After spending virtually all of her 44 years in the public spotlight, after a highly publicized chemical addiction and recovery, after two divorces, one separation and the recent deaths of such confidants as entertainer Sammy Davis Jr. and designer Halston, Liza Minnelli is transcending life's blows and heading back to stage center --with a vengeance.
Her new film musical, "Stepping Out," opens nationally in the fall; her international concert tour, also called "Stepping Out," is taking her to 39 cities this year alone -- with a stop tonight at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia.
Not that Ms. Minnelli has been altogether out of public view. It's just that her sporadic films of the last decade -- such as "Arthur on the Rocks" (1988), "Rent-a-Cop" (1987) and the original "Arthur" (1981) -- were not exactly vivid artistic statements. Certainly none approached such 1,000-watt Minnelli performances as "New York, New York," Martin Scorsese's swing-era period piece (1977), and "Cabaret," the lusty Bob Fosse musical that launched her to stardom (1972).
If the past decade of the entertainer's life has been artistically uneven and personally tempestuous, it seems to have strengthened her resolve.
"To me, the very phrase 'Stepping Out' means taking a chance, risking something, doing something different," says Ms. Minnelli, referring to the title song by composer John Kander and lyricist Fred Ebb, who also wrote "Cabaret," "New York, New York" and several other triumphant scores for Ms. Minnelli.
"That's what the movie is about, that's what the song is about. It's about doing something you've never done before, and how you can get through stuff with the help and comfort of other people that maybe you couldn't get through by yourself."
And although, on the surface, the "Stepping Out" film is about a small-town dance teacher trying to get a lumpy dance troupe into shape, its theme of deep personal struggle followed by personal triumph applies to the entertainer as well.
"Seeing Liza's full recovery [from a 20-year Valium addiction that ended a few years ago], seeing how well she is doing now, how her voice never has been stronger, seeing her whole attitude toward life these days makes me quite happy," says Mr. Ebb, who is directing her live "Stepping Out" show.
"There's a tremendous sense in her life today of the daredevil -- of saying, 'I can do it.' "
That bravura attitude helps explain why she remains so compelling a singer. Others may have a more sophisticated vocal technique (Maureen McGovern), a more stylized delivery (Barbra Streisand), a more literary approach to a song (Andrea Marcovicci). But when it comes to finding the dramatic center of a popular song and bringing it robustly to life, Ms. Minnelli has few peers.
"I just think I sing differently than other people because I was always so influenced by the European way of doing it," she says, referring to such art-song interpreters as her longtime hero, singer-songwriter Charles Aznavour.
"What I do in singing a song is storytelling. I do acting songs. In other words, the songs I do become like little movies, with each song representing a complete profile of some character. Add to that my whole love of the theater, and you end up with my particular way of doing a song."
Surely Ms. Minnelli owes some of her expressive gift to the remarkable genes provided by Judy Garland and Vincente Minnelli. Yet the myth persists that Liza is very much her mother's daughter, with some observers offering as proof the large scale of her performances and her history of addiction.
But, at closer inspection, those parallels are misleading. For one, Ms. Minnelli's voice isn't as lustrous or instantly thrilling as Garland's, and she never has mirrored Garland's lifelong downward slide. Where Garland was a worn woman by her late 20s and never was off alcohol or pills for long, her daughter constantly has forged ahead, despite life's woes (including her ended marriages to singer Peter Allen and movie executive Jack Haley Jr. and, most recently, her separation from sculptor Mark Gero).
Perhaps Ms. Minnelli's human dimension owes something to her father, a soft-spoken man who similarly put human stories amid sumptuous settings, as in the musicals "An American in Paris," HTC "The Pirate" and "The Band Wagon" (he directed his daughter in his last film, "A Matter of Time," in 1976).
To acknowledge the overlooked kinship with her father, her "Stepping Out" concerts feature a big-screen segment on his staging and costuming at Radio City Music Hall, where he worked in the '30s before moving on to redefine the Hollywood musical.
Looking back over the years, "My singing definitely has gotten better, but I work on it a lot. Oddly enough, it's the thing I've always been the least strong in," confesses the entertainer, who holds an Emmy for her TV music special "Liza With a Z" (1972) and an Oscar for her work in "Cabaret."
But after all the highs and lows, hits and bombs, does Ms. Minnelli wonder what it would have been like to have just led a simple, normal, un-famous existence?
"Oh sure, but I can pretend what it's like when I do my parts," she says.
"Anyway, I think everybody is the star of their own life. The only time you get in trouble is when you're not -- when you become a bit player in your own life."
By all appearances, those days are over.
When: Friday, Aug. 2, July 20, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Merriweather Post Pavilion
Call: 481-6000 for tickets