“Liza with a Z” closes with a Cabaret medley, including Liza Minnelli playing the Emcee for a couple songs. She starts in the audience, a la the “Cabaret” Broadway revival (only twenty-six years before), and quickly works her way onto the stage, joined by dancers, and does a whirlwind ten-minute set. The opening titles tell us “Z” is a “concert for television,” and it’s fascinating to watch how Fosse presents that concert.
“Z” is a spotlight for Minnelli as a singer, dancer, actor, and personality. The special’s title comes from Say Liza (Liza with a “Z”), a half colloquial memoir song where Minnelli describes her frustration at people calling her “Lisa.” It’s a hilarious, personable number and showcases Minnelli’s ability to toggle between tones. She can go from soulful to goofy to sweet to sexy (pretty sure she, Fosse, and her costume designer created go go sultry in “Z”) in less than a breath.
The medley is the first time the special directly references Cabaret, though “Z” is very much an offshoot from the film and its success. Some costumes occasionally feel a little Cabaret, but the special doesn’t open with it. Minnelli never addresses the audience as an audience, never telling them eight cameras are filming this evening’s production. At the beginning of “Z,” Fosse and cinematographer Owen Roizman shoot Minnelli as subject. It’s not about the audience; they just happen to be there for Minnelli’s performance.
For a couple numbers, Minnelli looks up towards the balcony (but also the cameras), not out at the audience below her. Fosse looks back down at her. But then, very deftly, the camera starts watching Minnelli looking up to the overhead cameras; we watch Minnelli sing from the wrong camera, only to quickly discover there’s no wrong camera. Every different shot’s going to reveal something else about Minnelli’s performance.
Once the stage fills with dancers, Minnelli starts directly addressing the audience, sometimes to set up the next song, sometimes to take a bow; there’s a spectacular Son of a Preacher Man number, ending with Fosse doing some incredible sleight of hand with the dancers. “Z” might be a filmed live performance, but Fosse and Minnelli are packaging it for the television audience. Or, frankly, theatrical. Fosse and Roizman shoot Minnelli as the only visible figure surrounded by darkness a few times, and it’d be devastating on the big screen.
There are some bumps, of course. Preacher Man is the last great number until the medley; after its commercial break, there’s a cute song about New Yawkers in love, including Minnelli and the dancers acting out a bunch of it. But it’s not a showstopper; it’s just more examples of Minnelli’s remarkable abilities.
The real problems are the last two songs before the medley sprint.
First is You’ve Let Yourself Go, which could be the anthem for the “Are the Straights Okay?” meme about a wife sick of her husband getting bald and chubby. Then comes My Mammy, a song Minnelli would regularly perform as a standard, all about how your slave mammy always loves you. I guess it’d be worse if it were a white dude singing it (as they often did), but yikes. Thank goodness Fosse and Minnelli weren’t pitching a musical Gone With the Wind… someone might’ve said yes.
Fosse tries with Let Yourself Go, using some of the spotlighting techniques he’d already iterated, but Mammy’s just a simple “it’s a variety special” number. Thank goodness. Hopefully, the blandness will make it forgettable.
The medley saves the day; the commercial, cross-promotional medley to remind people they really liked the super-depressing pre-Holocaust movie (or to encourage people with peppy dance numbers to see said film) is one hell of a way to save the day. But it works because it’s Fosse and Minnelli.
Like its star, director, cast, and crew, “Liza with a Z” is phenomenal.