It’s Liza With a Wow! Get to Know Anna and the King

Liza! Like Dietrich, Jolson, Piaf and, yes, Garland, one word is all you need. They probably know it on Mars. But there are two Minnellis, and Liza celebrates them both with a fireworks display called Minnelli on Minnelli that heralds the most spectacular comeback in show-business history since Judy played Carnegie Hall.

You don’t walk out on the stage of the world-famous Palace unprepared. When Judy revived the art of the two-a-day vaudeville revue on the same stage in the 1960’s, she made history. Songs were written about it. Walter Winchell came every night and sauntered on stage, unannounced, and danced with her.

Following in those fabulous footsteps, a lot was at stake for Liza. Everyone except the trashy tabloids are as tired of reading about her ups and downs as she is tired of living through them. She had to prove herself, once again, maybe for the most important time in her life-not only for her peers in the business and her legions of terrified fans, but most of all, for herself.

Plus the show was not about her mother. It was about-and for-her father, the most revolutionary and brilliant director of Hollywood musicals who ever lived. She shed her demons, licked her personal and medical problems, lost 40 pounds, worked with a trainer, employed a coach to regain power and strength in her voice, stretched the limbs damaged and gnarled by painful knee and hip operations, then surrounded herself with the most talented friends and comrades in the business: Bob Mackie for beads, Marvin Hamlisch and Billy Stritch for knockout orchestrations, her longtime conductor Bill (Pappy) LaVorgna to conduct, ex-husband and friend Jack Haley Jr. to coordinate the film clips of her father’s illustrious career, Fred Ebb to piece it all together and provide special musical material (with his writing partner John Kander) to bring her life and talent up to date for a memorable millennium finale.

The most famous people in the world sat nervously on opening night, wondering what would happen next. And there she was, splendid and frisky and nervous and powerful and vulnerable all at the same time, and she disappointed nobody. In Minnelli on Minnelli , I am thrilled to report, the show-business veteran is at the top of her game. I counted 12 standing ovations.

And she did it all with only five terrific Broadway dancers, four wall panels, both beautiful and functional, on which projections of family photos and M-G-M logos are cleverly projected, and an array of mood-altering lights that changed from fire engine red to deep, dark purple to sunny lemon meringue, depending on the song.

And talk about songs. From “Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe” ( Cabin in the Sky ) to “Shine on Your Shoes” ( The Bandwagon ), she left no stone in the history of her dad or Hollywood’s golden era unturned. Empowered by courage and determination, she stopped the show with a voice strong and radiantly alive on “What Did I Have?” (singing it better than Barbra Streisand did in On a Clear Day You Can See Forever ), and reduced us all to hysterics on a game rendition of “Triplets” with two of her boy dancers, all of them sewn into the same sweater with six sleeves.

Maybe her dancing lacks the libidinous Punchinello quality Bob Fosse taught her, maybe her steps are more cautious and refined. Hell, what do you expect? She’s 53 years old. Instead of high kicks, she has so much more. The passion and self-assurance that have been missing for a long time have been joyously restored.

Her voice is slightly darker than it used to be, adding a mature richness to a ballad like “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” (from Kismet ) that is deeply moving. And she’s got her wicked, larky sense of humor back, too. On special Fred Ebb lyrics for “I’m Glad I’m Not Young Anymore” (aren’t we all?) from Gigi , there’s even a line that stops the show again (“I don’t even flinch now when I see/ A seven-foot drag queen who looks like me”).

Although the name Judy Garland is never mentioned once, for very deliberate reasons (it’s a show about Dad, not Mother), the explosive, heart-pounding finale is “The Trolley Song.” For the first time in her career, Liza not only tackles one of her mother’s signature treasures, but sings it triumphantly with clips of Judy in Meet Me in St. Louis . A gorgeous way to send us all into a new millennium, if you ask me.

I have never sat in a theater before where the entire audience was breathing right along with the performer. And then she took our breath away, collectively, all of us in it together. I honestly surrender objectivity. I have known Liza since she was 16 years old, I have watched her epic saga unfold and lived through every chapter. But I have not lost my perception. When I say she rises from the flames to soar again, I’m not kidding. I love her courage, her talent, her solid respect for the traditions of the business with which she was raised.

Her parents were two of the most brilliant people on the planet. Her godfather was Ira Gershwin. Her godmother was Kay Thompson. It’s in the genes, man. And she’s all we’ve got left of an endangered species.

At the Palace, Liza is not leasing space. Liza owns the stage. Call it a comeback. I call it a fucking resurrection.

Get to Know Anna and the King

At the movies, the year-end siege is upon us. Anna and the King with Jodie Foster is the kind of movie they used to make when I was a kid. In fact, they made it twice-first as Anna and the King of Siam with Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison in 1946, then as The King and I , the musical version by Rodgers and Hammerstein in 1956 with Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.

The story never seems to age, but since Jodie Foster does everything else but sing, I can only wonder what she’d sound like with Marni Nixon’s voice.

Hers is a tougher, more modern slant on prim Victorian schoolteacher-widow Anna Leonowens. Dispatched to Siam in 1862 to tutor King Mongkut and his 58 children and introduce them to Western culture, Mrs. Anna stayed long enough in this bizarre world to change the course of history of Thailand. As any tourist knows, her schoolroom still stands amid the golden temples and wats in Bangkok, and her son grew up to build the Oriental Hotel.

According to this film, Anna fell in love with the king, but he already had 26 wives. There are limits to what a respectable Victorian prude is willing to stamp in her passport visa.

Ms. Foster is perfect casting for a woman of strong ideas and opinions, standing up for her independence, opposing slavery and cruelty, and promoting freedom and fairness. And her co-star, Chow Yun-Fat, is a surprisingly decent, humane king. Strutting less than Yul Brynner and barking less than Rex Harrison, he turns out to be a wiser foe and more compassionate ruler, as well as a loving father and rugged chick magnet. It doesn’t take long for Ms. Foster to soften his stubborn will, calm his terrible temper and turn him gooey inside.

Filmed among the exotic palaces and verdant gardens of a still-mysterious land, it re-creates the rituals, pageants and elephant caravans of Anna’s time, but it’s still the basic story of a courageous foreigner who tames and humanizes a barbaric king. Although the famous Rodgers & Hammerstein song cues are all here, it’s more than just a nonmusical King and I . Director Andy Tennant expands the actual diaries kept by Anna to include political unrest, war with Burmese rebels, the king’s court conflicts with his villainous military adviser, the murder of his brother, the death of his favorite child by cholera and some excitingly staged war footage. A nice chunk of time still goes to the subplot about Tuptim, one of the king’s unhappy concubines whose love for another man leads to her own tragic death. Nice, too, to see the lovely and gifted Ling Bai back on screen in the role.

Beautifully photographed by Caleb Des-chanel, Anna and the King is a new spin on a popular and ageless story that is lush, lavish and completely captivating. An instant classic.