This month in Musical Theatre Sunday School, we will have a readathon of Wendy Leigh’s Liza Minnelli biography, Born a Star. Although the book is out of print, you can pick up a fairly cheap copy from Amazon if you are keen to follow along. In the column, I’ll be discussing the sections of the book that deal with Minnelli’s involvement in musicals and – as always – I’d love to hear your thoughts, so head to the comment box below!
We all know that Minnelli made her debut in a musical in the movie, In the Good Old Summertime, as Veronica and Andrew’s daughter. Veronica was played by Minnelli’s own mother, Judy Garland. Minnelli’s father, Vincente, was an esteemed film director and the thesis of Leigh’s book is that Liza, having been born a star, could never have led a normal existence. Leigh makes a strong case for her argument in her depiction of Minnelli’s childhood, being shuttled between her mother and father’s respective households, never letting on how much she had to care for her mother in Garland’s darkest periods. While the book is not brilliantly written, with the imagery in Leigh’s prose jumping about all over the place, seemingly contradictory at times, one gets the idea as the book covers the first 16 years of Liza’s life in six quick chapters.
With that noted and this being a musical-themed site, let’s jump ahead to Minnelli’s first big musical, Best Foot Forward in Chapter Seven of the book. (She had appeared in summer stock productions of Wish You Were Here, Take Me Along and Flower Drum Song following her time at the High School of Performing Arts. See Chapter Five.) Best Foot Forward was written in 1941 by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane, with book by John Cecil Holm and this revival of the high school comedy was mounted Off-Broadway in 1963.
Minnelli auditioned for the role and Arthur Whitelaw, who was producing the show, said that she was the only child from six show business families that auditioned for them that had any talent. I wonder what it must have been like to see Minnelli’s audition at that time. She is described in the book as having been very nervous, physically shaking and appearing quite vulnerable. By all accounts, she also worked very hard during that first period of her life, but it seems to me that Minnelli has always worked hard – even when she was partying just as hard in the 1970s. (Of course, then the partying took the toll on her ability to work hard, but I think the intention to work hard was always there. Just look at how even now Minnelli puts everything into what she does.) During rehearsals for Best Foot Forward, Minnelli fractured one of her feet and soldiered on until the rehearsal was over before going to hospital to have it examined.
A moving story related to this time period in Minnelli’s life is the story of the opening night, which Garland did not attend. The line given was that Garland had done so purposefully so as not to overshadow Minnelli’s New York stage debut. But Leigh reports an overheard phone conversation in which it appears that Garland either forgot or that something more sinister – although not life threatening – had prevented her from coming. It seems to me, perhaps, that the lack of normality in Minnelli’s life had less to do with being “born a star” than it had to do with dealing with a parent who faced very real problems with addition.
The reviews for Minnelli were great, comparing the ‘haunting overtones’ of her voice to her mother’s (Richard Watts in the New York Post) and noting her appeal and sense of comedy. Minnelli was paid $45 a week for her work on the show.
This chapter closes off with an incident related to Minnelli’s subsequent appearance in the musical, Carnival. Minnelli had suffered a kidney stone attack and Garland tried to prevent her appearance in Carnival, claiming that she was worried about her daughter’s health. While it appears that Minnelli was highly anxious due to Garland’s interference in her career, she did the show anyway – a clear signal to her mother that she was on her own journey now.
That seems like a good place to end for today. More on Minnelli next week, folks. See you then! Happy reading!