STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Diana DeGarmo and Malcolm Gets Plus "Liza with a 'Z'"

News   STAGE TO SCREENS: Chatting with Diana DeGarmo and Malcolm Gets Plus "Liza with a 'Z'"
 
This month we chat with Storyline Entertainment's Craig Zadan and Neil Meron about the restoration of the Emmy-winning 1972 Liza Minnelli special, "Liza with a 'Z'"; Diana DeGarmo, whose "American Idol" success led to a Broadway debut in the Tony-winning Hairspray; and Malcolm Gets, a Tony nominee (for Amour) and TV veteran (four seasons in "Caroline in the City"), who stars in "Adam & Steve," a movie comedy opening March 31.
From Top: Diana DeGarmo; Liza Minnelli; Malcolm Gets.
From Top: Diana DeGarmo; Liza Minnelli; Malcolm Gets.

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Liza Minnelli turns 60 March 12, and she's celebrating by giving a gift. Actually, it's one that she first gave audiences 34 years ago: the TV special -- directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse -- "Liza with a 'Z'." During a recent "Inside the Actors Studio" interview, Minnelli called the show "a lost Fosse masterpiece."

Fans can find the "lost" treasure April 1 on Showtime (9 PM ET), followed by its April 4 DVD release. (The CD was reissued March 7.) March 13 at 7:30 PM, there's a benefit screening for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS at Manhattan's Ziegfeld Theatre, and in attendance will be Minnelli (just back from a European tour), along with Craig Zadan and Neil Meron.

Zadan recalls that he attended the filming of the special — "as the guest of Liza and Fred [Ebb] and John [Kander].The idea that 34 years later, Neil and I would be joined with Liza in presenting the new version is great." The show was filmed at Broadway's Lyceum Theatre, before an invited audience, on May 31, 1972. "It was [Fosse's] most brilliant stage work," observed Liza, "but it was also his film work at his finest."

It came on the heels of the movie version of "Cabaret," which premiered (February 13, 1972) at the Ziegfeld. The film's acclaim made a superstar of Minnelli, who had been rejected for the stage version (although written for her) because director Harold Prince considered her too inexperienced to play Sally Bowles. It also established Fosse as a first-rate screen director, following his less-than-successful debut with "Sweet Charity" (1969). Originally shown September 10, 1972 (NBC, 9 PM ET), the special was repeated March 9, 1973 (NBC, 9 PM ET). Publicity material claims that there was a second repeat in September 1973 (no date given), but — despite several efforts -- that showing cannot be verified. A solid treat from beginning ("Yes") to end ("Cabaret"), "Liza with a 'Z'" rates straights A's, and showcases the talents of Minnelli and Fosse at the peaks of their careers.

According to Minnelli, the idea for the special originated with Fred Ebb, who wanted "to do the first concert for television." They contacted Fosse, who was preparing Pippin. Five weeks rehearsal preceded the filming of the special, originally entitled (due to its sewing-machine sponsor) "Singer Presents Liza with a 'Z'." Fosse used eight 16mm cameras, placed in the aisles, wings, behind the orchestra, the balcony and the lobby.

Indeed, the Fosse artistry expertly captures the electric brilliance of Liza's performance. (She and Fosse would work together twice again on Broadway — for the three-week Liza concert at the Winter Garden in January 1974, and when she subbed five weeks for an ailing Gwen Verdon as Roxie Hart in Chicago in August 1975.)

Ebb wrote the TV script, and with composer-partner John Kander, contributed two new songs: "Ring Them Bells" (the event's only prerecorded number) and the tongue-twisting "Liza with a Z" (which, Minnelli said, "gave me an identity"). The other selections are "God Bless the Child," "It Was a Good Time," "I Gotcha," "Son of a Preacher Man," "Bye Bye Blackbird," "You've Let Yourself Go" (for which Ebb translated the Charles Aznavour lyric), "My Mammy" (done in Jolson style), and a Cabaret medley: "Willkommen," "Money, Money," "Married" and "Maybe This Time."

Within a week after the "Cabaret" premiere, Liza's face graced the covers of both Time and Newsweek, and the following spring, she'd win an Oscar as Best Actress. That year, both "Cabaret" and "The Godfather" received ten Academy Award nominations. The musical won eight (still the record for a film not selected Best Picture), while the latter copped three (Best Screenplay, Best Actor Marlon Brando, and Best Picture). The audience gasped when the Oscar for Best Director Oscar went to Bob Fosse (since Francis Ford Coppola was favored to win for "The Godfather").

Two nights earlier (March 25, 1973), at the Tony Awards, Fosse was chosen Best Director of a Musical (for Pippin). Seven weeks later (May 20), he took home the Emmy as director of "Singer Presents Liza with a 'Z'" -- becoming the first and, to date, only winner of the triple crown in the same year.

Fosse won another Emmy for his choreography, and "Liza with a 'Z'" also was honored as Outstanding Single Program, Variety and Popular Music, and for Kander and Ebb's Outstanding Achievement in Music, Lyrics and Special Material. It received four other nominations (for Ebb's script, his and Kander's music composition, Alan Heim's editing and Owen Roizman's cinematography.

Meron notes that their involvement began "about a year ago." Continues Zadan, "Neil and I were having dinner with Liza at Orso in L.A. Out of the blue, she said, 'By the way, do you know I own "Liza with a 'Z'"?' She had been working with Michael Arick, and asked what they should do with it. Neil and I said, 'We have an idea.' We called Bob Greenblatt at Showtime." Interjects Meron, "It's become the event that the show and Liza warrants."

They have great praise for Arick's restoration. States Zadan, "This is the way that Bob Fosse and Fred Ebb envisioned it." Adds Meron, "It documents that what Liza does is kind of a dying art form — in terms of her being a true entertainer. I think it's going to awaken people to what a true talent really is, and that there are so few of them now. Liza is the one holding up the tradition."

On March 12 the producers celebrate Liza's birthday "at Sardi's, at a private party for her closest friends," says Meron. "We're so happy for her," adds Zadan. "For the past several years, she's been bogged down with tabloid stuff that had nothing to do with her talent. Now we're back to celebrating her talent." Next up for Zadan and Meron is the movie version of "Hairspray," a summer 2007 release that will star John Travolta (as Edna Turnblad) and Queen Latifah (as Motormouth Maybelle).

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Meanwhile, Broadway's Hairspray, which won eight 2003 Tony Awards, just racked up 1,480 performances at the Neil Simon Theatre. Currently (through May 14) playing Penny Pingleton, the heroine's best friend, is a newcomer making her Broadway debut: Diana DeGarmo.

Runner-up on the third season of "American Idol," the enthusiastic 18 year old explains how her journey from TV took place. "They asked if I'd like to audition. Obviously, theatre wasn't the first thing I was doing. [Her career] was mainly recordings and concerts. I thought: 'I guess I can audition. You never know -- you may meet somebody.'"

She flew to New York from her Atlanta home, and "didn't think it went well at all. Five minutes and they said, 'Thank you.' I got back on the plane. But before I had even landed, they had offered me the part. My mother was waiting at the airport. She said, 'You've got to call your agent.' I called; he said, 'You got it.' I could hardly believe it. It's been a great experience so far!

"No matter who you are, it's always nice to say you've done something on Broadway," claims the former Miss Teen Georgia (2002). "I feel very fortunate to have gotten in with a great cast and crew. We call it 'the Spray Family.' [Laughs.] They've been really great in welcoming me — and not scaring me with too much Broadway. I was a little nervous."

How was her first Broadway performance in comparison with "American Idol"? Says Diana, "The great thing about it is you're not being judged. [Well, Simon Cowell's not sitting front row, center.] It was pretty calm. You're standing backstage, and all of a sudden the music starts for 'Good Morning Baltimore' [the musical's first number]. Every night, the reaction is different. That's what I love about live theatre.

"I think Penny's character has space to do a lot more than any other character in the show. I get to be goofy and funny, and yet she's sweet. I really play off being the best friend. After the show, so many people say, 'I just loved your character,' and I say, 'Yea!'"

Singing since childhood, DeGarmo recalls, "I started to get paid about age five. I've always been a ham! In middle school I started taking it seriously, and it just sort of snowballed. I auditioned for 'Idol'; here I am today."

Having done "some theatre stuff in the Atlanta area when I was young," she considers her real stage debut to be when she played Maria in the November 2005 production of West Side Story at San Jose's American Musical Theatre. "It was great! The cool thing was that half the cast was from New York and half from the Bay Area. So, now I have friends both places."

One thing Diana "loves about the theatre industry as a whole is that it's so regimented. There are eight shows a week, and if you don't do your job, you get fired. The rest of the entertainment industry is flying by the seat of your pants and holding on for dear life."

Right before her Broadway stint, DeGarmo "did a USO tour with General Peter Pace, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It was one of the most amazing and humbling experiences I've ever had. I come from a military family — my grandfather, uncles, my brother have all been in the service — and I had a respect for [the enlisted]. But to see what these men and women do, up close and personal, was eye-opening. We started the day after Christmas, and did thirteen shows in eight countries [including Iraq and Afghanistan] in seven days."

Her first solo album, "Blue Skies," was released in December 2004, and DeGarmo's at work on the follow-up, for which she's writing songs. "And I don't call myself Diane Warren by any means." (Warren is a multiple Grammy/ASCAP/BMI awards winner, whose songs have been recorded by several top names.) Will the new album consist of all original material? "I don't know yet. We're taking it slowly because we want it to be the best it can. A good song is a good song — no matter who wrote it."

Has she stayed in touch with any of the "American Idol" contestants? "Oh, yes, quite a few. Some of them are coming up to see me in [Hairspray] in a couple of weeks. Amy Adams, who was from my season, is doing a tour as the Narrator in Joseph [and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat]. She said, 'Look at us. We're doing theatre. Who would have thought?' I'm so proud of her."

A fan of musical theatre, DeGarmo remembers "coming up to New York and seeing Les Miz and Chicago. And whenever Annie or Camelot would come to Atlanta, my mom and I would go. But I never really thought that I could do Broadway."

Does she foresee doing more theatre? "This summer, I'm doing a tour of Brooklyn [with Melba Moore]. I'm terribly excited; I can't stand it. After that, I don't know." There are also several concerts lined up. Admits Diana DeGarmo, "It's non-stop. I wish there was a break, but there isn't. [Laughs.] Later on in life, I'll have time for a break."

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Multi-talented Malcolm Gets co-stars in "Adam & Steve," a title that may sound familiar, but which is actually a new movie comedy. Some, of course, might already have seen it at the Tribeca Film Festival (last April) or at various festivals around the world. "Making the film was as much fun as I've ever had," says Gets. "It was an ideal situation. The script was very good, and everyone involved in a major capacity is a friend."

Craig Chester, who also wrote and directed the film, plays Adam to Gets' Steve. The title characters are gay men who meet in an ER and develop a relationship. Adam's a birdwatcher-tour guide in Central Park; Steve's a shrink. Their respective best friends are a formerly obese comic (Parker Posey) and a ladies man (Chris Kattan). Some time later, Adam and Steve realize that they had met years before during a traumatic one-night stand.

Filmed in a month's time at the end of 2004, the comedy includes "one major dance number, a sort of parody of the gym dance from West Side Story. It's a gay two-stepping sequence, very flamboyant. In another scene, I'm a go-go boy. Pretty early in the film, it's revealed that my character started out as a dancer, but couldn't deal with the instability." For the flashback, Gets had to have hair-extensions added. "It took hours. It's sort of Jon Bon Jovi, very long hair that's below my hips."

One morning, while Gets was having the extensions attached in a hair-and-makeup trailer, an elderly female extra in the picture came in and sat silently for about 45 minutes. "I'm there in my Daisy Dukes [the extremely brief cut-offs named after Catherine Bach's character on "The Dukes of Hazard"], basically wearing nothing," he remembers. "When I left, the lady asked someone, 'Is this a porno film?' [Laughs.]"

Last December, Gets co-starred with Mary Testa in a Sundance Film Institute workshop (at the White Oak in Yulee, Florida) of Doll, a new musical by Scott Frankel and Michael Korie (who wrote the score for Grey Gardens). He played painter Oskar Kokoschka, who had a relationship with Alma (widow of Gustav) Mahler. "I've worked with Mary eight or nine times. She's so brilliant in character parts, and I look forward to the day someone lets her carry a show. In this, she finally got to be a leading lady. I told her that she made me want to be a director, just so I could direct her as Mama Rose."

Gets' directorial debut occurred in 2004 at NYU (where he occasionally teaches). "I co-directed She Loves Me, a perfect show, with Deborah Lapidus. Deb is a dear friend, and one of the best teachers I've ever known. I loved the [1993] Roundabout production, and we didn't want to recreate that. We did it with the graduate program, which is not a musical program. Emily Swallow, who's in Measure for Pleasure, played Amalia, and Manoel Felciano, who's now in Sweeney Todd, was Kodaly. I wondered if it would be the point at which I fell into directing and performed less, but the opposite happened — it made me want to perform. [Laughs.]" Among his recent credits: He played Og, the leprechaun, in a 2004 production of Finian's Rainbow at the Irish Rep, and later at the Westport Country Playhouse. "Charlotte Moore [who directed] asked me to do it. I said, 'You know, I'm six-feet tall.' She said, 'That's okay; he's growing.' 'And I'm 40 years old,' I told her. Charlotte answered, 'Og is 649.' [Laughs.] Only an actor would know how to talk to another actor. It was a fantastic experience!"

And it reunited him with Amour co-star Melissa Errico. "We first met in Yale Drama School. I was in graduate school; Melissa was an undergrad. Later, we did one of the big workshops for Triumph of Love. I adore Melissa!" Last August, he played Mordred and Melissa, Guenevere, in a one-night gala performance of Camelot at the Hollywood Bowl.

"Melissa's a good friend, and she was staying at my house in L.A. Her parents came out from New York. At a rehearsal, her father said, 'She sounds fantastic,' and her mother said, 'I bet she's pregnant.' I thought that was an amazing mother-daughter bond. It turns out she was. Melissa's daughter [with husband Patrick McEnroe] is due very soon.

"Recently, I played piano for one of the numbers at a concert that Melissa did, and we're talking about doing some concerts in the future. We keep getting jobs together. I love it! She's one of my favorite people."

Barbara Cook is another close friend, as was the late Wally Harper. Gets met the singer "in a workshop of Sondheim songs, directed by James Lapine. It was his idea, but then Putting It Together came to Broadway, and it just wasn't the time to do it."

Gets knew Harper even before that. "Wally was so funny, so saucy." He spoke at Harper's memorial -- "really a celebration of his life. It was for an invited audience, and we could barely get everyone in.

"I told a really filthy story. I had some reservations about telling it, but a friend said afterwards, 'Wally wouldn't have had it any other way.' He touched so many lives. He was a great friend, a brilliant man. I've lost other friends, but Wally is someone I think about every day. He loved life, and I loved him."

In February 2001, Gets performed at Carnegie Hall with Cook and Harper for a "Mostly Sondheim" concert, later released as a two-CD set on DRG. He says, "I'm a very lucky man."

Last season, Gets co-starred with Kristin Chenoweth and Michael Cerveris in The Apple Tree at Encores! "Producers are ready to move it to Broadway," he reveals. "It was delayed because Kristin was on 'West Wing,' but now that's canceled. They're talking about how many players they need in the orchestra. We should be on Broadway in the fall, or next spring."

Born in Chicago, he was raised in Gainesville, FL. His parents, Terence and Lispeth Gets (who have been married 54 years), were born in London. The third of four children (his siblings are Eric, Allison, and Adrienne), the actor's name was Hugh Malcolm Gerard Gets. He dropped the Hugh in third grade because kids made fun of the name. "Now I love it." Growing up, he studied classical piano. "When I was in a talent show in second grade, everyone sang John Denver, or rock and roll; I played 'If Ever I Would Leave You.'

“All of us in my family were involved in music,” he tells me. “The record cabinet was chock-full of Broadway shows. I grew up listening to Carousel, Oklahoma!, My Fair Lady. It had an impact on my life. There was a community theatre at the end of our street and one day, when I was 13, some friends got me into the cast of Annie Get Your Gun. That was it; I was hooked.” Skipping the eighth and twelfth grades, Gets began college at 16. In addition to acting, singing, dancing and playing piano, he’s a choreographer, vocal director, conductor and composer.

Thanks to "Caroline in the City" (the 1995-99 NBC sitcom on which he played caustic colorist Richard Karinsky), Gets has achieved the financial security to pursue theatre work with greater freedom. "It's a much different experience now. I loved working on television, but I knew I wanted to come back to the stage."

His favorite musical is Sunday in the Park with George. "I haven't done much Sondheim. When I was 18, I played Hero [in Forum]. I was Franklin Shepard in [the 1994 York Theatre Company production of] Merrily We Roll Along [for which he won an Obie], and Bobby in Company [a 2001 Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera production]. Most of the Sondheim parts I want to play I have to grow into. [The Sondheim roles will still be around as Gets gets older.] I really want to do Frederik in [A Little] Night Music in a few more years."

Other credits include Hello Again and A New Brain at Lincoln Center, Boys and Girls at Playwrights Horizons, Two Gentlemen of Verona (for which he also won an Obie) at the Delacorte, and a Roundabout production of The Moliere Comedies, with Brian Bedford, "the best Molière actor I've ever seen."

Theatre fans can look forward to Malcolm Gets as Adam, opposite Kristin Chenoweth's Eve, in The Apple Tree, while moviegoers enjoy him in "Adam & Steve," wherein he's Steve to Craig Chester's Adam. "It's a romantic comedy, and in a sly way, addresses a lot of issues. It's about two men trying to overcome their fears of whatever — commitment, intimacy — and have a relationship. In this day and age, that's a tall order." A happy Malcolm Gets exclaims, "Finally, I'm the lead in a movie!"

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Michael Buckley also writes for TheaterMania.com.

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