Theatre Lover's Journal for January 1999

Star Quality

by John Kenrick

Three people discussed on this website were among the 1998 Kennedy Center honorees: Shirley Temple Black, who looked as radiant and cheerful as she did onscreen over sixty years ago, and the Broadway songwriting team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. It was great to see these theatrical giants receive such richly deserved recognition.

The Kennedy Center honors usually include someone from Broadway's golden age, and the selection of Kander and Ebb was an excuse for a sensational onstage tribute. It also turned into a surprising excuse to compare the stars of Broadway's past and present. I'm not suggesting that pairing up the old and new stars of two classic shows was intended as some sort of competition, but it was a unique chance to compare the performance styles of different eras. The results were as interesting as they were entertaining, and I thought it was ten of the best minutes on television in all of 1998.

Alan Cumming opened Cabaret's "Wilkommen" and performed it with many of his special touches intact, including his delightful "aaaand gentlemen." His outfit was not the risque ensemble he sported on Broadway, but it had the required East Village/Rent-like flavor. Cumming seemed a little unsure, as if intimidated by the glitzy crowd or the opera house surroundings. When he turned around to reveal Cabaret's original MC Joel Grey, it was as if an electric current ran through the audience and right into my living room. Tuxedoed and cane in hand, Grey strutted and leered his "Wilkommen" as he has for the last thirty three years, but the performance seemed as fresh and vibrant as ever. I don't belittle Mr. Cumming's talent – he deserved his Tony. But there is such a thing as star quality, something that Joel Grey still has in abundance. With no visible effort, Grey sparkled – living proof that less can be more. When they finished the number side by side, Cumming melted into the ensemble while Grey remained the center of attention.

It was a little different when Bebe Neuwirth and Chita Rivera shared the spotlight for "All That Jazz." Neuwirth is a knockout performer who earned her musical stardom, and the way she smoldered, I wouldn't be surprised if Hillary had to give Bill a swift kick. Then came Chita! Now it's a little surprising (to some idiots) to see a woman in her late sixties with the figure, legs and sex appeal that she had over forty years ago, but Chita had all that and far more. Like Joel Grey, Rivera sparkled – yes, Neuwirth was fabulous, but Chita was electrifying.

Other talented performers with as many years of experience don't have it, and only a few come along in any generation that do. I've seen this phenomenon before, but the passing of time made such direct live comparisons impossible. Topol was a riveting Tevye in his Tony-winning revival of Fiddler, but he would have disappeared if Zero Mostel ever stood beside him onstage. I enjoyed seeing Cathy Rigby in Peter Pan, but she would be blown away by Mary Martin or Sandy Duncan singing "Neverland". And as exciting as Tyne Daly was in Gypsy, it would be madness to put her on stage next to Ethel Merman. Will Cummings or Neuwirth ever have this star quality? I don't know – it is certainly possible. They are super pros, but that does not guarantee them star quality.

Seeing a great performer in a great role is always a treat, but its on an entirely different plane when you see a performer with real star quality. Noel Coward wrote a delicious short story called "Star Quality," telling about the way a stage star's maddening eccentricities are forgiven when her stellar performance makes a play into a hit. In it, a character describes "star quality" as "something very great indeed – something abstract that is beyond definition and beyond praise . . . magical and unmistakable," and that when you see it in a performer "the hair will rise on your addled little head, chills will swirl up and down your spine and you will solemnly bless the day that you were born." If we had forgotten what that quality means on Broadway, the comparisons at the Kennedy Center Honors gave us a graphic reminder.

PS - It was a heartbreaker to see Liza Minnelli look and sound the way she did during the same Kennedy Center tribute. Here is a performer who's star quality made her a true superstar, conquering every entertainment field she chose. However, bad habits can take their toll. Bloated, her voice in tatters, Liza was a vicious parody of herself. Some of the lyrics were inaudible, as if much of her voice was simply missing. Thank heaven her old co-stars Rivera and Grey were there to help her through "New York, New York." Chita and Joel are both considerably older than Ms. Minnelli, and yet they look and sound far better. Isn't there someone who can tell Liza to stop putting herself before the public in such horrid shape? Most of us who know and love her work are heartbroken to see her this way.

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