July 15, 2011 10:12 pm

The second time around

Can seeing Liza Minnelli perform twice in 48 hours be too much of a good thing?

Is enough really as good as a feast? Can you actually have too much of a good thing? I doubt it. When cheer is thin on the ground, enough can strike you as a rather paltry portion. Too much of a good thing, at such times, seems like the minimum requirement. Sometimes you need the moon and the stars. And when trouble is double, compensation must be magnificent, sequin-studded. One hundred per cent is not much use when you really need a vulgar fraction, wildly top-heavy, quivering in the wings.

And so I went to two Liza Minnelli concerts in 48 hours. It was what the doctor ordered. (He’s a tall fellow, religious, sentimental, the sort of man who takes things hard. Ask him how he is, and he’ll tell you frankly. He’s known me since I was 18.)

At the Albert Hall, waiting for Liza to seize the stage, the mood in the cream and red interior was lavish. Installed in a box with a great friend and four strangers (two large women in floral dresses, two snake-hipped men with sharp lapels) I had a glass of champagne in each hand and a carton of chocolates balanced on my knees. I was wearing stripes and spots, satin and ruffles, gloss and shimmer. Even my pale pink and black brogued evening sandals had gone all out, with buckles, straps, laces, slingbacks, peep toes and vague references to butterflies up and down the heel.

And Liza? Liza in black spangled tunic was a knock-out.

It wasn’t a “good-considering” performance. We didn’t roar, overcome with thoughts of yesteryear, brimming with compassion for all she used to be. She wasn’t good in a “when-you-think-of-all-she’s-been-through”, “what-a-champ/survivor!” sort of way. She was just very good, strong, clear, powerful, frank and sweet.

Overlapping beams of emotion and insight and intelligence and humour came at you, striking your heart and brain and nerves until it was almost more than you could take.

It was a generous performance, too, as her greatest hits were handed to us with little or no ceremony so that Maybe This Time, Life is a Cabaret and New York, New York arrived before we’d even had time to hope for them.

At one point she stopped and re-sang a note because she said, in our shoes, that note would have disappointed her. It hadn’t disappointed me, but I liked the courtesy.

And so my awful day was kicked into submission by Liza’s triumphant shimmering shrug at the rubbish this world can fling at you. (I don’t mean shrug as in miniature capelet.) Not caring too much is perhaps the best revenge when it comes to life’s slings and arrows, she likes to assert. It’s a nice idea.

The second night, I had my doubts. “What are you doing?” I scolded harshly, for you never see a star such as Liza twice in a row.

Why?

Because the little off-the-cuff remarks are more than likely to recur; the charming, exasperated kicking-off of the high shoes, the second time, will make you wonder if it was planned. Will she even stop and sing that note again? Please God no! I am sensitive to these sensations. I have even been to two lectures given by a favourite literary critic on the same subject, five years apart, and been horrified to hear some of the same points being made. Unfair I know, but that’s show business.

. . .

With trepidation I arrived at Kenwood in Hampstead, where Liza was to perform at an outdoor stage in one of the most beautiful concert settings you will ever see. Utterly verdant and fragrant were our surroundings, rolling lawns lit by golden skies and, in and out of shrubs and tree trunks, little bunny rabbits were chasing each other’s snowy tails, Disney-fresh. Over the stage there hovered quite a bit of dew. Liza in Vegas or Liza in some war-torn citadel? Yes! But Liza in Hampstead, with deck chairs? How could it work? It didn’t, entirely. Informality and Liza do not mix, for razzle-dazzle and casual will never good bedfellows be. The sound of popcorn and the wheeze and sag of wood and canvas she could not quite conquer. You had to remember the past, as an audience member, to make this concert succeed, so we ushered her heyday-self into the arena, in our minds, and in that way we had a high old time together. Was she tired from her earlier performance? Did she know a deckchair crowd were not, in the main, her truest fans? (Have you ever tried to give repeated standing ovations from a deckchair? Your knees won’t thank you.)

I looked at myself in the same old dress from the Albert Hall which was now, as Henry James would have it, “wanting in freshness”. My shoes were lightly caked with mud also. Perhaps I was not my best self second time around either. Yet afterwards, picking my way up the sylvan paths to the street, my strongest thought was it would be good to see her again, and soon, if I can.

susie.boyt@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/boyt

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