There must be honor among Oscar winners. How else can you explain 1972's Best Actress stepping into a Broadway show for a month for 1964's Best Actress? "Well," answers Liza Minnelli matter-of-factly in a word, "friendship."
She's right. Turns out, there is no secret sorority -- just one actress doing a good star-turn for another. For most of January and some of February, she's the reigning Victor/Victoria at the Marquis Theatre while the usual title player, Julie Andrews, takes a well-earned break in some distant, rejuvenating clime.
"Julie would do the same for me, I know she would," says Minnelli, shrugging off her show-saving good deed. "She really, really needed to rest or she would have injured herself and done some long-range damage if she continued. She had to have four weeks, and that would have probably meant closing the show."
Any chance of extending Minnelli's V/V beyond the allotted February 2 is, at best, remote. Minnelli has club dates stretching from here to the turn of the century with her own dynamo show. "It's more a theatre piece," she says, "constructed like a Broadway show, almost." Then, one readily wonders, will it ever find its way to Broadway? The question clearly delights her. She twists her finger into her cheek with mock coyness and proceeds to protest too much.
In point of fact, she fully intends to spend one of her nights off from V/V splashing that show around the Marquis. "Then, we'll see what happens . . . "
There is also a mysterious movie project afoot (don't ask -- she can't talk about it), and she's bracing to make her stage-producing debut with Blake Edwards, V/V's author-director and Andrews's hubby. It was under the ruse of discussing this Top Secret stage project that the Edwardses were able to lure Minnelli to their country abode where last October they instead popped the question about her filling in for Andrews for a spell. "When I heard exactly what it was," Minnelli remembers, "I said, 'I can't do it right away because I can't move all these dates.' Blake said, 'January is fine,' so here I am."
Victoria Grant/Victor Grazinski, first done to an Oscar-nominated turn by Andrews in Edwards's 1982 film, is in a sense a sister/brother/sister-under-the-skin to Sally Bowles, Minnelli's own Oscar-winning Cabaret chanteuse -- a more lavender shade of her notoriously "divine decadence," merely moved back a decade (to the twenties) and over a couple of countries (to a tres Gay Paree).
"They slicked all my hair back the other day to see what I look like as a man. I just started to laugh. I'm not really in touch with the male side of myself, I guess. But it's fun to play a drag queen. Hysterical. And what a beautiful part -- I thought that when I saw the movie -- and how lucky I am to step into Julie's shoes when it's already going great. Boy, is it strenuous! She makes it seem so effortless -- just wafts through it -- and I'm working my behind off."
Minnelli found The Look she wanted from hair stylist Paul Huntley and the show's original costume designer, Willa Kim. "Some costumes have been changed, only because they suit Julie -- they don't suit me. There are certain colors I just don't look good in, I guess. I kinda wash out. So Willa went to town. And Paul did this wonderful wig. I look like Tyrone Power. I said to him, 'Is there a problem?'" Only two things keep Victor/Victoria from being the typical Minnelli gig: Kander and Ebb. "I've never done anything in New York without John and Fred -- literally, be it concert or night club or show -- and, yes, that gives me anxiety attacks." The songwriters did both of her Tony-winning vehicles (Flora, the Red Menace and The Act), and her co-star in their The Rink, Chita Rivera, won a third. They contributed special material to Liza at the Winter Garden, wrote one of her signature songs ("Cabaret") and spelled another ("Liza With a Z").
Should anxieties persist, she can always throw up her Marquis window and let an old familiar Kander-and-Ebb refrain breeze over from Chicago on 46th St. It was during that show's original run that Minnelli did her initial Good Samaritan star turn, stepping in for an ailing Gwen Verdon for six weeks.
"That was the first time, do you remember? No star had ever stepped in for another star before. Sammy Davis told me, 'You can't do this. It's unheard of, and it won't be good.' But I said, 'I've just got to do it.' I did, you know." She, for one, couldn't be happier Chicago is so hot the second time around -- and it's not entirely because she has a certain vested interest in its success.
Just a little. At the time (1976), critics called it her audition for the film edition. She and Goldie Hawn have been rapping their four feet for that to happen ever since. It may yet: The revival's spectacular success has spurred scripter Larry Gelbart and producer Marty Richards back to the drawing boards.
"I'm dying to do it, but I don't even dare say it out loud for fear it won't happen. It's been a long time since a real movie musical came out -- you know, where people sing instead of talk. That only happens in cartoons now. Cartoons have the most wonderful scores now. It's time they started working on people."