Liberace has come to be synonymous with a certain brand of popular entertainment long on corn, heavy on hokum, frothing over with spectacle, and usually featuring an overornamented, shamelessly extroverted male odalisque. Little Richard comes to mind, as well as the latter-day Elvis Presley and the Elton John of the early 70s--all of them decorated like Christmas trees and about the same size. Little Wladziu Valentino Liberace from West Allis, Wisconsin, was the original, though, turning the piano lessons forced on him by a doting mother and a frustrated classical-musician father into an empire of ego and excess that makes Donald Trump look like Mahatma Gandhi. Now, a bare five years after his death, Milwaukee's Theatre X has assembled a team of creative artists that includes Chicago composer Michael Vitali and painter Ed Paschke to put together Liberace: The Magic of Believing, an opera tracing the life of the great showman.
Director and cowriter Wesley Savick recalls that the idea came to Theatre X after the 22-year-old ensemble decided to enlist Paschke's help on one of their productions.
"We had just finished a project based on the writings of George F. Kennan [a Milwaukeean who was the American ambassador to Russia following World War II], and we were thinking in this 'local hero/local antihero' mode. It was one of those meetings where everyone was throwing ideas around--I remember Pam [Woodruff] saying 'opera,' and then somebody said, 'Liberace,' and we all sort of giggled."
Paschke didn't giggle--he immediately agreed to design what turned out to be no less than 20 backdrops for the production. Vitali didn't giggle, either. "The sheer scale of Liberace's life," he says, "the strangeness and perversity of it--it's natural for opera. Mere dialogue can't express it, and where language stops, music starts. It took me about half a second to say yes."
Liberace presented problems as a protagonist, though. Could audiences identify with him? The image the man sought to project, even after other celebrities went out of their way to stress a kinship with ordinary folk, was a cross between Louis XIV and an overgrown Little Lord Fauntleroy. His trademark candelabrum on the piano--a touch he admitted stealing from the Cornel Wilde movie A Song to Remember--was only the beginning. By 1977 Liberace was being ferried onstage in a white Rolls-Royce, wearing a silver-fox coat with a 16-foot train. He sat down at a rhinestone-studded piano to play his unique hybrid of classical and popular music forms, giving even "Chopsticks" so many flourishes and embellishments that it had the grandeur of a symphony. The vulgarity of Liberace's unabashed vanity was always mitigated, however, by his childlike playfulness. "Do you like my rings?" he would ask his audiences, holding out hands encrusted with diamonds. "You should--you paid for them!" Though he usually played to huge audiences, Liberace was one of the first entertainers to use television effectively, waving and winking and making each unseen audience member feel that this famous person was speaking just to her. Middle-aged women especially seemed to respond to Liberace's look-at-me-Ma charm, flocking to his concerts in record numbers. As for the critics' negative remarks, Liberace would airily claim to have "cried all the way to the bank."
Savick says, "My initial take on the man was absolute, unqualified revulsion. It was hard to find something to embrace. His life story is almost like a joke--it can't be taken seriously, and that is what offers the opportunity to take it very seriously. What I could finally embrace in him was his courage--it was a twisted kind of courage, but it was courage. And his generosity. He lived for his audiences."
"A month before he died," Vitali says, "Liberace signed for a three-week engagement at Radio City Music Hall. Now this is a man in his 60s, a very sick man who was running into the wings between numbers to receive oxygen. He did two two-hour shows per night where he flew onstage with rigging like Peter Pan! He knew he was dying, but he was going out with a song. He was unbelievably generous with his audiences. He would stand by the stage door and sign autographs until there were no more requests. Who does that nowadays?"
Liberace: The Magic of Believing includes the mysterious circumstances of Liberace's birth (his twin was stillborn, while he weighed in at a robust 13 pounds), his brush with death from carbon tetrachloride poisoning (suffered when he tried to clean his costumes himself in a moment of thriftiness), and the spectral vision that appeared at his bedside to bless the life he'd chosen. The opera includes Liberace's last lover, whom he literally re-created in his own image, the almost terrifying shopping sprees ("I'll take a dozen in every color!"), his intense appetites, and his kamikaze farewell. This epic-sized production stars the six foot four Richard Brunner as Liberace, Leslie Fitzwater as his mother, and numerous Theatre X members. Among Paschke's stunning visual images are a huge pair of tuxedo lapels dropping from the ceiling; Vitali's music ranges from the playfulness of "Too Much of a Good Thing Is Wonderful" to the grand passion of the title song.
"There was a public and a private side to Liberace, and in many ways the public side was the real Liberace," says Vitali. "I can fault the man for many things, but not for the depth of his ambition. Presley was a pawn of his managers, but Liberace orchestrated his own life to such a degree that he got exactly what he wanted. He was an American archetype."
Liberace: The Magic of Believing will open at the Pabst Theater (where the 16-year-old Liberace made his debut with the Chicago Symphony in 1940), 144 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee, and will play for four performances--Friday, May 29, at 8; May 30 at 2 and 8; and May 31 at 2--before making way for another production there. Tickets are $10-$25. Negotiations are under way to bring it to Chicago, but in the meantime you can get tickets to the Milwaukee performance through Audience Projects, 929-8499, or through the Pabst box office at (414) 278-3663.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Meredith.