It was my birthday. I was sitting in a dark room with the door closed, laptop open in front of me and cellphone next to it. I was told to expect a phone call, but it was one of those things that didn’t seem entirely real. Could it be a very drawn-out birthday prank? Or was it real?
The phone kept ringing, but it was not the expected call. Then, misconnections and technical snafus took over the line, but at last I heard a distinctive, one-of-a-kind voice ask, “Gwen? Gwen are you there?”
“Yes! I’m here!”
“Gwen you’re on the phone with Liza Minnelli!”
“Oh my gods! Really? Oh, wow!”
It wasn’t the smoothest way to start the most exciting interview of my career, but there are things that just slip out when something like this happens. And it was her—it had to be her, no one else has that voice.
“It’s me, Gwen. Are you coming to my show?”
The show Ms. Minnelli spoke of is the Cape Fear Community College Fine Arts and Humanities Center Opening Gala on Saturday, October 3. The NC Symphony will join Ms. Minnelli onstage to christen the new “Cape Fear Stage,” as it’s being nicknamed.
“I am honored to be asked!” Minnelli gushed.
So much of Minnelli’s career has encompassed practically every aspect of show business: film, Broadway, cabaret and television. She’s worked with some of the greatest creative minds in the business, too. Bob Fosse, John Kander and Fred Ebb name but just a few. “My God! [Fosse] wrote with moves what people think,” Minnelli exclaimed. “Every song’s a different character.”
When comparing the music of “Cabaret” or “Chicago” to Fosse’s choreography, Minnelli’s statement took on new light. One of the essential truths of musical theatre exists in that exchange. Dance is writing physically, with the body, what people think—not what they say, but what they think. Song is character—not plot but character—how our souls resonate.
I think sometimes, when we talk about artists who have achieved a true pinnacle of merit over a long period of time, we become certain of their work. They make it look so effortless and natural we forget the real craft and artistry it takes. For one person to hold a crowd spellbound for over an hour just singing, without a host of back-up dancers or startling film projections—just pouring all of herself into her voice, night after night to captivate the world—well, that takes unmeasurable skill and craft.
When Minnelli hits the 159,000-square-foot center, she’ll be joined by classical stalwarts: The NC Symphony. The symphony brings a sense of history and continuity to the picture. Founded in 1932, during The Great Depression, they remain the first state-sponsored orchestra in the country. They will play with Minnelli during the first half. Afterward, her band will join her for the second half.
Though she enjoys working with her band, Ms. Minnelli professes a love for the stringed instruments that come with a full symphony, as well as the additional depth and color they add. “With a symphony you get violas!” she gushed. It’s a subtle surprise to hear appreciation for an under-appreciated instrument.
Die-hard fans will be happy to hear “wonderful arrangements by Billy Stritch for my band,” according to Minnelli. Stritch has collaborated with Minnelli as her musical arranger for almost a quarter of a century. In off time, he also has worked with Wilmington star Linda Lavin.
Of all the big hits—“Cabaret” and “The World Goes Round,” among them—most of what Minnelli will play will come from Kander and Ebb. “It’s the best—they really made me!” she acknowledged. “My, God! They wrote ‘Liza with a Z’ and all the stuff from ‘New York, New York,’ plus new songs every show I do.”
She took a breath. Her energy was infectious and rushed through the telephone like a freight train, without pause and often at a very fast pace. “Freddie [Ebb] was really the director,” she continues. “He liked what I liked. If I was wrong, he would tell me ‘No, you were just here.’ He was always right.”
The inaugural gala seeks to create a context for a new, exciting aspect of our community. To pair Minnelli and the symphony shows how the fine arts center primarily will be a major touring venue. It will bring in big-name stars, Broadway shows, dance troupes, comedians, and musicians who would normally play largers venues in other cities across NC.
Since the Education Bond was essential to getting the center built, its use as an educational facility for students at the college and as a community partner is also important. Classrooms surround the Cape Fear Stage, which essentially could stand alone if the exterior of the building were shattered. It’s completely soundproof and recording ready (in fact, plans to do a simulcast of Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” with WHQR is slated for Oct. 30, 8 p.m.).
Shane Fernando, artistic director of the center, had no doubt Minnelli would be the perfect fit for its introduction to Southeastern NC. “A community only opens a theatre for the first time once,” he told encore a month ago. “It is only appropriate that a performer of legendary proportions join us in marking the occasion. Liza is hailed as Broadway royalty.”