Nick and I saw Australian drag performer Trevor Ashley doing *Liza's Back! (Is Broken)* at Sony Hall on 2/4/19. I was expecting the show to be funny, a hullballoo, as Liza would say - - and it was downright hilarious, there were many moments where I was laughing out loud. But I wasn't prepared for the show to be as touching as it was. Ashley performed a few songs more or less straight, AS Liza rather than DOING Liza. And his love for The Liza was intense and profound. His Liza impersonation was outstanding, he had the voice, the gestures, the pizzazz.
I don't think I'd been to Sony Hall before, and what a gorgeous little hall it is. Could we call it "neo Deco?" I was impressed to see a seven-piece band onstage: two trumpets, a reeds guy (flute, clarinet, saxophones), trombone, piano, electric bass, and drums. For a show like this, you could easily get buy with just a piano. I wish we'd had a program, because I want to give credit to whoever did the arrangements - - they were AMAZING, contributed so much to the quality of the show.
I'm going to use the pronoun "she" in my review because it really felt like it was Liza we were witnessing...
She came out in a black sequined blouse and slacks, with a red chiffon scarf over the neck and down the back. She opened with what I think was a new, specially composed song, "Liza's Back." Full of razzle dazzle. She told the story of how she recently broke her back, in rehearsals for *King Kong: The Musical.* She said, "I was dead from the waist down, which made me think of my friend Christopher Reeve. Who is now also dead from the waist up." Making a joke about Christopher Reeve so early in the show, that was a bold move! And a sign of things to come.
The band played the distinctive vamp that opens the George Benson song "On Broadway." They vamped for quite a while, and Liza talked about Broadway back in the good old days. "You'd walk down the street and see the names of these great, talented ladies. Like Mary Martin. Carol Channing. And some talentless c-nts like Ethel Merman." The show was full of fascinating rearrangements, familiar songs dressed in unfamiliar frocks, and this was one of the best: instead of singing "On Broadway" she sang Sondheim's "Broadway Baby," refitted to the "On Broadway" backup. Genius. This was the most extraordinary element of the show - - I'll quote Nick: "She took every song, happy / sad / slow / fast / melodious / Broadway...and did them in LIZA mode. To me the funniest parts we where the song did not fit at all the Lizafication..."
I'll do this next bit in dialogue format because it was a dialogue with the audience.
LIZA: Then I heard my friends Kander and Ebb were doing a new musical called *Cabaret* and I was desperate to play Sally Bowles. But I didn't get the part, they gave it to this English girl named Jill Haworth. Hey, you wanna play a game? Do you want to play a game?
LIZA: Knock knock!
AUDIENCE: Who's there?
AUDIENCE: Jill who?
LIZA: That's show biz!
I'm still laughing at that joke. She did a long bit about how Rodgers and Hammerstein wanted her to play Maria in *The Sound of Music* and sang "Something Good." This was followed by "One" and "The Music and the Mirror" from *A Chorus Line.* The dance break in "The Music and the Mirror" was a scream.
She said that Andrew Lloyd Webber had been after her to play Norma Desmond in *Sunset Boulevard.* "It's the story of this old woman, who thinks that people still want to see her perform. But they don't. [pause] How could I relate to that?" She did the final "I'm ready for my close-up" monologue and it was one of those intense, dramatic moments where it was played it totally straight.
She talked about *The Wizard of Oz* and performed "We're Off To See the Wizard" as a Liza ballad. Hilarious. And she ended the first half with "The Wizard and I" from *Wicked.*
We had a fun time people-watching during the intermission. I spotted playwright and drag performer Charles Busch, and we saw lots of hunky young men who Nick thought were probably chorus boys from current Broadway shows. Broadway babies, if you will. I think Ashley was smart to schedule this show for a Monday night, when they'd all be off work.
She came out for the second half in a similar outfit from the first, only in lapis blue, and with a collar. She was working that collar. She also had a tricolor sash across her torso, which I thought was an odd touch. I didn't quite recognize the song, and Nick identified it just as it was about to end - - it was from *Les Miz,* I think it was "Do You Hear the People Sing." Liza totally killed it, the song had a low down burlesque beat.
She talked about *Mame,* channeled Judy Garland, and sang "If He Walked Into My Life." Ashley's Judy impersonation took a little getting used to. The speaking voice was perfect, but the singing voice, at first, sounded more like Wayne Newton. Nick said, "He needs to ditch the Judy but I bet he could do a mean Lorna..."
Then Liza was back, doing "Some People" from *Gypsy.* Here's footage of the actual Liza doing that song:
Then she sang "Send In the Clowns," sitting on a tall chair by the piano, smoking a cigarette. With strategically placed puffs of smoke. I don't know how the pianist felt about that, but I thought it was a scream (and I'm not alone).
"That song is from *A Little Night Music,* and it's the only good song the show! Here's another song from a show with only one good song - - "Memory" from *Cats.*" She did the song with a sort of pop strut and lots of cutesie kitten movements.
"I'm not saying that I could have done a better job than the women who created these roles. I'm saying I WOULD have done a better job. Do you see the difference?"
The last number (before the encores) was "Cabaret." I want to give a little background on that song. The original lyrics to the bridge, as sung by Jill Haworth in the show and Liza in the movie go like this:
I used to have this girlfriend known as Elsie
With whom I shared four sordid rooms in Chelsea
She wasn't what you'd call a blushing flower
As a matter of fact she rented by the hour
The day she died the neighbors came to snicker
"Well, that's what comes from too much pills and liquor"
But when I saw her laid out like a Queen
She was the happiest corpse, I'd ever seen
I think of Elsie to this very day
I remember how she'd turn to me and say
"What good is sitting all alone in your room?
Come hear the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret"
And as for me
And as for me
I made my mind up, back in Chelsea
When I go, I'm going like Elsie
Liza had a comeback concert at Carnegie Hall in 1987. She had recently gotten cleaned up, had been to Betty Ford. She made a seismic shift to this part of the song - - she changed the lyrics to, "When I go, I'm NOT going like Elsie." And the crowd went INSANE.
Ashley had new lyrics for this section of the song:
I used to have a mama known as Judy
Who coming down would get all mean and moody
She wasn’t what you would call the perfect mama
I got her talent, taste in men, and karma
The day she died, the papers came to snicker
“Well that’s what comes from too much pills and liquor”
But when I saw her laid out like a queen
It was the longest queue of gays I ever seen
I think of mama to this very day
I remember how she’s turn to me and say:
What good is sitting all alone in your room
Liza, come here the music play
Life is a cabaret, old chum
Come to the cabaret
And as for me, and as for me
I’ll take the highs, lows, and the drama
But when I go, I’m not going like mama
Again, it was total insanity for the audience. Here's a clip of Ashley doing this song:
She did 2.3 encores - - "Maybe This Time" from *Cabaret,* "New York, New York" from *New York, New York* and a tiny, hilarious sliver of "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" from *Evita.*
Here are a couple photos that Nick took:
It was a thrilling and profoundly moving night.