Friday, May 25, 2012


I was on the phone with Liza Minnelli recently. I just felt like saying that.

It wouldn't be precisely accurate to add that I had no idea what I was doing on the phone with her: Ms. Minnelli is to be honored on June 4 with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 30th Annual Fred and Adele Astaire Awards. It was more that I didn't believe my extremely limited knowledge of dance—which the awards celebrate on Broadway and in the movies, in the same way that the Oscars or Tonys do acting—made me worthy of speaking about the subject with the legendary performer. My appreciation for the art form, whether classical ballet or musical theater, is pretty much limited to admiring the dancers' legs.

However, I knew there had to be something dance-related that I had an opinion about, that I could discuss with passion. I finally figured out what that was: To me, Fred Astaire and fellow dancer Gene Kelly have always symbolized aspects of the human spirit. Kelly was the consummate athlete. Not to take anything away from Kelly, but in my humble opinion Astaire was something more. He had a touch of genius, a talent that showed the way to the stars.

Ms. Minnelli and I shot the breeze for a while before I popped the question. However, shooting the breeze could have gone on all day because the actress is disarmingly loquacious, and because, given her storied lineage and star-studded reference points, I could have listened all day.

For example, I assumed she currently lived in L.A. or maybe Vegas. With parents like Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli, and with a high-kicking showbiz career, I took it for granted she had Hollywood running through her veins. Turns out she's almost a life-long New Yorker.

"I live on the Upper East Side," she reported matter-of-factly. "I walk my dogs."

I finally broached the Fred Astaire vs. Gene Kelly question. "I was on his TV show," Ms. Minnelli said, referring to Kelly. She sang a duet with him when she was 13. "He lived a couple of blocks away." She meant in L.A., where she grew up before she moved to New York a few years later. Her first address here, she said, was the Barbizon Hotel for Women at Lexington Avenue and 63rd Street.

"As a kid. I used to go watch his rehearsals when he was working at MGM," she went on. "My favorite place was always the dance rehearsal studio."

She also mentioned watching dancers Cyd Charisse and Gwen, meaning Gwen Verdon. "That's what I wanted to do. I wanted to dance."

By that point it almost felt tacky to ask her which of the men she preferred. "He danced so brilliantly," she said of Astaire. "He was all about a certain style and a certain line. And Kelly was about athletics."

Her preference? "Both great."

If my interview with Liza (based on our 10-minute phone conversation, I feel I've earned the privilege of calling her by her first name, and not just because everybody does) was marked by solid ignorance on my part, my meeting with Elena Roger last week at the Lambs Club, where the nominees for the Astaire awards were announced, evinced an even more profound lack of knowledge.

I had no idea that the personable Ms. Roger is currently starring on Broadway in "Evita." I saw the show many years ago, with Patti Lupone playing the lead. I certainly didn't remember the dance numbers.

"I have to dance like crazy," Ms. Roger informed me.

Now you understand why I came with that Astaire/Kelly question stuffed in my back pocket. I feared the "Evita" star was too young to know much about the legendary hoofers, but she said that wasn't true. She watched their movies on TV, growing up in Argentina.

"It's weird to say—it's a Fred Astaire award," she confided, "but my hero is Gene Kelly. There is something about the energy I like more."


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