SHE'S STILL CHASING RAINBOWS

Patrick Pacheco, based in New York, is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Liza Minnelli is searching for a way to explain who she is and what it is she does. Her brow is furrowed, her familiar dark features lost in concentration.

"I've got it!" she says, her large eyes suddenly gleaming. "Look at circus families, go right down the line, the Fratellini Brothers, the Flying Wallendas, whatever. That's what I was born into. That's what I do. That's why I love it so much. It's in my blood. I could never do anything else any more than any of them could've left the circus."

It's an apt parallel for Minnelli--daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli, granddaughter of vaudevillians Frank and Ethel Gumm--combining as it does the thrill of high-wire, daredevil professionalism with the threat and punishment of perilous falls and broken lives.

Minnelli is celebrating the professional lineage in a concert tour, now 6 months old, that arrives at the Pantages Theatre for three performances, July 31 to Aug. 2. At the same time, the darker side of "circus life" has swirled around the 51-year-old star, fed by reports that she has lapsed into past self-destructive behavior, following all too closely in the footsteps of her mother. The rumors have been exacerbated by a hospital stay in February for removal of a polyp from her vocal cords (this on top of hip-replacement surgery two years ago).

Minnelli dismisses the stories as sensationalist rumor-mongering. "It just sells more papers," she says.

It was the joy and unalloyed sentiment of a family tradition of making people feel good, however, that was on display in the final concert of her engagement last month at the Casino de Montreal in Canada, from her opening number of Irving Berlin's "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and her signature "Cabaret" to a closing anthem of "The Day After That" from Kander & Ebb's "Kiss of the Spider Woman."

At her best, Minnelli is what her friend and mentor, French singer Charles Aznavour, has exhorted her to be since he first presented her, at age 19, as his discovery to the people of Paris: "The voice of the people. Whatever they've been through, you've been through it too."

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Backed by the Cortes Alexander Trio and wearing a black sequined dress with a long pink boa, Minnelli charms an audience of mostly middle-aged and elderly Montrealers who have paid as much as $500 Canadian to hear her sing a mix of standards, warming when she includes some in French. Still recuperating from the operation, Minnelli's voice is wobbly and she struggles to hit and hold notes she could nail effortlessly 20 years ago. It's not until late in the concert, however, that she gives the reason for the raspiness.

"So if it's crummy, we'll stay until we get it right," she says good-naturedly before launching into a medley of soft, jazzy ballads from her latest CD, "Gently," a departure from the brassy style she perfected early on. Although it is arguably one of the best moments of the night, the audience begins to fidget. But it falls into a hush when the singer starts to talk about her family.

"This was my father and mother's favorite song, they were so very much in love," she says. Then she launches into "Embraceable You," a romantic Gershwin ballad that conjures a harmonious picture of what her family may have been like in 1949 when 2 1/2-year-old Liza made her film debut in "In the Good Old Summertime," starring her mother. For a moment it obscures the fact that less than three years later they would be divorced and that 20 years later, Garland--bankrupt and nearly unemployable--would die of a drug overdose in London. After the song, Minnelli explains why she has been more concerned with her lineage of late.

"This year my mother would've been 75," she says, the line alone earning sustained applause. "And I promised her that I would never sing one of her songs. But I think it's time to break that promise. And I think she'd understand."

A cappella, Minnelli sings her mother's standard "You Made Me Love You." The effect is eerie. The phrasing, the vibrato, the sobbing catches of emotions in her voice evoke Garland, whose a cappella rendition of "Over the Rainbow" at the lip of the Palace Theatre stage in New York in the early '50s is legend. From then on, the audience is, as they say in French, beurre (butter). After two encores, Minnelli gets a standing ovation.

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In the narrow hall outside her dressing room after the show, Minnelli is wound up like a top, spinning around greeting guests, agreeably signing autographs, hugging friends and strangers alike--not in the air-kissy manner of most celebrities but pressed tightly. Everyone from grip to dresser to security guard appears to be on a first-name basis.

"It's sincere," says Minnelli's friend Willa Kim, the Broadway costume designer. "She really is everybody's best pal. She's generous to a fault."

Everything is friendly chaos, even after Minnelli closes the door of her cluttered dressing room to settle down for an interview. "Settle down," mind you, is a relative term for her. Having changed out of her costume, she alternately sits on a couch and paces the room, her oversized bracelets jangling as she gesticulates to make a point or grabs her visitor by the arm. She looks frail and wan in the dim light, and her hand shakes a bit as she lights a cigarette.

Away from the crush, the actress, like many of the memorable characters she has played in films--such as Pookie Adams ("The Sterile Cuckoo") and Sally Bowles ("Cabaret"), the role that won her a best actress Oscar--appears to be a combination of steel and vulnerability.

Talking of personal problems, she can be resolutely without self-pity. When asked how she felt on her mother's 75th birthday on June 12, she replies briskly: "Probably like any other kid who's lost their mother." Introducing her dog, a frisky little Cairn terrier named Lily, she says matter-of-factly, "That's what I would have named a daughter if I'd had one"--leaving her guest to supply the knowledge that along with her three marriages, she had three miscarriages.

Minnelli jumps from topic to topic, an evasive technique, but through it all one is struck by her larger-than-life spirit--a Promethean energy that can either exhilarate or exhaust those around her.

"There's more peace in my life," Minnelli says when asked how this act differs from the shows she has been doing since her international concert tour "Liza" and television special"Liza With a Z" in the early 1970s made her one of the most popular entertainers in the world. "Not that you can tell that," she says, taking a puff of her cigarette and then bringing up the rumors in the media without prompting.

"When you're under attack and you don't know who from, it's just like you're good cannon fodder, and you sell papers and it goes in five-year stretches," she says defensively. "They leave you alone for five years, and then they say, 'Well, we haven't written about her recently,' then they completely attack you. They're so outrageous; they paint shadows on the pictures they use. You see the original picture and then what's published, and you think, 'Jeeeeeeezus.' "

Minnelli, of course, is talking about the supermarket tabloids, but elements of those same stories made it into the mainstream media when she stepped in for a vacationing Julie Andrews as a favor to the star for four weeks of the Broadway run of "Victor/Victoria" in January. Sandwiching rehearsals into her hectic concert schedule, she went on less prepared than she may have wanted.

There were reports that she flubbed lines and missed rehearsals. Then, after a matinee performance during the third week of her run, she was apparently in such bad shape that her "Victor/Victoria" co-star Tony Roberts, appalled, sat out the rest of her performances, claiming to be ill. (Vocal problems forced Minnelli out of the show earlier than planned.) Roberts has declined to comment on the media furor, as have the producers.

But someone close to the production who wishes to remain anonymous now says: "Hers was an overambitious rehearsal schedule to begin with, and she really felt the pressure of being back on Broadway, so she was not always in the best of shape. But then one night she stayed late at a friend's nightclub opening and the next day, with a matinee and evening to do, was a mess. Blake [Edwards, the director] was furious. But it got to Tony's core of professionalism. The stage is like a religion to him. He walked."

"I learned with Liza," Edwards told New York magazine at the time, "that it's best to let her do what she is compelled to do and to hope there is enough intelligence and understanding of her obssessive-compulsive nature to make it work for her, not against her." (He could not be reached for this story.)

Minnelli insists that her troubles are exaggerated, that she could hardly keep up her hectic professional schedule if she were abusing herself.

"I went into 'Victor/Victoria' in two days. They don't tell you that in the papers," she says. "I had concert dates I had to honor, and so I kept flying back and forth between them and rehearsals. But Tony said I was the best person he'd ever worked with on a stage, and no newspaper has ever reported that, either. They wanted to make it interesting."

On top of which, she broke box-office records for January, bringing in almost $800,000 per week during a notoriously slow month for Broadway. "That's the bottom line," she says with a sudden ferocity.

As far as the exaggerations may go, she may have a point. Lots of stars have had very public struggles with drugs and unprofessional behavior, but not all of them have in their background a template on which to superimpose the behavior. After all, she is Garland's daughter, and Minnelli's stay at the Betty Ford Clinic 12 years ago was extensively covered in the press.

"Her mother was a very troubled soul, and I am sure, whether genetically or just emotionally, she has inherited a certain part of that," Edwards told New York magazine. "You can see Garland in her so much that it's scary. She's aware of it too. She's needy like a child."

Whatever the truth of the widely publicized controversy, the loss of her voice during the run of "Victor/Victoria," which led to an operation to remove a polyp on her vocal cords, appears to have served as a wake-up call.

"I couldn't speak for four weeks after the operation," Minnelli says, "and all I saw were the Warhols [paintings] marching out the doors. You can't just stop working, not when there are so many bills to pay, people to support," she says, no doubt haunted by the childhood memories of sneaking out of hotels with her mother and siblings because they could not pay the bill.

"So there I was laying in the hospital, on all these antibiotics, [intravenous lines] sticking out of my arms, and I thought to myself, 'I better think of something else to do, 'cause things don't seem to be working out.' So I put all my concentration into just healing. Because I'm the healthiest person you'll ever meet. I always have been. I'm just an ox. And I take such good care of myself."

Minnelli fails to see the irony of saying that last sentence as she takes a drag off her cigarette. She jumps off the couch and fixes her visitor with a gaze from large, hypnotic eyes: "Because I want to keep doing this forever. I really do. I really do."

In her early years, Minnelli relocated to New York to escape her fabulous pedigree, and she succeeded in establishing her own stardom, winning an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy by the time she was 27. Unlike then, she now feels confident enough to confront her parents' legacy and her role in its continuation.

She has recently formed a theatrical production company, in fact, to develop a Broadway musical that would trace three generations of a musical family, presumably based on hers--a project for which she would serve as producer but not as a performer.

"What I've been thinking a lot about lately is how my family helped me get from here to there," she says, drawing a line in the air. "And what I can do with what I've been given to say thank you to them."

Minnelli has often been touted as one of the last of the pop balladeers to connect her parents' generation to today's entertainment scene. It is not a particularly large record-buying market but sufficient in numbers for Angel Records to give her the go-ahead to produce a sequel to "Gently" (which has sold about 100,000 units), called "Desire," which will be produced by her frequent collaborator and onetime boyfriend, Billy Stritch. ("We'll do another one after that so we'll have 'Gently,' 'Desire' and, I don't know--'Up Yours'?" she quips.)

Her fans have dwindled over time, but those who remain are passionately devoted, and that gives her the margin to concentrate on projects she believes in.

Her Oscar-winning father, she says, could see "the whole picture, could bring vision and taste to a project." Her mother, on the other hand, understood that music could heal the pain in people's lives.

"Mama knew that 'attention must be paid,' and then you could get on with life," Minnelli says, referring to a famous line from "Death of a Salesman." "What Mama did for me was to prepare a path for me to take performance a bit further. She really made me feel comfortable onstage, on any stage."

Indeed, talk to any professional who has worked with Minnelli and what comes up over and over is how at home she feels in the theater.

"One of the reasons she could go into such a challenging role as 'Victor/Victoria' on such short notice is that she is just so incredibly savvy about the theater. I've never met anyone who's known more about sheer stagecraft and how to use it to her advantage," says Tony Adams, the producer of the musical.

"When I came back to the [concert stage] after the operation, after four months, I felt such incredible gratitude," Minnelli says. "This is where I live; the audience is my family. Whatever's printed about you is unimportant. What's important is to stand out there with your legs planted apart and sing, dammit."

Although it is already well past midnight, Minnelli is going out with her entourage in Montreal as she has done on both preceding nights. On the way out, Minnelli is stopped repeatedly by casino workers, one of whom carries a picture book of her life.

"Wow, where'd you get this thing," she says, opening the book and seeing pictures of her as Francine Evans in the 1977 Martin Scorsese movie "New York, New York," as Roxie Hart in the 1975 Broadway production of "Chicago," on the town with her first husband, the late Peter Allen.

She spies a picture of herself, maybe about 8, riding a camera boom on her father's lap. She shows it to a reporter and, beaming, notes, "There, that says it all." She spies another of a gawky, teenage Liza with her father and Shirley MacLaine at the premiere of the film "Some Came Running" at the Pantages Theatre in Los Angeles.

"You know, at my father's parties, I'd lay under the piano, reading books," Minnelli says. "I used to love books. Then I became this disco queen."

Everyone is restless to go on to the nightclub but Minnelli pores over more pages. Liza with Halston, with Mikhail Baryshnikov, with husband No. 2, film producer Jack Haley Jr., and No. 3, sculptor and producer Mark Gero. The actress is now single and not dating anyone but says she would "merrily live with somebody if I thought they were divine and they thought I was divine. But a guy can take only so many times of being called 'Mr. Minnelli.' "

She flips through the book. "Wow, what an interesting chick!" she observes of herself. "Boy, I've had some swift life."

'Liza is running late," says her resilient assistant, Laura Barrett, postponing the second interview for half an hour. Sitting in the lobby of the Westin Mont-Royal in Montreal, one wonders if it's hard to be the "voice of the people" when home is a succession of penthouse suites.

More to the point, Minnelli has been a star for so long that there is probably no lack of people around to support the self-delusions to which all Hollywood royalty is heir. The point is underlined when Gary A. Catona, a voice teacher who is traveling with her, comes into the lobby. Apprised that he is talking to a reporter who is doing a story on Minnelli, he asks, "How did her voice sound to you last night?"

When told it was a bit wobbly and weak, a dismayed Catona says: "Did you tell her that? You should've told her that. Nobody tells her the truth. She's got to hear the truth. I can't raise the dead. I can only raise the half-dead. She's got to take better care of herself."

At an outdoor cafe in Montreal, on an overcast day, Minnelli, without makeup, actually looks a lot stronger and vibrant than she did the night before. She is delighted with the croissant and huge saucer of cafe au lait in front of her, stirring the coffee occasionally with a felt pen. Unlike the night before, when she evaded tough questions, she seems ready to talk.

"Look," she says, "sometimes when you're defensive about the press, you come out sounding Pollyanna and I don't want to do that here. Sure, some times were terrifyingly hard. It's weird to have people dislike you from reading something when they don't even know you. That's a bad rap. But the point is I'm enjoying the process more. You get too big, they bat you around. That's just the way it goes. I grew up watching some lady take the hardest knocks there are. I know this song. I can play it."

Minnelli, of course, is continually being reminded of her mother by a public that sees their two legends intertwined.

Matt Casella, the young theater director ("Paper Moon," the stage musical), who helped Minnelli put together the new show and is traveling with her, told of an incident that happened to them at an opening-night party recently in New York.

"This very drunk lady came up to Liza and said, 'Aren't you Dorothy's mother?' " Casella recalls. "And Liza and I just looked at each other. And the lady said, 'Yeah, you know, Dorothy from "The Wizard of Oz"? Aren't you her mother?' And we just laughed. Liza hugged the lady and she went tottering off."

Indeed, the woman wasn't half-wrong. Minnelli did take care not only of her mother but of her younger siblings, Joey and Lorna Luft, when she was a young girl. There is a famous story of a new housekeeper applying for a job in the Garland household being met at the door by an 11-year-old Liza, who asked for references and then proceeded to make calls to check on them herself.

Minnelli herself acknowledges that she didn't have much of a childhood, taking on adult responsibilities early on. But when asked if she's haunted by the fear that she may be prone to taking some of the same "knocks" Garland took, she cracks: "Nah. I duck too fast."

"I'm doing OK," she adds. "Addictions run in families. They've proven it. Anybody who comes from an alcoholic family should congratulate themselves every day. I'm doing fine, thank you. Today, I'm happy. I'm in Montreal, in front of the biggest cup of coffee I've ever seen."

Taking a sip, she says: "I like to celebrate each day with friends, have a good meal, hear some good music. Other than that, I don't know." She stops, lights a cigarette and grimaces. "I do know I'm starting the [nicotine] patch tomorrow. I'm not looking forward to that."

She is looking forward to getting her stalled film career kick-started, however, in Los Angeles, which she calls her hometown. There is a role in development for her that she says she is "very excited" about. Her last hit was "Arthur," in 1981; her last gig was a 1995 CBS television movie, "West Side Waltz."

"I'd love to do a film a year and tour with concerts the rest of the time," she says. "I'd like to make a film with a young director who doesn't know me. People say, 'Oh, Liza Minnelli, she's been done.' I haven't been done. My dad always used to say to me, 'You haven't begun to scratch the surface.' I agree with him--I haven't begun to scratch the surface."

She even wants to get into directing. "I don't know why I'm so scared about stepping into my father's shoes," she says. "I certainly wasn't as nervous about stepping into my mother's."

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