It seems that every time Liza Minnelli makes a mad (if limited) run across Mama's Holy Turf — the Palace Theatre — she can be counted on to ring dem family trees.
Previously, out fell the directing career of her dad, Vincente Minnelli, unequivocally The Music Man of the Movies ("Meet Me in St. Louis," "An American in Paris," "Gigi," et al); she and the boys kicked it around affectionately in something called Minnelli on Minnelli. This time out, the entire second act of Liza's At The Palace...! (Dec. 3–28) is a tribute to the criminally unsung Kay Thompson, performer, author, music arranger and vocal coach to the icons (Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Lena Horne and other underpaid MGM day-players) as well as godmother to Minnelli. "She helped me from the first goo," Minnelli admits.
"She was the neatest person I knew — a fabulous, fascinating, cerebral, harmonious woman — an original. There was nobody like her — always ahead of her time. People knew that. Still, her arrangements are hipper than anything that happens today."
Thompson spent her last years as her goddaughter's houseguest — the Renaissance woman-in-residence. But in a more golden time she resided at the Plaza, where she created her best-known claim to fame: the poor little rich girl roughin' it on room service, one "Eloise," perpetuated in a series of five children's books charmingly illustrated by Hilary Knight. Not a few suspect the character was really Liza lite. "Oh, I don't think so," the lady doth protest — a mite too much. "I think it may have been a coincidence. Anyway, I wouldn't. . . maybe I am a little bit but not all of it."
A far greater, but lesser known, claim to fame: Thompson invented "the MGM sound" that distinguished the output of the studio's rightly celebrated Arthur Freed unit — hence, her close-quarter work with icons. "They didn't know they were iconic," reasons Minnelli. "They were just working hard at MGM six days a week."
Directed and choreographed by Ron Lewis, this Thompson tribute has eight production numbers that re-create the famous nightclub act she performed with her personal discoveries, The Williams Brothers (Andy among them). Plus there's "Clap Yo' Hands," from the most famous of her three films — Funny Face, in which she played a dictating, dictatorial Diana Vreeland-type with brilliance and (her word) "bizzazz."
"There were no barriers for Kay," says Minnelli. "She broke through everything. She taught me how to live. That's what this is about. It's about this woman — what she meant to me and how she influenced me and the joy she brought into my life."