By Brent Hazelton
Meet the Man Behind the Grand
A moving and highly-entertaining tribute to the performer and musician famous for his charm, glitz, and glamour. On a set reminiscent of his celebrated television program of the 1950s, Liberace relives the high (and low) points of his prolific life, leading the audience through his childhood and into the life changing moments of his career; introducing the person beyond the persona of an acclaimed performer in American history. Interwoven with a rollicking piano score spanning classical and popular music from Chopin to Chopsticks, Rachmaninoff to Ragtime, and everything in between, this solo-performer tour de force will leave your audience cheering the life of a uniquely American icon.
The lights rise to discover Liberace standing before us, wearing a classy, well-tailored tuxedo from the 1950s. The stage is dominated by a massive grand piano, flanked by several shrouded tailor’s dummies, and packed with chandeliers and candelabra. After a brief introduction in which he explains that his friends call him ‘Lee’—and asks the audience to do the same—he explodes into a vigorous rendition of his standard Boogie Woogie, and encourages the audience to engage with him in the song. At its conclusion, he explains that while he’s still very much dead, he’s also very much bored in heaven—after all, a performer who spent his entire career trying to make people happy doesn’t have all that much to do up there—and he’s come back to have some fun with an audience full of genuine living people. The Boogie Woogie carries him into a recollection of his childhood in Milwaukee, accompanying at Polish weddings, bar mitzvahs, pool halls and stag parties, while at the same time trying to satisfy the tastes of his demanding musical purist father (all underscored by a shifting medley of Joplin’s The Entertainer, Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C Sharp Minor, Chopin’s Minute Waltz, the 12th Street Rag, and Charvenka’s Polish National Dance). He also articulates the most important lesson of his childhood, and one that would shape his entire career: that if you give people your love, they will give you theirs in return—a belief that he begins to weave into his teenaged performances after a meeting with Ignacy Paderewski (Paderewski’s Minuet), propels him toward a career as a concert pianist. Paderewski’s encouragement pushes him toward what would become a twenty-year relationship with teacher and mentor Florence Bettray Kelly, who enters him into a countless succession of local competitions that culminate in a guest appearance with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Lizst’s Liebestraum). But despite the great honor of the performance, Liberace now finds himself bored with the strictures of classical performance and the elitism of traditional classical audiences. He books a classical concert tour of the Upper Midwest (to bring the classical music that he loves to a new audience), and one evening—in LaCrosse, Wisconsin—Liberace finds himself born fully into the persona that would come to define the rest of his career when, at the end of his classical set, an audience members requests the then-popular Three Little Fishies. Liberace obliges, and then, in a moment of inspiration, finds himself blending the Fishies melody into well-know classical pieces by Mozart, Beethoven, and Strauss (Three Little Fishies medley). The audience goes crazy for the joke, and in that moment of perfect connection between performer and audience, Liberace finds his true artistic voice—spreading a blend of popular and classical music designed to maximize fun to as large an audience as possible. The next 15 years of his career—his rise to stardom—pass by at a lightning pace in a blend of doggedly determined hard work and endless touring (underscored by Khachaturian’s The Saber Dance), and in that rollicking success montage, Liberace reveals to us the ingredients of his success. At the conclusion of the song, he displays the most unique element of his identity—his wardrobe, which started simply enough as a single white tuxedo and exploded from there. His meteoric rise leads him to play in Carnegie Hall, at which concert he astonishes the audience by playing the most popular piece of music ever composed for the piano—Chopsticks. But it’s a Chopsticks as only Liberace could play it, a complex mash-up of popular and classical influences spanning a vast spectrum of piano composition, and firmly cementing his fame as a critically-derided, popularly-lauded superstar. The Carnegie Hall performance also cements his status as a target for ridicule, and the tabloids of the day begin to dig into his personal life, specifically suggesting that Liberace is likely a homosexual. He disputes these slanders through a bevy of lawsuits, culminating in his winning a judgment over “Cassandra,” and English journalist who published a particularly scathing personal attack during Liberace’s first command performance for Queen Elizabeth. But despite the win, the damage had been done, and Liberace explains how his fans began to abandon him in droves and his career floundered. He recounts a near-death experience in 1963, and how that brush with mortality served to fully transform him (or finally split his personality completely in two), from a tastefully-attired purveyor of musical entertainment into the full-blown Mr. Showmanship persona of the second half of his career—part giving the audience what it wanted, and part defense mechanism. Liberace plots his return to the top, with Las Vegas as his new base of operations. He invites all to join him in Las Vegas, and closes Act I with a rousing rendition of the Beer Barrel Polka.
The act opens with Liberace in a tasteful dressing gown as he welcomes the audience back with Dizzy Fingers. The song leads him into a recollection of his heyday in the supper clubs of the 1940s, and a display of one of his sure-fire routines from that act: playing Night and Day with the assistance of an audience member. And after that brief detour down memory lane, Liberace returns us on the journey to Las Vegas, guiding us through his recollections of that city in its infancy, and sharing with us the deeper philosophy behind the Mr. Showmanship persona—“laugh at yourself before they can laugh at you”—while changing onstage into a sufficiently outrageous costume. At the same time, he discusses the expansion of excess in his act—from a single piano to entire orchestras, companies of dancers, animals, cars, and much more—and using mannequins bearing representative costumes revealed behind curtains in the back wall of the set, takes the audience on a tour of the evolution of the Mr. Showmanship wardrobe, and explaining the need to always outdo himself. He also places himself firmly as the leading influence in the pop culture and pop music ostentations of the late 1960s and 1970s, and describes how, while the critical bards kept coming, his new persona insulated him from them. And, with that, Liberace offers to introduce us to Mr. Showmanship, the lights dim as he exits the stage, and his traditional Las Vegas entrance cue is played. He re-enters as full-on Mr. Showmanship, and performs a condensed version of his Vegas act, consisting of hilariously self-deprecating one-liners and three knockout songs. At the conclusion of the act, Liberace returns in place of Mr. Showmanship and describes the unparalleled success of his act in the 1970s, and begins to lead us into the top-it-all excess of his 1980s routines. As he wheels the final shrouded tailor’s dummy downstage to reveal what we expect to be the most ostentatious costume yet, his removal of the shroud covering it reveals instead a very lifelike facsimile of Scott Thorson, Liberace’s long-time partner and the self-professed love of his life. His anger is immediate and volcanic—this is the ghost that he’s been trying to keep in the background all evening. In a moment of decision, Liberace commits to revealing himself once and for all to an audience, instead of once more fleeing behind his mask. He details his relationship with Scott, both the highs of true love and the decline impelled by Scott’s addictions and Liberace’s neglect that ultimately led to a very public palimony suit after Liberace cut Scott off. His vulnerability with the audience now growing, he reveals how at the height of the frenzy around the suit, he retreated completely into the protection of the Mr. Showmanship persona, and conquered the one major venue at which he had yet to play—Radio City Music Hall. And, finally, critical reception matches his public popularity. But his contentment was short lived. He reveals how less than two years after his first Radio City experience, he was diagnosed with AIDS, and how only months after that we would die, amidst a flurry of scandal and opportunism—as well as his own terror at concealing that fact from his audience to his dying day. As he reveals to us how his secret was shared with the world, the costumed mannequins and dummies literally collapse, mirroring his perception of what the AIDS revelation had done to his alter ego and, as he believed he was taught by the tabloids of the 1950s, the warm feelings of his fans. He strips off his elegant costume and drops it in a pile at his feet, standing before us only in plain trousers and a t-shirt, realizing the failure of his life to make anyone love him. But as he observes the aftermath of the AIDS revelation—candlelight vigils, a condemnation of the coroner, worldwide memorial services—he realizes that it is he who has made an error in judgment and never truly bought into his own life lesson—that if you give people you love, they’ll give you theirs in return. Liberace takes a moment, steps away from the pile of ostentation around him, hides as much of the parts of Mr. Showmanship around him as he can, and asks the audience to begin anew. He confesses that tonight has not been an exercise in fun, as he said it would be at the top, but rather an exercise in his own fear. He introduces himself again, implores the audience to call him “Lee,” sits at the piano and plays a stunningly beautiful rendition of Chopin’s Nocturne in E Flat Major. No flourishes, no showmanship, just a gifted musician sharing himself through a piece of music that he absolutely loves. In the final chords of the song, Liberace sits—redeemed—acknowledges the audience’s role in his personal reclamation, and the light fade to black.