The Southbank’s year-long march through 20th-century music, The Rest Is Noise, has reached 1930s Berlin. Programmers of more refined and punctilious sensibilities might, for example, have telephoned Ute Lemper for an evening of cabaret songs from Hollaender and Spoliansky and Ekert-Rotholz. But, whether giddy on Schoenberg and Eisler or intrigued by the prospect of selling seats for three-figure sums, the Southbank turned instead to Liza Minnelli.
From the moment the star walked on to a standing ovation, it was clear what kind of evening this was to be. She runs on adulation, and her fans were happy to deliver it, rising to clap, showering the stage with love, applauding themselves when she begged for the house lights to be turned on so that she could see everyone. Her songs – especially those by Kander and Ebb – fed that dynamic, with their curious blend of fatalism and self-pity. “Who cares, so what?”, she sang, briefly Lotte Lenya’s Fräulein Schneider rather than her own Sally Bowles. Later, “sometimes your heart breaks with a deafening sound … ” When she sang “I’m not much to look at”, she knew the audience would demur deafeningly.
Her visible frailty between the songs – breathless, reaching for a teacup of water, leaning on the piano for support rather than in seduction – reinforced that dynamic. She spent much of the second half of the concert in a high director’s chair, and took advantage of a solo “No Moon At All” from her bandleader Billy Stritch to recover her breath. But each time she sang, she gave it her all, letting the songs’ rising energy propel her ever higher; finally high-kicking on a “New York New York” that started deceptively light and then came out punching, Minnelli framed in a stark spotlight.
In miniature moments Minnelli can be arresting. As she rattled through “Say Liza (Liza with a “Z”)”, possibly the best song ever written about nomenclatural pronunciation, she was bright and funny. “We love you Lisa,” shouted someone from the balcony, and she incorporated it into the song with such a deft mock-exasperated flourish that one half-suspected a stooge.
The less brassy moments were the most memorable. On Charles Aznavour’s “What Makes a Man”, she impersonated a female impersonator, holding herself still, framed in the spotlight while a clarinet wailed. At the end, after the band had left, she sat with Stritch on the piano stool and sang an affecting “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”, he seamlessly fitting his playing to her timing. “Ev’ry time we say,” she sang, holding the “say” impossibly long and then whispering “(thank you) … Goodbye.” And then she came back completely alone to deliver “I’ll Be Seeing You” unaccompanied, fragile. “I’ll remember this,” she pledged, “my whole damn life.” True believers were in raptures; agnostics, perhaps half converted.