- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 1, 2006

NEW YORK

It’s a curious thing: When discussing her TV special, “Liza With a ‘Z’” (which, above all, spotlights Liza Minnelli), the woman in the title keeps steering the talk to other names.

Like Bob Fosse, the legendary Broadway and Hollywood director-choreographer who crafted her show.

“I think it’s a Fosse gem,” Miss Minnelli says. “I’m proud to be a part of that work.”

Part? “Liza With a ‘Z’” feasts on Miss Minnelli in concert at Broadway’s Lyceum Theater the night of May 31, 1972, capturing the show documentary-style with eight 16mm cameras without missing a beat. It premiered on NBC that September, making a splash and winning a Peabody Award as well as four Emmys, then encored in March and September 1973.

It had not aired since then, until — rescued from near ruin and fully restored frame by frame, with the sound remixed from mono to Dolby 5.1 stereo — its return last night on Showtime as part of a free preview weekend for Showtime cable nonsubscribers. (Additional play dates on the network’s Showtime Too channel are scheduled for 8 tonight and April 10 and 13; and at midnight April 18. Check local cable listings).

“It never looked this good,” Miss Minnelli says, certain that its mastermind, who died in 1987, would approve. “Fosse’s applauding from heaven,” she adds.

The passage of decades is clear from the moment Miss Minnelli strides onstage in her white Halston pantsuit and white boa. Not only is the big-eyed girl with the even bigger voice a baby-faced 26 years old, but she soon addresses her not-yet-a-household-name status in the lead-up to her title song: “I find that, still, a lot of people call me Lisa,” she confides.

It’s been a long time since anybody needed to be told her name is Liza With a “z.”

Even in 1972, though, Liza — daughter of Judy Garland and her second husband, director Vincent Minnelli — was a showbiz veteran. She had starred in films including “The Sterile Cuckoo” (1969) and the Fosse-directed “Cabaret” (released earlier that year), for which she would win an Oscar. At 19, she had won a Tony for the Broadway musical “Flora the Red Menace.”

Then on “Liza With a ‘Z,’” Miss Minnelli triumphantly sealed the deal for a mass TV audience.

“All of the confidence I have when I walk out is because I’m surrounded with people who really think I’m the best there is, and showed me how to be better,” Miss Minnelli, who turned 60 last month, explained during a recent interview in Manhattan. “It was the people who were with me. I felt safe and secure.”

She calls “Liza With a ‘Z’” part of an ongoing collaboration between herself and Mr. Fosse as well as the songwriting team of Fred Ebb and John Kander (who wrote special music for that program but whose other stellar output includes “Cabaret” and “New York, New York,” the Martin Scorsese-directed film in which Miss Minnelli co-starred with Robert De Niro).

During the hourlong show, Miss Minnelli serves up a varied menu, including “God Bless the Child,” “Son of a Preacher Man,” “My Mammy,” “Bye, Bye Blackbird” and, of course, a “Cabaret” medley.

For the sassy, now-forgotten Joe Tex hit “I Gotcha,” she vamps in a red sequined mini that must have had the network censor seeing red.

“You like my legs?,” Miss Minnelli chortles, her laughter a clue that the cigarette she’s holding isn’t the day’s first. “But you never see what you don’t want to,” she says, referring to the teasing camera angles. Somehow, at just the right moment, it cuts away.

“That was just like Fosse,” she goes on, full of praise for the jazz-dance genius. “He was a tease. And he was a flirt.”

With their film “Cabaret” and their TV special, 1972 was a flash point in both their careers.

Since then, Miss Minnelli has had seismic ups and downs while logging four marriages, four divorces and lots of tabloid headlines. She also has had more than her share of physical ailments.

“I’ve got two false hips, a wired-up knee, scoliosis, which I’ve always had, and three crushed disks,” she announces defiantly. “But I feel great. I dance every day — a 2 -hour class every morning.

“It’s one’s own responsibility to stay well as far as optimism goes,” she says, “and to learn from experience: ‘… I never want to get to here again.’ And then you figure out how not to. Besides, my mother taught me: If something that happened to you really bothers you, rewrite it. It’s your memory; rewrite it. You’re allowed.”

Her recurring role on the recently canceled Fox comedy “Arrested Development” — as a randy socialite with a vertiginous tendency to take thudding pratfalls — demonstrated that Miss Minnelli may take her art seriously, but not so much herself.

Also, despite her colorful and often glorious past, she insists she’s plenty satisfied to live in the present — and the future.

She says she seldom screens her films.

“I just can’t groove on myself. I can’t do it. I groove on other people. So when I see “Liza With a ‘Z’” — which indeed she has watched, with relish — “I see Fosse. And I see the dancers. And I see Fred (Mr. Ebb, who died in 2004) in every word I speak.”

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