'Family,' Liza Minnelli and 'Cabaret'
Burbank, California—Thirty years ago, ABC premiered a somber drama called Family. Available for the first time on DVD, the Mike Nichols production introduced the Lawrence bunch of Pasadena, California, in sharp stories about divorce, alcoholism and dealing with a loved one's death. The program nursed a roster of talented artists, including directors Randal Kleiser (Grease) and Mark Rydell (On Golden Pond) and writer and producer Marshall Herskovitz (Blood Diamond).

The hit series (1976-1980), executive produced by Leonard Goldberg and Aaron Spelling, holds up remarkably well in retrospect. Each remastered episode begins with a stark piano theme by John Rubinstein (who played Jeff), and features a character-driven plot, usually accompanied by a subplot that dovetails to the main theme. The show depicts a flexible yet stable family that adopts a rational approach to conflict. This being TV, problems are disproportionate but Family is realistic.

Dad Doug Lawrence (the late James Broderick, actor Matthew's father) and his wife, Kate (Sada Thompson), offer stern guidance and understanding to the children, older Nancy (Elayne Heilveil, later replaced by Meredith Baxter Birney), high school dropout Willie (Gary Frank) and Letitia (Kristy McNichol), a tomboy who rides a boys' bike and goes by the nickname Buddy.

Looking back, this highly recommended show still provokes thought, emotion and laughter, especially in Kleiser's poignant "A Right and Proper Goodbye" starring Mildred Natwick as the maternal grandmother and in "A Point of Departure," which explores Willie's relationship with his father. Without the attention-deficit defects of today's nonstop TV noise and special effects, this is solid, engrossing drama for everyone except young kids.

Family was created by the always engaging writer Jay Presson Allen, a woman who wrote screenplays for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Alfred Hitchcock's Marnie, Ira Levin's Deathtrap and the 1976 remake of A Star Is Born.

She also wrote the script for Bob Fosse's Cabaret, released in 1972, the same year that Liza Minnelli's Liza with a 'Z' aired on NBC. Having heard raves about this one-hour television special (the first of its kind) for years, it was an experience to finally watch the program on Showtime's new Collector's Edition DVD. Inside a thick, glittering case is Chicago producer Craig Zadan's notes, an audio soundtrack of the scintillating show—which would probably never be broadcast today—and the DVD.

The performance is spectacular. Miss Minnelli, daughter of Judy Garland and director Vincente Minnelli (The Band Wagon), took the stage at Broadway's Lyceum Theater a few weeks shy of the third anniversary of her legendary mother's drug overdose. She was only 26—but she belted them out, one by one, with incredible power and poise in an outstanding show that visibly wowed the audience.

Fosse's genius is on display in backbreaking dance routines to songs by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Billie Holiday and George Gershwin. Liza is truly sensational—pounding out "My Mammy" and a medley from Cabaret—and triumphantly asserting her own identity in the breathtaking title tune.

Liza with a 'Z' also includes interviews with Chicago and Cabaret composer John Kander, a cable documentary about Liza—with several stars participating—and a performance clip from a gay awards show. The thorough restoration includes recovery of a long-lost, never-before-seen number that Fosse cut from the final program, Cabaret's "Mein Herr".

If Liza with a 'Z' showcases Liza the star, director Bob Fosse's Cabaret seals the deal. Oscar's Best Actress winner for 1972 portrays a black-clad Kit Kat Club performer named Sally Bowles. The cast includes Michael York as an innocent British visitor to Weimar-era Berlin, Joel Grey (whom Fosse wanted to replace) as the master of ceremonies and model Marisa Berenson as a Jew in love with a German aristocrat.

Sally struts and vamps to Fosse's distinctive choreography as the picture frames the insidious rise of totalitarianism in a civilized country. With hedonists as a contrast, scurrying into the seedy, smoke-filled lounge, Kander and Ebb's songs—the classic Money tune, "Maybe This Time," and Liza Minnelli smacking down the title song—cue the prelude to the holocaust.

Fosse captures the complicity of an entire nation in a powerful single scene, as a fresh-faced, blond vocalist goes from sweet bird of youth to someone spewing hatred for happiness. By the time the swastikas are branded everywhere, the players have had every type of sex, alcohol and abortion—an orgy on the eve of extermination—with nothing but a dictatorship to show for it, leaving Cabaret more relevant than ever.


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