Three-time Tony winner Liza Minnelli burst to stardom on Broadway in her award-winning debut as the title character in Flora, the Red Menace in 1965. She went on to international superstardom on screen and concert stages everywhere, although she has returned to Broadway sporadically, both in book musicals and solo presentations. Minnelli's work on disc has mostly included live concert recordings, but there have also been a number of studio albums. More than almost any other singer, Minnelli's persona drips from every note out of her throat, and I can't imagine my life without her constant presence.
Click through to read my selections for the top 12 Liza Minnelli albums.
"Liza With A Z"
1972 was a really great year for Liza Minnelli, between her Oscar-winning triumph on screen in "Cabaret" and this Emmy-winning TV special, filmed live on Broadway. Most of my friends can recreate the entire broadcast without missing a beat. Although she'd already won a Tony Award and given concerts all over the world, this was the first full bloom of the Minnelli talent, undoubtedly due in no small part to the cultivation of director-choreographer Bob Fosse, who, together with writer Fred Ebb, knew just how to milk her raw energy and passionate verve.
She opens with "Yes," Kander and Ebb's infectious paean to positivity (captured on film exquisitely by Fosse in what must be regarded as a legitimate entry on his regrettably short roster of great films). Then, a stunning trio of songs — “God Bless The Child,” “Say Liza (Liza With A Z)” and “It Was A Good Time” — exploit (without being exploitative of) Minnelli's unique blend of obscurity and renown due to her famous family history. This is a front bookend to the closing medley of songs from "Cabaret," with stops in between for 1970s funk, musical comedy and minstrel, all of which Minnelli seamlessly integrates into her freshly minted persona. I suppose if you're only going to listen to one Liza Minnelli album, this ought to be it; although if you appreciate "Liza With A Z," I think you'll need at least some of the other recordings on this list.
The Complete A&M Recordings
It's sort of a cheat to include "The Complete A&M Recordings" as one entry here, but the individual albums it contains ("Liza Minnelli," "Come Saturday Morning," "New Feelin'" and "Live At The Olympia In Paris") have been out of print individually my entire adult life, and some of my favorite tracks are cuts that only made it onto this compilation — so here you go. In truth, considering these various unsuccessful attempts to make Minnelli a music star, the differences between the late 60s and early 70s were more pronounced at the time. As a result, one sought to cast her as a flower child in the world of hippy singer-songwriters and another one offered Minnelli's then-contemporary take on standards. Today, the songs of Burt Bacharach and even Randy Newman are essentially standards — and no matter how many tambourines and electric guitar riffs you throw in the mix, Liza Minnelli pretty much sounds like Liza Minnelli. That said, these recordings represent Minnelli at her formidable vocal summit and it's enormously satisfying to listen her to tear into such an extensive gamut of material not typically found in her repertoire with her trademark gusto. There's some overlap with some other recordings on this list, and you still need the "Cabaret" soundtrack, but the Complete A&M Recordings is a must-have.
The Complete Capitol Collection
Another cheat on this list, the Capitol Collection is a compilation of Minnelli's three mid-60s albums for Capitol Records. While these recordings find an immature Minnelli still somewhat unsure of how to express herself most artfully in song, the pure heart and throat are undeniable. And it's a real treat to hear her surrounded by the luxuriously full, expert orchestrations by Peter Matz on many of these tracks. I'm extremely partial to Minnelli's passion and bonhomie on the many Francophile offerings on this collection. Also not to be missed, the studio solo versions of her songs from Flora, the Red Menace — you can close your eyes and picture yourself in the New York nightlife of yesteryear. You still need the Flora cast album for her full 19-year old Tony-winning excitement, but this is fun as well.
"Liza Minnelli, Live at Carnegie Hall"
There's only one reason I'm not shouting from the rooftops that everyone should make haste to purchase Liza Minnelli's 1979 "Live At Carnegie Hall" album and that is that it's out of print. Still, people should do what they can to find this gem. This is probably the apex of Minnelli as a singer — any growth she exhibited in subsequent years in terms of lyric interpretation via life wisdom or ever-increasing stage prowess came alongside a decline in the quality and range of her vocals. Here, in 1979, she still had all the high notes and her confidence in performance was staggering. The 10-minute "New York Medley" is unforgettable, and the balls-to-wall "Shine On Harvest Moon" is a joyous victory of style over substance worth any back-alley dealing you have to endure to get these tracks into your collection. I enjoy playing this "Harvest Moon" back-to-back with Minnelli's comparatively demure rendition on another terrific live album of this period, 1974's "Live At The Winter Garden," which is a possibly acceptable substitute for those poor souls unable to score a "Carnegie Hall" fix.
"New York, New York" Soundtrack
The soundtrack to "New York, New York" only contains seven Minnelli tracks (plus the extended "Happy Endings" sequence co-starring with Larry Kert) — but what tracks they are. Minnelli, at the peak of her powers, takes flight in these Ralph Burns arrangements that fit her like a glove. It's hard to pick a favorite among such timeless tracks as Minnelli's definitive recordings of standards such as "The Man I Love" and "Just You, Just Me" or original Kander and Ebb juggernauts "But The World Goes Round" and "Theme From New York, New York." Bonus: The rest of the album is delightful stack of mostly instrumental old tunes, played to perfection.
"Liza: At Carnegie Hall"
Liza Minnelli's second live Carnegie Hall album, this one recorded in 1987, is a fabulously deluxe, double album commemorating her record-breaking two-week engagement. If by this point in time, she'd lost a little dexterity and fluidity in the now slightly frayed edges of her voice, the warm, Minnelli belt was still big and exciting and she knew exactly how to use it to maximum effect, roaring out rich renditions of "I Happen To Like New York," "Old Friends," "I Can See Clearly Now/I Can See It" and many other winners, including a lengthy medley of songs Kander and Ebb wrote for her. The cup runneth over.
The Rink, Original Broadway Cast Album
It's been well documented that 1984, when The Rink played its brief Broadway run, was a tumultuous time for Liza Minnelli. The strain is evident in her singing on the original Broadway cast album of The Rink, but nonetheless, not one of the many more supply-voiced performers who have done "Colored Lights" (Minnelli's first solo in The Rink), can touch the personal conviction Minnelli brings to the recording. Only Liza Minnelli can sing, "I was sitting on a sand dune in Santa Cruz — or Monterrey. Well, anyway..." and all the other "Well, anyway..." corrections in "Colored Lights" and have you believe her every single time. And hoarse or not, there's no substitute for Minnelli opening up to full vibrato on the last lines of the song. She brings the same passion to her fantastic duets with Chita Rivera and, especially, to the insane tour de force, "All the Children in a Row."
"Live From Radio City Music Hall"
"Live From Radio City Music Hall" is probably the most popular Liza Minnelli album, as it represented a major early 90s comeback in a legendary run at Radio City Music Hall, followed by a worldwide tour and television special. Its release also happened to coincide with the beginning of the widespread domination of the compact disc format. For years, this was the most consistently available Liza Minnelli album. No disrespect to "Live From Radio City Hall," though working with less voice than ever before, this streamlined, slimmed down Liza was sharp and hip — musical, rhythmic and perfectly produced and packaged. The result is not only terrific recordings of great arrangements of songs new and old to the Minnelli repertoire, but indeed definitive versions of "Teach Me Tonight," "Some People" and "Theme From New York, New York." Her voice might not be what it once was, but man, does she know how to work a key change.
After failed early career efforts to cross over into the pop charts, Minnelli focused for decades on showtunes and standards, until this rare collaboration with British pop duo, the Pet Shop Boys. The track that got the most attention was a campy dance club version of Stephen Sondheim's "Losing My Mind," but the rest of the album is much more enjoyable, including some Pet Shop Boys covers as well as original material they wrote for Minnelli. She adapted her style well to suit these productions, but she still manages to come across as herself on the tracks, and what was once a guilty pleasure is now an album I'll proudly play for anyone willing to listen. My favorite cuts are "So Sorry, I Said," "Tonight Is Forever" and "Rent."
2002's "Liza's Back" is the comeback album to end all comebacks. After several years of bad press, Minnelli had been pretty much written off as dead, until she exploded into the public eye in a hurricane of publicity around her ultimately ill-fated marriage to David Gest. Whatever drama there was, I'll forever be grateful for Minnelli's triumphant return to the stage, singing "Liza's Back," an original Kander and Ebb concoction both poking fun and celebrating the moment. She looked fabulous, and she was singing better than she had in years. This live album captures much of that excitement, and wonderful takes on such favorites as "Don't Cry Out Loud," "Never Never Land" and "What Did I Have That I Don't Have?"
Yet another comeback concert, "Liza's At The Palace" is a somewhat classier affair than "Liza's Back." In place of enjoyable, if improbable, pop covers, is an expert recreation of godmother Kay Thompson's legendary club act, as well as Liza classics, including a killer "My Own Best Friend" as Minnelli performed over 30 years prior on Broadway in Chicago. The highlight is her take on her mother Judy Garland's famed "Palace Medley," which is sure to inspire goosebumps in even the most jaded.
Minnelli's most recent album finds her in a restrained mode appropriate to the intimacy of cabaret, with a lowercase C. It's a mode that suits her well — and not just due to the major vocal limitations of this phase in her career, but because the focus is on the words and the intentions and emotions, and Minnelli's singular gift for expressing these things is a treasure. Whether it's the feeling in "I Got Lost In His Arms," the fun in "You Fascinate Me So" or the frolic in "Confession," this album inspires hope for more decades of Minnelli magic.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)