I am a lucky gal to have worked with one of the most talented and popular stars in my lifetime – Liza Minnelli. When Fred Ebb asked me to meet Liza about the possibility of staging her upcoming show at Radio City Music Hall, I could not get there fast enough. I was such a fan of her talent, especially her work in Cabaret, and I was in awe of her parents Vincent Minnelli and Judy Garland.
We met at her apartment on the Upper East Side. I arrived and the doorman said “She’s waiting for you, so go right in.” When I walked through the front door, I immediately noticed the four large Andy Warhol portraits of Liza hanging at the end of her long hall. Then I was shown into the living room where I was greeted by three more Warhol’s of Judy Garland. As I admired the artwork, I heard the sound of paws running on the marble floor and looked up to see a very happy Toto dog who was very eager to meet me. Shortly thereafter, Liza appeared from around the corner dressed in her signature black turtleneck and black leggings with a flowing black silk jacket that caught the air perfectly. She was smiling and yelling, “Stro! Stro! Stro!” It was a lot to take in – Toto, Warhol, and an effusive Hollywood star.
Clearly Fred Ebb had given me a good recommendation because she hugged me with all her might and giggled while she hung on. She then guided me over to her beautiful grand piano where a pianist waited for us. We got right down to business talking about musical choices for the show. I came to find out later there was always a piano player somewhere nearby. Her life was constantly underscored wherever she went – we only ate together in restaurants with a piano.
We got along instantly, as if we had been friends for a very long time. We started a dance improv together in the middle of her living room. Her musicality is spectacular – she intuitively understands dance arrangements and how to construct a production number. She thinks like a musician, a choreographer, and a star all at once.
We rehearsed in Radio City’s vast studios. I entered in to this process not knowing how quickly she would pick up the choreography or if she would even be able to execute the steps I had imagined. To my joy, she danced like a dream – and she loved dancing. She told me, “I want to really dance this time, like Mama did in Summer Stock and Me and My Gal.”
She was in the best shape she had ever been – physically and vocally. I can still remember tap dancing with her side by side. We would be madly tapping together to the song “Stepping Out”, delighting in the pure feeling of what it really means to dance up a storm. Her rhythm is extraordinary – she dances in the pocket of the beat, never anticipating or behind the music. One time as we were dancing alongside each other, I had an otherworldly moment when I looked into those big, beautiful, dark brown eyes of hers and clearly saw the eyes of Judy Garland staring back at me. Perhaps it was just the adrenaline rush of the whole rehearsal catching up with me – but, it was intoxicating. I had had a lot of dance partners by that time, and she was now my favorite!
Liza was a force! She could rehearse for hours and hours. I actually had to start drinking coffee just to keep up with her. I had avoided drinking coffee my whole life up to that point, but she turned me into a real New Yorker – “Regular coffee, to go!” She loves performing so much, but what she truly adores is rehearsal. She is a perfectionist and loved trying new ideas. If she couldn’t pick up something right away, she didn’t want to change it – she wanted to work it until she conquered it.
After I had gone through all of her choreography with her and felt she was comfortable with the staging and arrangements, we brought in the rest of the cast – 12 women of all shapes, sizes, and ages. Liza called them her Demon Divas.
Liza and Fred Ebb came up with the concept of using all women instead of the usual backup boys. Fred took it a beat further and saying, “Wouldn’t it be great if we planted them in the audience and they looked like real patrons.” So we auditioned women of all varieties, ages 15 to 65. During the opening of Act Two, one woman would call to Liza from her seat, followed by another woman, and then another, and another, until all 12 had joined her onstage, singing the Kander and Ebb number “I Want to Get into the Act”. It was a wonderful idea that allowed Liza to show her authentic, generous self. That kindness was evident on and off the stage. She loved these women.
Liza chose songs that told stories and songs she could relate to – songs like “Old Friends”, “Teach Me Tonight”, “Some People”, and “Sorry I Asked”. She said, “We women have a lot on our minds and I have tried to find songs that reflect that.” We created a “Men’s Medley” that Liza and the ladies sang, lamenting about the men in their lives – “can’t live with them, can’t live without them.”
Liza also asked me to create a tribute to Bob Fosse. She wanted to honor him for his work with her on Cabaret and Liza with a Z. We put together “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary”, “Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag”, and John Lennon’s “Imagine”. The girls were dressed in black and wore white gloves. Isolated percussive sounds of tambourines, cow bells, and finger snaps came from the orchestra. Since I had been drilled in the style of Fosse from my time on the National Tour of Chicago, the movement came easily to me. I understood his high style and motivation. In a way, choreographing this medley for Liza allowed me to honor him, too.
Prior to all this, Liza and Fred Ebb had traveled to Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey to see my production of Sayonara. I had choreographed a taiko drum number for that show which Liza could not stop talking about. She asked if I could teach her and the 12 gals how to play the taiko drums and create a big production number so she could do a costume change. The girls loved learning the technique and I loved teaching it. It’s one of those art forms in which you can really get out all your aggression! As the girls leapt, danced, and beat out rhythms on the drums, not only could Liza make a costumes change, but the whole orchestra was able to take a break.
My favorite number was the big tap number “Stepping Out” with Liza and the girls dressed in amazing red sequined costumes that took a nod to Chanel. The dance arrangement was by the greatest dance arranger of them all – Peter Howard. As I created the number in the studio, Peter was with me every step of the way, matching the choreography and highlighting the essence of each duet or trio or solo performed by the women.
Because of the magnificent resources of the Radio City stage, I could fly in canes from the sky for the girls to dance with. They brought the number home spinning and tossing their canes – even Liza had some tricky twirling choreography and she never once dropped her cane!
Liza was so good to me during our time together. We supported each other and inspired one another musically. I’ve never had anyone else dance next to me that made me feel so special and so dynamic. I always knew she was a true triple threat, with a powerful voice and electric stage presence, but the real revelation was her kindness and gracious personality. There was always a lot of love in the room.
Liza’s three-week stand became the highest-grossing concert in Radio City’s 60-year history. We took the show all over the United States, playing places like the famous Hollywood Bowl. From there we went to Paris, Italy, Germany, Switzerland, and London’s Royal Albert Hall. We ended up returning to Radio City and taping the show for HBO. The broadcast won Liza the Emmy Award for Outstanding Individual Performance and I was honored with an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Choreography.
There are so many good memories from that show – the big band music, the cast of talented women, Radio City itself. And I will never forget that opening night. Liza delivered a powerful two and a half hours, sharing her vulnerable, brassy artistic gifts to a sold-out house. I stood backstage with Fred Ebb watching the finale. Liza was singing “New York, New York” with the orchestra high in the air behind her, marquee lights all over the set, and the 12 Demon Divas backing her up. The starry audience was going crazy, erupting into applause at least ten times during the number. I watched this extraordinary performer give everything she had – I had chills all over my body. I knew in that moment I was very lucky to have worked with Liza at this point in her life. She was a force of nature, but also incredibly vulnerable. She touches everyone’s heart with that vulnerability.
After the final bow, Liza ran to the side of the proscenium and brought me and Fred Ebb onstage. I could not believe it. Fred Ebb and I held hands tightly and took several bows. Radio City Music Hall holds close to 6,000 seats – and they were filled with adoring fans. It was overwhelming to look into the house of that gorgeous theater and see so many people standing and cheering. The celebration was almost deafening. As we took our bows, Fred Ebb pulled me very close and spoke into my ear. “Take this in, don’t forget this moment in the theater. It’s not always like this.”
And he was right.
Music and Lyrics by John Kander and Frank Ebb
Direction by Fred Ebb
Choreography by Susan Stroman
Set Design by Michael Hotopp
Costume Design by Julie Weiss
Lighting Design by David Agress
Sound Design by Hank Catteneo
Musical Direction by Bill LaVorgna
Radio City Music Hall
Premiere: April 23, 1991
Full Credits: IMDb