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Michael Musto

Lorna Luft: 'My Journey Isn't Cancer, It's Bloomingdales!'

Lorna Luft: 'My Journey Isn't Cancer, It's Bloomingdales!'

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Also: “Yes, I dated Barry Manilow”

No one sells a song like Lorna Luft. Having seen Lorna perform multiple times through the years, I can attest to her power, her vitality, and the fact that she turns a tune inside out with a full-throttle belt laced with loving care. The daughter of Judy Garland and Sid Luft and the half sister of Liza Minnelli makes her mark every time she opens her mouth and fills the room with soulful singing backed by rousing showmanship. And she's such a trouper that she's beaten cancer with recent surgery and quickly bounced back to sing some more. In fact, Lorna is going to perform at Feinstein's/54 Below on January 6th and 8th, which gave me a great chance to give the gal a ring and gab a lot.

Hello, Lorna. We love you and are so proud of you after your cancer surgery.

That means a great deal to me. I feel OK. It was a rough surgery because there was just so much of it. There were so many things they had to do, but I'm cancer free and I can put down my battle gear finally after three years. Probably the hardest work I've ever done in my life is getting back on the stage. I performed in New York on my birthday in November and then I went to London and did 10 shows in two weeks.

With the I.V. in your arm, practically!

If it had to have been, I would have decorated it with some glitter. [laughs] I said, "I have a goal and I want to do this." I felt sort of like a racehorse and I could have come up lame or crossed the finish line, and I crossed the finish line. I never worked so hard, because they took away parts--like seven ribs and part of my chest walls and my sternum, and I had a mastectomy and they took out two tumors the size of golf balls and then they had to put me back together again. They had to take my lateral muscle from the back to the front. My back's on my front now!

You're like a Picasso painting. You should have been the scarecrow in The Wiz.

I make jokes like that in my show. You've got to laugh at all this. You've got to find the funny in everything. I just did a show for Scott Nevins called Sparkle. All my surgeons were in the audience. They stood up when I came onstage. They said, "You did it."

I never doubted you'd go right back to performing and that you'd fulfill your Feinstein's/54 Below gig. That's in you.

I don't think it's something you're born with. I think my ability to want to do this was triggered by fear, and I thought, "If I don't do this--if I don't know--that's gonna be the tripping line. I've got to know I can still do this." I called David Sabella, the vocal coach, and he said, "We've got to retrain you how to breathe all over again", because I was in my pain with my chest. I did Skype with him three days a week and worked with physical therapists every single day. I had a goal and I worked really hard at that goal. Having close friends and family in London when I walked on that stage, it was overwhelming and humbling. A great, great event for me.

I didn't realize your musician husband Colin Freeman was a Limey.

Yes, he's a Brit. We met 23 years ago. We put new things together that will be done at 54 Below. It made me have a goal because when I first started to sing again, I thought, "I don't know if I can do this." Colin said, "Do a little bit every day. We're gonna build." This was really "testing 1-2- 3" for me. When I was re-diagnosed, I was clear and had been through four months of chemotherapy and had done radiation and was good to go. You go through that celebratory experience and 18 months later, it comes back! I was taken out at the knees from this. The first time, it was all about putting on my war paint and the second time, I was just angry--really, really angry. Dr. David Agus said, "It's OK to be angry, but let's focus it in a positive way and not a negative way that's going to make you shut down." He's a big cancer doctor who's taken care of people like Robin Quivers, Lance Armstrong, and so many others. He's my quarterback. He found all my oncologists. When I was re-diagnosed and I was hysterical, he said, "You've got to calm down because if you have a heart attack, I look like a bad doctor." He made me laugh. He said, "We're gonna fix it." He gives a beautiful holiday party for all his scientists at USC and he asked me to be the speaker. I can get up and talk about show business stories, but to talk to 200 scientists was really overwhelming and humbling. Many of them said, "You're the face that we never see. We're looking through microscopes all day long at cells. We never get to see who we've saved." I said, "I'm here to thank you. Your work is living proof that what you're doing is right."

Your childhood, as you've described, sometimes involved incidents literally on a window ledge. Does living on the edge prepare you for something like this?

That's a good question. I don't think anything prepares you for something like this. My childhood was a pretty good rollercoaster. I've interestingly referred to cancer as a ride, not a journey, because a journey is something I can choose to go on, and my journey is Bloomingdale's and not this. I've been on a ride of highs and devastatingly lows, but the thing it didn't prepare me for is a lot of people have fears in their lives, like airplanes or elevators. My fear was doctors ever since I was a kid. When my mom or whatever had to take me to a pediatrician, I flipped out. Now I've faced my biggest fear and thought I can face anything. That's something that's built into me, to face your fear. It was so amazing last night. I'm in Seattle. My son was flipping around on the television and says, "Mom, come in!" My mom's Christmas show was on. I looked at my son and grandchild and thought, "Wow, do we have a lot of stories to tell you! There's grandma growing up."

Did you enjoy TV tapings as a kid?

I did, because for me it was my normal. I didn't know anything else. It's not like I grew up in the Smith family and Judy Garland adopted me. I had nothing to compare it to.

Let's talk about your later career. Flamboyant producer Allan Carr really believed in you, didn't he?

I loved Allan. I loved his enthusiasm and his love of show business. I love that he was from Chicago and he created a larger than life character for himself. And all the parties he threw and people he managed and things he accomplished were kind of extraordinary. He loved the industry so much that it was infectious. Every breath he took was about show business. He was very, very good to me. We'd have our ups and sometimes downs. I got him to a major confrontation when he wanted me to play Snow White [on the 1989 Oscars, opposite Rob Lowe] and I said no. He said, "You're gonna sing this and sing that and the great thing is, no one's gonna know it's you." I thought, "If I'm gonna be on the Academy Awards, why would I want no one to know it's me?"

In this case, you'd be surprised.

Well, he had shown me the set and asked "Can you sing in this cartoon voice?" which I could. To open the Academy Awards was exciting, but there was something that said "Don't do this." I called him and said "I can't do this" and he flipped on me. And then of course watching it, I was sitting with a dear friend of mine, who said, "Do you know where we would be right now if you'd done this? We'd be in the ambulance going to Cedars because you would have jumped out the window." I'm sure you've had those career moments where you turn something down and end up looking up in the sky and saying "Thank you."

So many times! But while Allan's movies Grease 2 and Where The Boys Are '84 were disappointing vehicles, were they gratifying to work on?

We had a great time. Grease 2 has now become this big cult hit that no one expected. They're doing it onstage in the UK. There's a whole generation of Grease 2 fans, and I'm glad I was a part of something that led to fantastic friendships. Grease 2 was a fun film to make, to work with Allan, Robert Stigwood, Patricia Birch, Louis St. Louis, and all the people. I got to work with Eve Arden, and what a treasure that was for me. And Dody Goodman and Sid Caesar--some of the most incredible talent we've ever had. Michelle Pfeiffer was incredibly kind.

Did you really write in your book that you once had an affair with Barry Manilow?

He's like my brother. He's the closest person in my life to me outside of my immediate family, and Barry and I dated, yeah. I met Barry in 1972 when I went to see this unknown force named Bette Midler. I literally just stared at him because he was this incredibly talented musician. Call me wacky, but singers and musicians go hand in hand. Over the years, we've stayed really close. He's the angel. He found me my doctors when I got sick.

But wait a minute! I'm thinking this was something on the order of your sister Liza and Peter Allen.

Peter was a wonderful talent and person in our family. He was my brother-in-law. I have a different view of Peter than a lot of other people. He was my brother, protector, he was kind and extraordinarily funny. People will have their view. I didn't see The Boy From Oz because the Peter that Hugh Jackman was onstage was not the Peter I knew. I think Hugh Jackman most likely did a spectacular job maybe in portraying the entertainer, but it wasn't the Peter that was my friend and protector. When people bring up Peter, I have to remind them that "You're talking to a member of my family." I still talk to his sister Lynne in Australia. He was such a great part of my growing up. He was a rock for me at times.

In Michael Feinstein's act, he talks about being there the last time Liza and Peter saw each other. Peter said to Michael, "Take care of her." What's your relationship with Liza like these days?

Fine. I talked to her last night. We're great.

Would you like to do a Broadway show?

Yeah, as long as the vehicle I'm presented with makes sense for me, I'd love to do that. But this industry right now is a little bit going in a way that is disturbing to me, especially in the television world, in the sense that directors are asking for people and the casting agents say "Who is that?" And the directors say, "They have all these followers on Twitter." But can they act? It doesn't matter anymore! I'm not against social media, but it scares me. The technological world is something I didn't grow up in. People say, "Do you tweet?" No, I don't. I'd feel really strange talking about myself that much. Maybe you want to call me old school, but I don't understand why somebody needs to say "I'm at Starbucks."

It's also weird that celebrities, who used to protect themselves, are announcing to the world, "I'm at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Come get me!"

It is weird. I grew up in this industry protected against all of that. You watch all these reality shows and you're putting yourself out there, and if you want to do that, that's fine, but you're shaking hands with the devil. When something happens and you want to go back and say "You should respect my privacy," no, that game is over. Some people I respect and I don't know anything about them, and that's who I love. I love when there's still a mystery. Meanwhile, I love the fact that Hamilton is extraordinary and people are going to see it, and this incredible talent of Mr. [Lin-Manuel] Miranda took a story and put it into hip hop and people are flooding to see American history. That to me is innovative and new and brilliant, and I love things like that. I have sometimes a little problem with all these revivals. Mind you, I love them. I'm pleased for my dear friends who are working in them.

But I get annoyed when a revival is done with huge budget cuts and the critics gush about how "revisionist" it is. Or when the actors have to play instruments.

I'm married to a musician, so I have a big problem with that. I don't want to put my husband out of work. If the orchestra gets up and starts doing Shakespeare, how's that gonna work? How about this: I won't play if you won't sing.


Damn, you're funnier than ever. See you at Feinstein's/54 Below!

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Michael Musto