Meet Mary Fons - Liza’s long-lost daughter
Alert the tabloids: Chicago actor and writer Mary Fons has a secret she’s been holding onto for a long time: She is legendary actor, singer and jewelry entrepreneur Liza Minnelli’s long-forgotten daughter who, having inherited her mother’s "Broadway baby" singing and dancing chops, is laying it all on the line for a chance to bring her act to the New York stage.
Or is she?
Fons is happy to maintain an air of mystery in the new show she created and stars in: "Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter", produced by the Neo-Futurists, the Windy City’s own famously entertaining, rarely predictable theater troupe. The production tells the story of Mary, who is grappling with some serious questions about her family tree through song, dance and drama. The show, in true Minnelli fashion, also features two sexy dancing men (Donnell Williams and Joseph Schupach) on the stage and is playing through the start of Pride Month, Saturday, June 4, 2011.
Shortly before the show began its run, EDGE spoke with Fons about what inspired her new show, playing now at the Neo-Futurarium.
A Liza look-alike
EDGE: What inspired you to create this production and take on the role, yourself, of Liza Minnelli’s daughter?
Mary Fons: I’ve had the idea for years, since I was in college. My friend Will and I were in New York in a casting and someone had told me, ’Oh my God, you look just like Liza! Just like her!’ I’ve had so many experiences in my life where strangers would tell me that while I was in a store or even just walking down the street. I bear a striking resemblance to her when she was young, before she was in and out of rehab five times in one year.
I became a Neo-Futurist in 2005 and our ensemble members pitch their ideas for the prime-time shows, while the ensemble decides what gets green-lighted. This show got green-lighted two years ago -- I proposed it, it was selected and I began writing a script last summer in earnest. I had gotten into the LaMaMa theater retreat in Italy, came back and worked on it some more. My director Sonja Moser, my artistic mentor, told me she was moving to Illinois and I asked her to direct. She has been integral to putting this show together.
EDGE: How did your Neo-Futurist buddies respond to the show when you pitched it?
Mary Fons: They already knew about it since I’d been talking about it and they thought it was great. They always knew it would be very fabulous in the truest sense of the word. Aside from who she is, with Club 54, Warhol and the New York City late 1970s era, they knew enough about her to know that she meant a lot to me. The show is fabulous with lots of sequins and is very visually incredible. The show is very sexy and was never just a one-woman show. It’s very hard to sell and I never wanted to do one. Carrie Fisher can do it, but some actors just can’t.
Doing it for Liza
EDGE: Do you remember the first time you saw or learned of the actual Liza? What was your initial reaction?
Mary Fons: The first time was when I saw her in "Cabaret" on network TV. I think I was 14 and my sister and friends were like, "Oh my God, who is that? That looks just like you, Mary!" We were transfixed. There’s an awkwardness to Liza, and I say that with eternal devotion and love, that I have too. There’s a lip shape, they don’t quite meet when you close your mouth; a gangliness, but you’re not really skinny. She has this very unique beauty that I’ve always thought was beautiful. And I thought it was pretty cool that people were identifying me with someone in theater.
EDGE: I think one reason why Liza is such an iconic figure is because she has a well-documented dark side, of substance abuse and other issues, too. Is that a presence felt in this show?
Mary Fons: I have a dark side too, and in one of the scenes in the show, I deal with a couple of things, not addiction but compulsion. I didn’t drink for years and years and I do now, but for seven years I didn’t touch it because I was afraid I had issues and couldn’t trusted around it. I identify with that. There’s a seen where Judy [Garland] makes an appearance and it’s a pretty meta-theatrical. When I’m talking to Judy, who is played by Donnell Williams, I have this opportunity to ask her about the whole drug addiction thing and taking the edge off.
That’s a big part of the show and the big climax of act two is when things start to unravel. We turn the stage into a club, Studio 54 basically with a fog machine and some fabulous Madonna playing and the whole audience gets up and dances with us. In that scene, I basically freak out and it’s very Liza. Another aspect of the darkness is the prevalence of illness in her life, which I have experienced too. I talk about that similarity. I’ve always said this is a darkly comic piece of theater.
EDGE: The show’s synopsis reads that you, as Liza’s daughter, dream of bringing your show to New York. It reminds me, in a way, of the story of Little Edie from ’Grey Gardens.’ Besides Liza’s story, where else would you say you derived inspiration for this work?
Mary Fons: I think we’re having this cultural moment where we’re dealing with truth in entertainment. Mary Karr, who wrote the book "Liars Club," said in a YouTube interview that we’re not living in a time of great fiction. This is a time of great non-fiction. The best stuff you read or watch is all quite "real," but is still fudging the truth. Because what is truth anyway? It’s always up for debate, but we are craving that right now in our culture.
I think all that has been bubbling for me. As a Neo-Futurist, we don’t play characters but we are really telling our own stories. I hope the truth and fiction are really blurred in this show and I hope that I’m riding this moment in a way that will make the show interesting to those who see it. I hope there are people, at least one or two, who will leave the theater with the tiniest doubt -- she’s saying she’s not really Liza’s daughter, right?
EDGE: What have been some of the biggest challenges you’ve endured in putting this show together?
Mary Fons: Writing a full-length play that is solidly good is very difficult. It’s like a machine because it has to have certain moving parts. It’s challenging. In addition to that, I sing and dance and I love to do both but when you’re doing it for people who paid admission, I’ve been taking lessons from Mark Elliot at DePaul. He’s been able to help me find my inner chanteuse. I’m singing the shit out of these songs, which I was so afraid to do because I was never a singer, I was always an actor. I had to release all that doubt and B.S. and insecurity. As for the dancing, I love it but we’re doing very Fosse-esque dancing and that is a lot of hours of rehearsal.
I know it sounds like I’m making it up or was coached to say this, but the whole purpose of this show, and I say this in the opening monologue, is to actually do it for Liza. To get such great reviews and attendance that we get produced in New York and take it there to do it for her. That’s always been the goal. I can tell you honestly I am satisfied, though, because I’ve wanted to do this for so long, that even if the show ends in Chicago on June 4. I am happy because it has been so much hard work and so much fun that I can make a check mark on the dream show I’ve already done. That’s the truth.
"Playing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter" runs through June 4 with shows Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. at the Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland. Visit www.neofuturists.org for tickets and more information.
Watch this preview of "Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter":