When looking at Liza Minnelli‘s career, it’s clear that she was born in the wrong generation. The classic triple-threat showgirl, she would have thrived as a contract player with MGM in the 1940s. Her particular talents were never captured adequately by film or vinyl, and it’s no surprise that Broadway was the most hospitable to her gifts.
Though her movie stardom was brief, it peaked quite spectacularly with her Oscar-winning turn in Bob Fosse’s 1972 musical Cabaret. Based on the memoirs of Christopher Isherwood, the dark tale was the perfect vehicle for Minnelli, who was able to display her singing, acting, and dancing talents. As a genre, the movie musical was going through monumental changes in the 1960s and 1970s, essentially facing extinction in the face of the gritty environs of New Hollywood, which sought to move away from the idealized, manicured worlds of the Golden Age of Hollywood. Though Minnelli was part of the New Hollywood, she couldn’t maintain the kind of career her colleagues like Faye Dunaway, Barbra Streisand, or Jane Fonda were able to due to her immovable link to the past.
So much of Liza Minnelli’s persona as a performer is tied to the Golden Age of Hollywood because of her starry lineage. Her father Vincente Minnelli and mother Judy Garland were two of the most important figures of the classic Hollywood musical. Instead of finding a space for herself in the 1970s, Minnelli was an echo of her famous parents. It’s why her collaboration with Martin Scorsese in 1977’s New York, New York should have been a slam dunk. But instead of introducing the movie musical to the New Hollywood, it exposed the yawning chasm that existed between the Golden Age of Hollywood and New Hollywood.
So even if Scorsese failed to bring the movie musical back to the 1970s, the soundtrack showed off Minnelli at her best, further evidence that she was an anachronism trapped in a culture that didn’t know what to do with a talent like hers. Though Minnelli was a seasoned recording artist by 1977, releasing a series of studio LPs, soundtracks, and live albums, she never scored a chart hit, even if she earned gold records for the soundtracks to Cabaret and her TV special, Liza with a “Z”. As a young singer in the 1960s and 1970s, she recorded a number of albums devoted to pop standards, given her legacy and lineage. She also tried recording contemporary pop/rock but failed to interpret songs from her generation convincingly.
New York, New York is the kind of album that Minnelli would excel at because it leaned into her old-fashioned tendencies instead of turning away from them. Unlike many children of entertainment legends, Minnelli found her greatest success by emulating the kind of glitzy showbiz that her parents personified. She inherited a lot from her mother, especially a torchy style of belting that resembled a gigantic sob. Though Minnelli’s voice lacked the endless range of tone and timbre of Garland’s voice, it did make up for that with the sheer volume and razzle-dazzle: if there was a lyric that Minnelli couldn’t convincingly croon, she was bust it down with one of her barking belts.
On stage, she indulged in these excesses, often hitting those skyscraper notes whilst cranking her arm as if to summon that Minnelli magic. She could simmer down a bit on vinyl and allow for some color and tone to accentuate her voice. That’s why New York, New York is an essential record in her oeuvre because it highlights artistry that is oft-ignored for showmanship. Liza Minnelli will always be a generous performer – generous to a fault – singing and emoting to the cheap seats, nuance, and subtlety be damned. With New York, New York, she presents her audiences with various sides to her musical persona. The tireless trouper with the giant voice is still there – the title track, especially, is an exercise in displaying her lung power – but she’s also allowed to play a bit with her voice and explore, especially when tackling some pop/jazz standards.
The story of New York, New York feels a bit like A Star Is Born. It’s the story of two talented musical performers – a saxophonist and a singer – who fall in love and work together, only to have their relationship implode due to the pressures of show business. Set in the 1940s, just after WWII, Minnelli gets to adopt a post-war pre-rock pop singing persona, not too far from her comfort zone. In the context of the 1970s, few singers of that era were charting hits, with the notable exception of Frank Sinatra. Barbra Streisand, like Minnelli, was also a contemporary singer whose sound was closely linked to the pre-rock era, but unlike Minnelli, Streisand was able to step into contemporary pop with relative ease, becoming one of the most successful artists of the 1970s. Pop and jazz standards interpreted by younger artists wouldn’t truly become a marketing phenomenon until the 1980s with Linda Ronstadt’s pioneering record, 1983’s What’s New (recorded with big band legend Nelson Riddle). Her success would also dovetail with Tony Bennett’s meteoric comeback, laying the groundwork for the platinum success of Harry Connick, Jr. and Michael Bublé.
But in 1977, the music on New York, New York would be out of fashion, especially if sung by a young woman barely in her 30s. For context, in the summer of 1977, radio was playing hits by Stevie Wonder, KC and the Sunshine Band, Marvin Gaye, and Thelma Houston. Though Liza Minnelli was their contemporary and peer, she was far more comfortable singing her mom’s songs than the tunes people her age were recording. A month after New York, New York’s release, Minnelli would put out her final studio LP from 1970s, Tropical Nights, which highlighted her unsuitability for disco-flecked contemporary pop.
So even if the sound of New York, New York is from a bygone era, Minnelli’s work sounds fresh and vital. First, it’s important to note that Liza Minnelli is not a jazz singer. Though she has sung jazz in her shows and recorded jazzy numbers on her albums, she’s a theater singer who can make a solid pass at singing jazz. She is far too mannered and bombastic for jazz, and at her vocal peak, she would often drown out any moments of subtlety and quiet with her patented belts. Minnelli is a singer who works overtime to impress, trying to dazzle her listeners and audiences with volume and power. That’s why it’s particularly impressive to hear her work on New York, New York because she’s far less of a showboat, content on trying to figure out the music and the lyrics.
We hear Minnelli first on the pop standard, “You Brought a New Kind of Love to Me”. Minnelli doesn’t wholly submerge her stylized phrasing (there’s always something of Las Vegas or Atlantic City with Minnelli), but the archness doesn’t take away from the performance. And because the song’s composition and structure don’t allow for runs or belts, Minnelli sings in a very pleasant high register. George Auld joins her on saxophone, whose work is used in the film when costar Robert DeNiro mimics playing the sax. Auld’s dreamy, boozy playing complements Minnelli’s subdued, frisky singing perfectly. The song ends with Minnelli’s seemingly improvised scatting, which shows great restraint.
That relaxed crooning is also featured in the Michael Edwards/Bud Green tune, “Once in a While”. She’s practically swooning as she channels the ghosts of girl singers of the 1940s. The song begins slowly with a solitary saxophone purring the song’s hook and melody, setting the scene for Minnelli to join with the orchestra. Minnelli’s character plays a big band singer in the film, and “Once in a While” would sound right at home at a tea dance in a hotel bar. Her control over her muscular voice is admirable as she hews herself to the tight arrangement of the song, never once slipping. She does similarly excellent work on the jaunty, swinging ditty, “You Are My Lucky Star”, in which she skips nimble with the sprightly orchestra, keeping in step with the uptempo pace.
One of the greatest songwriting teams of the 20th century is represented on New York, New York with the classic ballad, “The Man I Love”. A song that’s been interpreted many times (including by Minnelli’s mother), it’s the classic heartbreak torch song. It’s here that Minnelli will build a bridge and meld the character from New York, New York with her own musical persona. “The Man I Love” is an intense song about a near-obsessive devotion. As the song builds to its inevitable crescendo, Minnelli’s intensity builds before erupting into her full-throated belting. (It feels like Minnelli’s been freed from the more stylized singing she did on the earlier tunes.) When hearing Minnelli’s belt, you can really hear her mom’s echo, laced into the throbbing vibrato.
Because New York, New York operates as a vehicle for Minnelli – both as a film and a record- it means that her longtime collaborators, John Kander and Fred Ebb, are featured on the album. Kander and Ebb were a successful songwriting duo, working on stage musicals and films. They first worked with Minnelli on the 1965 show Flora, the Red Menace, which netted a then-19-year-old Liza Minnelli her first of four Tony Awards. The duo also wrote Cabaret and would go on to be invaluable contributors to Minnelli’s career. They would write some of Minnelli’s most memorable songs, and together the three would enjoy a fabulous career on Broadway.
For New York, New York, Kander and Ebb wrote a number of songs for their muse. The work the three do on the album is important not only for the record’s success but because they were continuing on the ongoing work of crafting Minnelli’s stage and music persona. The songs they wrote for New York, New York – the title track and the rousing “But the World Goes’ Round” would become standards in her stage shows. The title track would also become somewhat synonymous with Minnelli and link her forever to New York City, making her somewhat of an icon of Gotham. (Even if Frank Sinatra was the one who had the chart hit with the song.)
As proven with their stage work of the 1960s and 1970s, if required, Kander and Ebb could adapt their theatrical sounds to the necessary time period. So when called upon to create pre-rock pop, they do an amazing job at aping the work of such greats like Gershwin, Porter, or Arlen. But their assignment isn’t just to recreate the sounds of the 1940s. What they’re tasked to do is to create musical vehicles for their star to shine.
“But the World Goes’ Round” is a standout on the record. It’s the kind of song that is seemingly tailored for Minnelli. Gone is the hope that she’d sing with the marked finesse she employed when singing the pop standards on the album. Instead, Kander and Ebb craft a song for her that would do double duty: score the film but more importantly, show audiences just what a fabulous and intense singer Liza Minnelli is.
Because at a certain level, that’s what New York, New York as film does: sure, it’s Scorsese’s way of trying to marry his love of classic Hollywood with New Hollywood. But it’s also an indulgent vehicle, like George Cukor’s 1954 version of A Star Is Born was designed to wow audiences with Judy Garland’s colossal talent. So, Minnelli gets a few numbers in which Kander and Ebb understand the assignment: they make Liza Minnelli sound good.
“But the World Goes’ Round” works a bit like Garland’s “The Man That Got Away” (which was written by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin). It starts off slow, ruminative, and broody. The lyrics are resigned – no matter how bad things get, the world still goes round. As the bitterness sets in, Minnelli’s resignation turns to disgust before it explodes at the climax of the song into all-out war. (If you’re listening to the track with headphones, remember to take them out of your ears when she practically bellows the word “Sound” at the song’s peak).
Of course, the centerpiece of the soundtrack is the title track. The theme from New York, New York is a love letter to the city and an affirming and aspirational self-help tune about being able to tough it out in the big city. It’s a song about survival and thriving. So, it makes perfect sense that a singer like Liza Minnelli would sing the hell out of a tune like that. Alongside her megawatt optimism is also the smile-through-tears optimism. Minnelli, like her mom, trades in a kind of unabashed, open vulnerability, and so much of her ethos is a ‘don’t count her out’ kind of theme. (This would become more pronounced later in Minnelli’s career when she, like Judy Garland, would go through a series of health problems, drug addiction, and career comebacks.) When Minnelli is singing “New York, New York”, she’s no longer being captured as her character singing the song – but she’s singing it herself.
Because Minnelli’s performance of “New York, New York” is so intensely personal, it has become a mainstay in her shows and is her signature tune. She has become linked to the city of New York City because of the song. So, even if Martin Scorsese wasn’t able to help maintain Minnelli’s movie career (the film was a commercial failure), the album was perfect in helping build the Liza Minnelli stage persona.