Liza: wide-ranging

Liza: wide-ranging (Promotional Photo / March 28, 2012)

The first thing you notice in a phone interview with Liza Minnelli is how much she sounds like Liza Minnelli.

A living legend since her teen years, Liza is often parodied — the grin, the squeals, the flowing gowns and grandiose arm gestures. Just this month, Kristen Wiig flailed and slurred on SNL in the ruthless sketch "Liza Minnelli Turns Off a Lamp."

On the phone, she's no less vivid, no less recognizable and urgent. But she sounds real, not put-on. Animated, ageless, wildly enthused, sure, but genuine.

Liza Minnelli is performing March 30 at the Stamford Center for the Arts/Palace Theatre's 3rd Annual Palace Gala, where she'll be awarded an Arts Legacy Award. The event includes a 6 p.m. VIP Gala Cocktail Party for sponsors. Proceeds benefit the center's Arts Education program for area kids and teens.

She's the offspring of Judy Garland and versatile Hollywood film director Vincente Minnelli, but unlike a lot of today's celebrity offspring, Minnelli's not just famous for being related to famous. She won an Oscar and a BAFTA award for the movie Cabaret, an Emmy for her landmark variety special "Liza With a 'Z'," a Golden Globe for the weepy TV movie "A Time to Live," a Grammy Living Legend Award and induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame, a Drama Desk Special Award in 2009, Tony Awards for her first Broadway show Flora the Red Menace in 1965 and for The Act two decades later, a 1973 Woman of the Year Award from Harvard's Hasty Pudding Club and numerous awards for her work with gay and lesbian charities. (Friend of Dorothy? Try being daughter of Dorothy!) She's also got a Golden Raspberry award as Worst Actress (in Arthur 2: On the Rocks), and just this year lost out in another Razzie bid, nominated as Worst Supporting Actress for playing herself in Sex and the City 2.

That's range for you. A few years ago, Liza gained TV cult cred as a regular on"Arrested Development"; this year, she'll soon be guesting on"Hot in Cleveland."

What I can't wait to talk with her about, though, is New York, New York, the experimental clash of '70s cinematic realism and '40s Hollywood musicals, which is seen by many as a colossal misfire for not just Minnelli but her co-star Robert DeNiro and director Martin Scorsese. To some of us, however, it's a masterpiece, a daring blend of styles that only someone with Minnelli's background and oomph could pull off. So it's nice to hear her gush that "We all had such a great time" making the ill-fated picture. "We were all so enthusiastic. We were creating the drama of a real situation in a time you couldn't use any swear language. All that reality."

Reality, as filtered through Liza Minnelli? What a concept. I couldn't bring myself to ask her about this passage in Prairie Tale, the recent memoir by "Little House on the Prairie" brat-packer Melissa Gilbert:

"The already strange evening got stranger when Liza suggested going to Sammy's. I thought she was talking about a club I'd never heard of. She laughed at me ("You're so silly," she said) and explained she meant Sammy Davis Jr.'s house. Andrew [McCarthy], Michael Black, Rob [Lowe], Liza and I bid goodbye to Michael Jackson, who didn't want to go, and caravanned to Sammy's house in Beverly Hills, where I'd learn Sammy was friends with my grandfather (surprise, surprise) and see a wigless Liza (the woman had six hairs on her head!). Eventually we ended the night at Michael Black's apartment, where suddenly Andrew and Liza started making out. That was it for me."

My conversation with Liza stayed in the fringes. At one point I blurted out "You were on an Alice Cooper record!" (Liza sang back-up on the Muscle of Love album.) "He was a friend! These are all my friends!," she blurted back. Other pop and rock connections include her classic 1980s collaborations with Pet Shop Boys, her 1992 live performance of "We Are the Champions" with the remaining members of Queen, and her backing vocals on My Chemical Romance's 2006 album The Black Parade.

Whatever she sings, Liza says, "I go for the words. I go for the story. Always the story."

As for her current musical tastes, Minnelli diplomatically reveals "I love everything! — I like Michael Bublé, Lady Gaga…." The latter-named diva returned the favor during some between-song patter at a recent concert, citing Minnelli as an inspiration.

Minnelli is known for her lasting friendships. One of them was with the comic genius Dudley Moore, her co-star in the two 1980s Arthur films. Minnelli and Moore toured together in July 1996, and were one of the first attractions at the rebuilt year-round Oakdale Theatre in Wallingford. Minnelli remembers Moore and that tour fondly. "We were such good friends. Oh, we could make each other laugh!"

Those days on the road involved backing singers, dancers, grandiose arrangements, and a pop feel drawn from her album Gently. This latest go-round should feel more intimate. "It's six [musicians] and me," Liza explains. "Doing songs that I love singing." A lot of those songs come from Confessions, the 2010 album where she eschews well-known classics for less obvious tunes by such great composers as Dorothy Fields and Jimmy McHugh ("I Must Have That Man," popularized by Billie Holiday), Irving Berlin ("I Got Lost in His Arms" from Annie Get Your Gun) and Peggy Lee ("He's a Tramp" from Disney's Lady and the Tramp).

A publicist breaks into our phone chat. "Ms. Minnelli? The band's waiting." Of course it is. Can you imagine Liza Minnelli, with that ever-ready-to-belt voice and that undiminishable enthusiasm, being anywhere without a band standing by, ready to harmonize her every giggle?

Liza Minnelli

8 p.m. Friday, March 30 at the Palace Theatre, Stamford. $350 Gala ticket includes pre-show cocktail reception at 6 p.m., Minnelli's concert and complimentary parking. Tickets for the concert only are $95-$185. (203) 325-4466,

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