb co-produced, with Bob Fosse, “Liza With a “Z.”
Liza and I first met at Fred’s old apartment where we used to work. He and I were there working on the score for Flora the Red Menace. A friend of Fred’s had been in a production with Liza—it could have been Best Foot Forward, I’m not sure—and called Fred and said, “I think it would be a good idea if you all met.”
She rang the doorbell during a work session and came in, and it was basically love at first sight. She stayed a long time, sang a lot, and talked a lot. She had a terrific energy. It’s hard for me to describe. It was down to Liza. She became our muse really, in many ways.
The three of us become pretty much inseparable from that moment on. The doorbell rang, she came in, and the three of us got married. When the real thing is there, it’s just there. Firstly, there is her sheer vocal talent, because she could sing anything. She has a wonderful kind of positive energy, a terrific friendliness, and in all our years working with Liza, one of the things from a writer’s point of view you could always count on was that Liza would sing exactly what we wrote. She was really devoted to doing something exactly the way we wanted it.
She was 17, 18, when we met. As she grew up, her relationship with her mother became something she could understand and deal with. There was tremendous affection there, and respect. I think Liza went from being a vulnerable teenager to a woman. I think Liza was able to detach a bit, although their relationship was always very strong.
Over the years, Fred became her mentor, and refined that incredible raw talent. Liza once said, years into our association, “Sometimes I think I’m a figment of Fred Ebb’s imagination.” Liza and I are very close, but Fred and Liza were more intimate. I think Fred helped her create that astonishing connection with her audience. He taught her to be herself. He helped her to use elements of her real personality on the stage, and it’s kind of irresistible.
I think when you see a performer seemingly be themselves, or as much of themselves as they are willing to reveal, we in the audience feel kind of complimented. When that element is not there, when it all seems phony, the audience doesn’t feel complimented. With Fred’s help, I think Liza complimented the audience by trusting them. An example: Liza sweats a lot, and rather than have her dash across the stage and disappear to wipe the seat off, Fred encouraged her to bring a towel on stage. The audience feels she is telling us who she is, that she is not trying not to fool us.
Working with Liza was a great period for us. Aside from her talent and ebullient personality, Liza’s not mean. It sounds like a very simple, stupid thing to say, but in the world we live in, you don’t hear Liza say bad things about other people, you don’t hear Liza being bitchy, whatever stories there about her, and whatever problems she may have had in her life. Even when Liza is going through rough times, certainly publicly you don’t have any memories of Liza complaining about her life being all over the place. She’s very generous, she works really hard.
This may sound really dumb, but I think the three of us were together primarily because we really liked each other, and there was a kind of trust there too. If anybody needed anything in that triumvirate, the other two would be there. I try not to romanticize it, it was really very simple.
It’s hard to work with Liza without loving her because she works hard, and works positively. One small example: if there is something in an arrangement or instrumentation she will hear differently, it never comes out from her as, “OK, I want you to do this and this.” Rather, she raises her hand, and says, “Can I say something?” She will be very respectful in asking for what she wants. Musicians she worked with would kill for her.
In rehearsal, Liza is just as she is on stage; she’s consistent when she works. She’s an actress, and a smart one. She understands character, and playing characters in the songs she sings. We never said to her, “Do it this way.” One of the pleasures of what we do is mutual discovery, so performance is not someone superimposing their vision on a reluctant person. The pleasure of that discovery in rehearsal is what keeps us going. I think what has always interested Liza is understand the feelings of other people, and the characters she plays. That is why rehearsing, certainly in theater, is so much fun with her. She is very smart and intuitive about what another character might feel.
We wrote “New York, New York” for Liza. As far as we were both concerned, it was Liza’s voice we heard when we created that song. We could always count on Liza to perform something that we had written in the way we intended. Could she sing it when Broadway returns after the pandemic? It’s a nice image!
I never discussed with Liza how she feels about being an icon, I don’t know if Fred did. But it’s certainly something that existed with both Liza and Judy. Liza learned to do that, I think. By trusting the audience they tended to trust her. And the vulnerability that she manifests compliments the audience.
When Liza and I check in with each other, it is always warm and cheery. The continuity of our feelings is there; our affection has never changed. There has never been a falling out. Sure, I would love to work together again if she wanted, even if Fred’s been gone a long time now.
My birthday wish for Liza is this. I love her, I miss her, and I’m grateful that we have had all these wonderful years together.
Chita Rivera, 88, originated some of the most legendary roles on Broadway, including Anita in West Side Story, Velma Kelly in Chicago, and the title role in Kiss of the Spider Woman (the latter two are both Kander and Ebb works). Rivera has won three Tony Awards, including one for Lifetime Achievement in Theatre. She is the first Hispanic woman and first Latino American to receive a Kennedy Center Honor, and in 2009 received the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
There’s only one Liza. There are not many people who you say just their first name and you know exactly who that person is. She was absolutely born to express herself through her craft and her art. I consider it a joy to have been able to work with her. Liza is absolutely blessed to be a performer.
I haven’t counted the years I have known Liza—certainly around the time she first knew Fred Ebb, and way before we did The Rink (1984), the show that Freddie and John (Kander) wrote for the two of us. I really haven’t had to count the years. It seems like I have known her all my life.
I thought she was extremely talented, that first caught my eye. We were introduced, and then she was in Chicago with me, filling in for Gwen Verdon when Gwen wasn’t feeling well. We worked together and admired each other’s gifts. My daughter Lisa (Mordente) became a great friend of hers. And so did Liza and I, and the greatest part of it was the respect between the two of us.
It’s exciting to be on stage with her. She’s a wonderful actress. When she stepped in for Gwen, that was a heck of a step for her. Gwen Verdon in her own right was extraordinary. Nobody could touch Gwen. Liza knew that, and had respect for Gwen and did as best she could. Liza did the role like Liza, just as Gwen did it as Gwen.
Everyone adored her, and she loved being adored, but at the same time she loved being a person. She wanted to please her audiences, but also I wondered many times how I would ever deal with a situation like hers. To be “the daughter of” and then make such a tremendous mark myself. I’ve really loved her, and felt sorry for her at the same time.
There was nothing she could ever do about having famous parents. She had been directed by her father, and adored and listened to her mother. Liza has a God-given talent, and Freddie and John really did give her amazing material to do and loved her very much and took care of her. I think she welcomed that. They were really there for her. The most important thing is Liza’s own wonderful, child-like quality. She always wants to please her audiences. She will do anything to please them. I admire that.
We had a great time on stage together. We enjoyed each other’s talent. That’s a great blessing in the arts. Liza and I both have a gift that we have to share. She is aware of that just as much as I am. It was pretty weird playing her mother (Anna to Minnelli’s Angel in The Rink) I must say, when we were not that far apart as far as our ages were concerned. But that’s what theater is all about: pretend.
Whenever I see Liza in my head, her arm is up in the air. Freddie used to have that arm in the air, and I remember her mother had that arm in the air too. She was delicious, adorable, in Cabaret—and “Cabaret” itself is one of many of her songs you have trapped in your brain somewhere. “Delicious”: that’s a good word for her. She was a sweetie pie, and still is.
For her 75th birthday, I say to Liza: she’s finally older than I am! That’s a tease of course. I send her my love. They may say she’s 75, but I say she’s 25. I hope she enjoys every blessed moment of her day. I send my love, as does Lisa. I’m hoping she can relax and enjoy her birthday, and can enjoy the rest of her life—a beautiful, calm life without pressures. I’m hoping she does exactly what she wants to do, and is surrounded by people who she loves and love her, and don’t pull her apart.
I’m sure she doesn’t believe she has reached 75. I can’t believe my age either! (Rivera laughs) If she’s in the same predicament I am, I really feel sorry for her. (More laughter) Those age numbers: I can’t even turn mine around and be happy about it! I just want Liza to laugh herself silly, and have a good time and have what she wants—not what everyone else wants. Liza knows she has my and my daughter Lisa’s love. She knows she can count on our love forever. We just adore her, and want her to have a wonderful birthday.
Tony-nominated writer and performer Charles Busch, 66, is known for his acclaimed drag-based theater pieces. His most recent was The Confession of Lily Dare at the Cherry Lane Theatre in 2o20, which he performed just prior to lockdown.
Over the years I’ve spent time with Liza six, maybe seven, times. There have been lunches. She’s come to performances of mine. I’ve certainly been to performances of hers. Memorably, I spent six hours with her alone in a hotel room.
We were at the Marriott Marquis. (Minnelli was being honored at PFLAG’s 2010 Straight for Equality Awards Gala, where she was presented with the 2010 Straight for Equality in Entertainment Award.)
I had just interviewed Liza for PBS’ In the Life, and Sigourney Weaver, who was going to present Liza with the award, had to back out—so they asked me to stick around and do it. On the night, Liza was having back and hip issues. It was hard for her to sit at a banquet table for four hours until the award was presented, so I kept her company in the hotel room until the time came to escort her down to the ballroom to present her with the award. On the night, I made a complete goof of myself introducing her. Obviously, she was a pro and absolutely brilliant.
In some ways I am friendlier with her half-sister Lorna (Luft). What’s so interesting about them both is their assumption that everyone knows their childhood history, so they don’t need to explain anything. It’s a pretty smart and amusing assumption to make on their part. I asked Liza one time how she learned to drive. She told me, “Sid.” The assumption was I would know she was talking about Judy’s third husband, Sid Luft. Lorna calls it their normal. It’s outrageous to the rest of us.
Liza doesn’t have barriers up, or didn’t with me. I asked her about her friendship with Michael Jackson, and she told me she adored him. Like many people who live in the public eye, their normal is outrageous to us.
With Liza, I think what we see in the public eye is really her. She’s very enthusiastic, and lives in something of a bubble. She has kooky points of view because of the life she has led, but she is sincere and wildly enthusiastic about people she adores. When I was hanging out with her in the hotel room, it was such a long time the conversation eventually got down to what we liked to watch on TV. She said, “Forensics. And procedurals. Autopsy.” She said it with the same enthusiasm as she talks about her friends.
Liza is full of life, yet she has endured so much. My birthday message would be to wish her health and joy. She has lived the last 30 years with intolerable pain from scoliosis and structural problems. But I think she has great nobility. That evening in the hotel room was a particular low point, healthwise, for her. But there was no complaining. No “Poor me.”
At one point she stood up, and I saw that her spine was twisted. I admired her, because I don’t think I’d be such a trouper. I feel like she really is a trouper in her soul; she sees herself as a dancer more than anything. She has that mad, noble dancer’s attitude of “Work through the pain, get up there and do it.”
When I walked her down to the ballroom, we went inch by inch making slow progress. It was painful for her, and when we got on the stage and she made her speech she made a joke about being a survivor receiving a survivor’s award. Then she did this perfect Bob Fosse dance move, thrusting her hip out. It was amazing. I just love her adrenaline and training, and her slightly mad gung-ho spirit. She’s naturally very funny, sometimes unintentionally so.
A few years ago she came to my play, The Divine Sister. It was an homage to Hollywood religiosity and nun movies, especially Rosalind Russell in The Trouble With Angels (1966). I saw her afterwards. She seemed to love it. I said to her, “It must have been a relief to see a piece of camp entertainment that did not mention you or your mother.”
“Oh baby, it was such a thrill,” she said.
I find it awkward for her, the constant barrage of people making jokes about her mother, gay husbands, pills, and all that. I would think it must be hurtful. “No, it’s just my normal,” she told me. She grew up with this.
Liza is just before that generation, led by Bette Midler, of post-Stonewall performers who played to gay audiences directly. Liza may be the same age as Bette Midler, but somehow comes from an earlier generation. She carries her mother’s history with her, even though she is the same age as current rock stars. Liza grew into the acceptance of her gay audience, a journey she took because she started it pre-Stonewall. As the years have gone in she has embraced it, and she lived through the AIDS crisis and endured all those losses. She knows what the responsibility of being a gay icon is.
She has had one of the great pop culture careers, won every award, and think she has earned her rest. I wish she had had more opportunities in films because I think she is a very good actress. I was watching New York, New York again recently. It’s a problematic movie. It’s overlong and doesn’t quite work, but her performance is a masterpiece of naturalistic acting. She is more Scorsese-real than Robert De Niro in that movie.
Hers is one of the great careers. I will never forget seeing her during her 1992 “Stepping Out” tour live at Radio City Music Hall. It’s the biggest stage there is. She was at the height of her powers. She looked and sounded so beautiful. She did a series of non-stop spins from stage left all the way to stage right. It was inhuman! She really made Radio City Music Hall seem like an intimate cabaret stage. It was one of the most extraordinary stage scenes I have ever seen. I also remember seeing another famous lady perform there, and she seemed lost on that stage. Well, Liza didn’t.
That night at the hotel, after she I had given her the award and we had spent this very long evening together, I was just exhausted. I’m sure she was too. Yet when I helped her into her car, suddenly, before the driver put his foot on the pedal, she thrust her hand through the open window and with perfect dancer’s dexterity, grabbed my hand and screeched, “Baby, I want more!”
And then off they went into the night! (Busch laughs) That defines her, doesn’t it?
The Golden Globe-nominated Parker Posey, 52, has appeared in movies, including The House of Yes (1997), Personal Velocity (2002), and Broken English (2007). She has also appeared in Christopher Guest movies like Best in Show (2000), in Louie (2012), and is the author of You’re on an Airplane: A Self-Mythologizing Memoir.
I just love Liza. She’s so relatable and human. She’s show-people. I met Liza filming The Oh In Ohio (2006), in which she played a woman who led an orgasm seminar. She only worked a day. I remember showing her my needlepoint. We would smoke cigarettes behind my trailer, and just hang out.
She looked at my needlepoint pattern, and said, “Oh I used to do that, but I’d do it jazz-style,” meaning she follows her own pattern. She would not go by a pre-printed-out pattern. She freestyled. She’s “real jazz” like that in her performing too. It’s a different kind of performing, by people who want to be free in the moment, discovering a song if you’re a singer, finding the real in your own voice in your own world.
I saw her at a concert she invited me to in New Jersey. Afterwards, backstage, I was effusive and just asked her how she did it, meaning how did she create these worlds in the songs she sings and make everything sound as if it is happening for the first time. I was blown away. She was taking off her false eyelashes, and she goes [Posey adopts a perfect Minnelli voice]: “Oh it was just acting, baby!”
She has so much style. Performers are so different today than they were back then. She came out of that old system, and of course her mom. My grandmother loved old movies and movie musicals. I grew up watching them. I also watched Liza With a “Z” in which Bob Fosse, who choreographed it, watches her dance and Liza says she had no idea she was sexy. That kind of choreography is so female and artful. Fosse loved women, and there is something so playful and right between him and Liza. It’s wonderful to see how she moved and how her body was shaped, and her sense of play.
I went to her house, watched Law and Order, and hung out on her bed. She was going through that mess with (fourth husband) David Gest (there were accusations of abuse on both sides). She was like, “Oh, can you believe it?”
She’s very deep, very personable, and so much fun. I like that she once said, “Religion is for people who are afraid to go to hell. Spirituality is for people who have already been there!” I think about her vulnerability and her survival of so much, coupled with the immense talent that she was just born with. My family are performers too. They’re not famous, but like Liza’s family there is a performative quality when they show up to meet someone. It is playful, a certain kind of presence which I think she just has, as well as an enormous amount of enthusiasm. That’s her main strength.
I remember being in my mid-thirties, I was finding it so hard being an actor, and not getting parts. Liza said to me, “Oh, but you’re curious.” That really affected me, and encouraged me. You have to keep that spark alive in yourself as an artist, or you die.
Liza’s curiosity, I think, has a lot to do with her own longevity. I love that she loves Christopher Guest movies and starred in Arrested Development. She’s just excited to perform, brings herself to whatever she’s doing, and is just hilarious. She’s truly, truly funny, dances to the beat of her own drum, and has this amazing perseverance. She’s not someone who would ever be bored.
Her fans connect with this. I’ve seen them standing screaming that they love her. It’s her heart that people love, and the stories and humanity she brings to the songs she sings. I remember her saying, “I come from vaudeville.” She’s show-people, it’s in her DNA. It’s inescapable. She’s fierce in her art, and in the strength she’s had to be public, and be such a huge star, and just to continue to love it. She loves performing, and commits deeply to the moment in her songs.
I once asked Liza if she watched American Idol, and she said “Oh no.” She really identified with the performers, and the idea that there was a competition around singers and songs was a strange thing to her. And in the talent shows, it sometimes didn’t seem to Liza that people knew what a song, or the feeling behind a song, was. Liza is a master of the vulnerability necessary to connect to a song. It’s her great strength.
JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL
John Cameron Mitchell is an actor, playwright, screenwriter, and director. He wrote (with Stephen Trask) and starred in Obie-award winning cult musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1998), which was made into a 2001 movie. The 2014 Broadway production won four Tony Awards. Mitchell, 57, won a Special Tony Award in 2015. Among other projects, he wrote and directed Shortbus (2006), and recently starred in the TV series Shrill.
In the 1970s, Liza and David Bowie probably talked in my brain and gave birth to Hedwig later on. Liza is the mad performer part. Bowie was certainly a performer too, but he was the cool cat in charge of it all. Liza was the insecure, brilliant performer who was easy to be loved.
Sally Bowles and Hedwig had a bit in common: the struggling people who no one paid attention to, and of course the German connection to Cabaret. Ziggy Stardust kind of combined with all that to create Hedwig. I’ve never met Liza, but I hope she liked Hedwig.
I saw Liza for the first time when I saw a bit of Liza With a “Z” when I was a kid, which is still stunning and was stunning back then, a mind-blower. Weirdly, the quieter songs stuck with me, like Charles Aznavour’s “You’ve Let Yourself Go.” It is very subtle song, and you don’t think of Liza as subtle, but she is a brilliant actress and interpreter of all kinds of music. In the album she did with the Pet Shop Boys (Results), she melts into their production. It’s quite subtle. I love that side of her.
Liza can kick it way down, and then of course she could blow it out the top too. Her interpretation of “You’ve Let Yourself Go” was like seeing a beautiful, contemporary monolog. I also loved the high steps and gigantic belt of the other songs. As a kid, I remember singing “Maybe This Time” a lot. “Cabaret” was her masterpiece, but for me “All That Jazz” is better. There’s so much life flashing before your eyes.
I did want to play the Emcee in Cabaret. I got offered to play it on Broadway, and I was very flattered to follow in the footsteps of Joel Grey. I was a baby Joel Grey when I was starting out on Broadway. But I had just done Hedwig and was tired of German.
When I was younger, I was a “Liza” person. Back then, everyone was like, “Well, she’s not as good as her mother.” And I thought, “What a competition!” It must have been so hard for her, but ultimately I didn’t get it. Sure, Judy Garland was great and everything, but she’s no Liza! Maybe it’s Liza’s need to be loved, and the love she gave. There was something very sophisticated about Judy. I can see her hanging out with Noël Coward and exchanging witticisms. Liza is more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed: “Love me!” “I love you!” I related more to that in my youth, so I worshipped her.
As a kid I saw her in The Rink. I liked her in movies. I never understood why she never got to the sing the theme song of Arthur (1981). Back then, if a singer was in a movie, they got to the sing the theme. But I did see Liza perform at Jones Beach, and Christopher Cross, who sang the Arthur theme, opened for her, so she got her revenge.
Liza’s fans worry about her just as the older generation had worried about Judy. “Is she going to be OK?” “How is she doing?” She has given so much, and been through so much: drugs, gay husbands.
Both mother and daughter seemed to have an attraction to gay guys. Well, obviously they are more fun. For me, the original “gay marriage” was between a closet case and a fag hag, a match that can last forever because there’s no sex at all! I don’t see “fag hag” as a reductive term, but rather as someone highly desirable to gay men. Liza is the ultimate fag hag. She is the best friend, not above it all. Judy was not quite our best friend. She was also on the verge of falling apart, but had a slightly more dignified reserve. Liza didn’t have that. She felt like your buddy, best friend, and sister. Like her mother, Liza didn’t shy away from gay adulation.
Like any of great idols and queer icons—and she goes beyond that, she’s a legend in the firmament—we follow them with affection, but we also love the tackier things they get involved with. Liza went on to the Home Shopping Network to sell her kaftans and jewelry. One woman who called up said to her she had admired her fight “with diversity” (rather than “adversity”). Another caller told Liza she was her mentor, and Liza replied that the woman was her mentor.
Liza has had many struggles and traumas. She once performed “New York, New York” on stage, and asked the audience if she minded if she sang it in a chair. Of course we didn’t mind! She desperately wanted to get out of that chair. She was squirming, but she had been told by the doctors not to use her joints. There is always that sense with her of “I’m giving it all for you.” That is why generations of people are enamored with her, especially generations of gay men. Like our aunties, we love her deeply, and can’t believe she’s 75. I thought she was 85! I’m kidding! I’m just so happy she’s with us.
The only time I saw Liza up close was in the ’90s at the Algonquin Hotel for a performance of Andrea Marcovicci’s cabaret show. It was classic Liza. She came in a little late. During the show she got up and went “Heyyyy youuuuu” towards Andrea, and sat back down. We were all just stunned. Only Liza would be able to do that in the middle of a show, then sit down, and enjoy the show, and everything is fine.
I would love to meet her, but I don’t want to bother her, or ask her anything she has already been asked. I think I would probably just want to listen to her tell stories, because her stories must be remembered—so, maybe a small dinner where I don’t take up all her time. I would love to write a role for her where she could sit for the whole thing, which she would love. Maybe I should do that, right?
The Tony-and Drama Desk award winning (for Pippin) Ben Vereen has been close friends with Minnelli for almost 50 years. The Emmy-nominated, 74-year-old actor has appeared in Wicked, Fosse, I’m Not Rappaport, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, and A Christmas Carol. Vereen also appeared on TV shows including How I Met Your Mother.
Liza is one of my deepest, closest friends. I first meet her in the 1970’s when I was doing Jesus Christ Superstar on Broadway. She came backstage with her assistant, and Desi Arnaz Jr. and his manager.
She looked into the room. I had no idea who this person was with these big, beautiful eyes. She said, “Hi. You were so good.” Then she said: “My name is Liza.” I said, “My name is Ben, thank you for coming to our show.” She came back the next night, and the night after that. We had dinner. On the TV there was a program about The Wizard of Oz. Liza said, “Look at the little girl, that’s my mom.” Durrrr, I thought, Judy Garland!
Liza and I have done TV shows and concerts together. We used to sing at piano bars, up and down 46th Street. We’ve been around. I love this woman. She’s my good friend. (This reporter asked if they had ever been romantically involved. Vereen laughed.) I consider her my theatrical romance. Liza’s my deepest friend in this business, she has been amazing to me. When she came into my life, I sat with Gene Kelly and Vincente Minelli and Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I mean, come on. Barbra Streisand came to my show, and said, “Who’s this guy Liza keeps talking about?”
It’s been a wonderful journey with her, and I hope I have been there for her. On her birthday, let’s show her the love and appreciation that’s she’s given us all these years. How has she survived? (Vereen sings) “There’s a song in her heart.” I’ll call her. And she will say we have to work on a song. She’s always thinking of ways to entertain her people. What makes Liza special? Honesty, authenticity, she’s an original. Liza comes on stage, and lights up the entire building. A song is somebody’s heart. It’s a story, and we try to convert that story when we sing.
I have learned a lot from her. I’m from Brooklyn. I never intended to be in this business. She came along, and gave me a sense of the history of this business and the gravitas we have, and how much we can affect people. Now we teach kids together in classes.
I speak to her every week, sometimes two or three times a week. We talk about everything, but mostly about music. We have to get this terrible pandemic over and get back together at the theater, and communicate, and hang out together. So, get those vaccines in your arms, baby, and let’s go!
I wish Liza 75 more birthdays. Come on baby, 75 more! Let’s do it again! Come on baby, one more time around the hall! Let’s go knock them into life!