BWW Interview: Trevor Ashley Talks LIZA'S BACK!, Diva Lessons, and Why Liza Would've Made a Killer Norma Desmond
Trevor Ashley knows a thing or two about divas.
The Australian performer has channeled Dame Shirley Bassey in DIAMONDS ARE FOR TREVOR, run the gamut from Cher to Dusty Springfield in I'M EVERY WOMAN, and starred in not one but two loving send-ups of the legendary Liza Minnelli.
Now, the second of those shows, LIZA'S BACK! (IS BROKEN), is making its American debut at Sony Hall.
"It's just like any regular Liza concert," Ashley said about the show via email. "Only she's never sung any of these songs, and she's slightly less crazy than she is in real life. So, it will feel very familiar at the same time as being a crazy alternate universe."
Ahead of the February 4 performance, Ashley dished more on what people can expect from the show, what we can learn from divas and Liza's roles that could---and maybe should---have been.
This interview has been edited for content and length.
TF: The show is a follow-up to "LIZA (ON AN E)." What were you hoping to explore with Liza this time around that you hadn't gotten to before?
TA: For me, this was a chance for Liza to perform all the roles I wished that she had done at some point--- those big leading lady Broadway diva roles that passed her by, or, as she says in the show, the roles she turned down. It was [Patti] LuPone's "Coulda Woulda Shoulda" that inspired it, and I thought, I want this to be a Liza "what if" show.
TF: This is, without a doubt, one of my favorite show titles ever. How did you land on it?
TA: Sadly, I can't take all the credit. I had written some kind of status about her on my Facebook and people started workshopping titles for my next show as comments underneath. My friend Kyle Minall, who is a comedian in Melbourne, wrote, "Liza's Back! (Is Broken)" and I thought it was too funny not to use.
TF: Do you have a moment from the show you're most excited for people to see?
TA: There are a couple, but my favorite to perform is "Send in the Clowns," which I do while chain-smoking. It's hard to explain, but when you see it, you'll know why I love doing it.
TF: The concept of performing songs Liza didn't sing but might've is really interesting. Exploring this sort of alternate reality career also gives you a bit of distance from the real Liza. Was that a factor, or was it purely a storytelling decision?
TA: In LIZA (ON AN E), I had sung the majority of her catalog; I think I sang one Lady Gaga song and the rest was pure her, or parodies. I feel like this is the smarter show because I get to create a complete fantasy and also hopefully conjure her spirit rather than be a direct impersonation. So. yes, it's fun to play with a concept like this, but I do feel she becomes more of her own character this way, and less like the real Liza.
TF: It's been teased that you explore what it would be like if she'd played Maria in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, Norma Desmond in SUNSET BOULEVARD, and Grizabella in CATS. Jumping off from that last one, what is your favorite "memory" from the real Liza's career?
TA: The Radio City Music Hall concert. It is perfection. The act one on the bare stage alone and then act two with all those girls? Oh my god, it's my favorite thing it's the best concert she ever did. "Quiet Love" (the Charles Aznavour song about a deaf lover) is still just incredible. Do yourself a favor and watch it again!
TF: Can you tell me one other role that wasn't meant to be that you think Liza would've nailed, whether it's one you tip your hat to in the show or not?
TA: I think she would have been a great Witch in INTO THE WOODS. "Last Midnight" would have killed, don't you think? I don't do that in the show, but it would certainly be one I'd love to do. The other (which I do a part of in the show) is SUNSET BOULEVARD. She would have brought a brilliantly tragic old-Hollywood essence to it. I can really see her whole performance in my head.
TF: I read that you worked with arrangers who helped you "Liza-ize" some of the songs you selected. Is there a common thread in what it means to "Liza-ize" a number?
TA: Well, the biggest thread is Kander and Ebb. She was their muse and the vast majority of songs she used to sing were theirs, and even if they weren't, Fred directed her and John arranged them, so they always had that flavor. That was certainly our jumping off point for re-arranging musical classics to sound like the way she would have sung them. For example, we used "But The World Goes Round" as a basis for "Memory." It's not a mashup at all, just the style and feel and those Bill LaVorgna drums.
TF: You channeled a number of divas in I'M EVERY WOMAN, but this one is Liza, Liza, and more Liza. Do you find one more challenging than the other: quickly changing gears or staying in one character for a much longer period?
TA: In I'M EVERY WOMAN, I changed character about 12 times, but I was always myself in between. That was always easy to drop character and go back to myself--- like a reset button! When I'm one diva all night I enjoy it more because I feel like I get under her skin further. And I do feel like that the more I am immersed, oddly, more of myself comes through. When I sing "Cabaret" near the end, I honestly do feel deep down, that joy and optimism that she seemed to have every time. It's a little spooky.
TF: What kind of inspiration do you think you draw from divas like Liza and Shirley Bassey, whether in your career or just in your everyday life?
TA: Their resilience. Their love of what they do. The pure, unadulterated joy that leaps out at you when they're singing. I feel the same, and I have such a huge amount of respect for those ladies and what they have achieved. I hope I continue to draw that kind of energy for the rest of my life.
TF: Does it feel extra special making your New York debut with this particular show, since Liza has such a history here?
TA: Yes, absolutely. Fear, also. I want to get it so right, as I know that there will be lifelong friends and fans of this woman whom I so admire. Because truly, as funny and ridiculous the show is, it wouldn't work without respect for her and her talent. But yes, this is extra special. It's her hometown.
Troy Frisby is an entertainment writer and digital news producer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @TroyFrisby.