At the age of 50, Liza Minnelli has finally decided to stop playing the bubbly, doe-eyed superstar. On her new album, Gently, she strips away her lollipop optimism and Ethel Merman delivery to reveal a lonely, sentimental voice full of frailty and sorrow.
Minnelli rose to fame belting out feel-good stompers in much the same manner as her show-stopping mother, Judy Garland--songs like "Some People" ("Some people can get a thrill knitting sweaters and sitting still....But some people ain't me-ee-ee-ee!") and "I Happen to Like New York" ("Pastrami on rye at the Carnegie Deli / There's jooooooy in each bite!"). But Gently finds Minnelli singing darkly, from the pit of her stomach, beckoning us down to desolate depths, far from her old chums at the cabaret. The songs on Gently are light jazz standards-- romantic ballads and hep cocktail numbers arranged with vibes, piano, and muted trumpet--far different fare from her usual plucky show tunes.
"Usually the songs I choose, the songs I'm drawn to," Minnelli writes in Gently's liner notes, "are about what I hope to be like. At their best, they are strong, unsentimental, and relentlessly cheerful. The songs on this album, in truth, are much more what I'm really like: sentimental, romantic and sometimes foolish....So, without a sequin in sight...I sing you these songs with all the love I have, hopefully, tenderly, and most of all...gently."
Gently is a song cycle depicting the rise and fall of a love affair. The album begins with a joyful duet with Johnny Mathis on "Chances Are." On Gus Kahn and Nacio Herb Brown's "You Stepped Out of a Dream," Minnelli becomes swaggering and masculine, singing with a sinister sensuality: "Could there be lips like yours?" The affair simmers with Irving Berlin's "I Got Lost in His Arms," sung humid and sexy as swampland. The only low point on Gently is a duet with Donna Summer, "Does He Love You?"--a "lite" contemporary number that breaks the mood of the album. It's the kind of thing you hear when the bank puts you on hold. But the song does make perfectly clear just how odd Minnelli's husky coal mine of a voice sounds when paired with the more traditional female vibrato and range of Summer. The album ends in perfect heartbreak with the terrifying quiet of "In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning," in which Minnelli sings deep and airy in a voice that sounds exhausted from crying. "You lie awake," she moans, "and think about the man."
By the age of two, Minnelli had witnessed violent family arguments over her mother's prescription-drug abuse, had seen her mother's suicide attempts, and had been temporarily separated from her mother during Garland's incarceration in sanitariums. Perhaps, like many children of substance abusers, she did her best to make things nice. As a child, she entertained her parents' movie-star friends by belting out mom's songs into a pinecone microphone. She became the quirky, always-looking-up gal who demanded in "Liza with a Z," her trademark romp, "Keep it a happy sooooooong!"
But it's hard to play the ingenue. Garland finally overdosed on sleeping pills in 1969, and ironically, it was at her funeral--with over twenty thousand people filing by her mother's coffin--that Liza, age 23, took her first Valium. By 1975 she was running from engagements on Broadway to all-night coke parties at Studio 54 with her pal and confidant, the designer Halston (who helped define Liza's stage presence by creating her sequined pantsuits and five-inch heels). In his diaries Andy Warhol reports a conversation with Halston on January 3, 1978: "Liza said to Halston, 'Give me every drug you've got.' So he gave her a bottle of coke, a few sticks of marijuana, a Valium and four Quaaludes.'" Minnelli ended up at the Betty Ford Clinic in 1980, blaming her troubles on the peculiar pressures of being Liza. "I have to be witty; I have to be glamorous; I have to be bubbly."
Betty Ford cleaned her up without flattening her bubbles. Her 1987 comeback show at Carnegie Hall, filled with jaunty rave-ups like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "Toot Toot Tootsie," broke box-office records. Liz Smith raved, "Onstage came the same youthful-looking, gamine-like, innocent, wide-eyed Liza we have always known and loved."
In 1989 Minnelli released Results, a collaborative effort with the Pet Shop Boys. While it was her first album that wasn't a film sound track or a recording of a live performance, it still wasn't a great stretch. Liza sang Sondheim and wisecracked with lyrics like, "I love you 'cause you pay my rent," while the Pet Shop Boys simply laid down a techno beat in place of her usual orchestra.
Minnelli's 1991 run at Radio City Music Hall again set records, taking in $3.8 million. But Variety called the show "a colossal confection by a talented baker who got carried away: Piled high with frosting to spare, this three-hour extravaganza gluts audiences to the point of serious indigestion."
Gently finds Minnelli finally stripped of goofy punch lines and powdered sugar, free from the limitations of her show-biz persona. She just sings--exposing her astounding voice, gravelly and masculine. It's not always a pretty voice. At times it gives me that same queer feeling as listening to Jimmy Scott, the great male jazz singer whose soft and feminine voice confuses gender lines, bringing love and longing to a strange asexual state. But, as with Scott, it's just that strangeness in the voice that haunts and lingers.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of "Gently" album cover.