New Yorkers will tell you their sleep habits may have gotten even more disturbed in recent weeks, but an eerie silence has engulfed the city that never sleeps as it’s emerged as the biggest hotspot in the global pandemic. The streets are barren in one of the few American cities where they’re ever truly alive—but the city has bounced back from worse before.
“Theme From New York, New York” has served as one of the city’s unofficial anthems for decades. It’s a tribute to both the city’s eternal allure, and the resilience of those who call it home. While Frank Sinatra made it a commercial hit, it was originally written for his goddaughter Liza Minnelli as the title track for her 1977 film. Minnelli herself never ceded her ownership of the song. Back in 1986, she gave not only what is undoubtedly the definitive live performance of the anthem, but perhaps one of the greatest live performances in television history.
The occasion was Liberty Weekend, a days-long blowout to celebrate the recent restoration and centenary of the Statue of Liberty. All three major networks simulcasted the event, and everyone from Neil Diamond to Whitney Houston came out to perform. Sinatra himself appeared as well, but it was Minnelli who was chosen for the closing ceremony. The Oscar-winner has already had her fair share of ups and downs both professionally and personally, but she still retains the talents that made her legend. She’s an old-school live performer who knows how to play to the room, so you can only imagine what that means when she’s playing to a packed football stadium.
Never mind six feet apart, there was no one within sixty feet of Minnelli when she took the stage. There were no backup dancers, costume quick-changes, or elaborate pyrotechnic displays here. There was just a singer, some simple choreography, and, of course, a red beaded Halston jumpsuit.
Minnelli expertly controls the crowd’s excitement, but it’s when she seemingly finishes the song for the first time only to wave off the applause and launch directly back into it from the middle that things get taken to a rare level. Her delivery on the second-to-last “York” is the type of belting vocal gymnastics one rarely sees from any performer, let alone those from today. By the end, the entirety of the old Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., was on its feet chanting “Liza! Liza!” (For younger casual cultural consumers, the fact that the loopy lady from Arrested Development could ever command such adoration may be one of the clip’s shocks.)
While the performance certainly deserves more reverence in the pantheon of great football stadium live performances, it’s particularly uplifting for the spirit at this moment. Now more than ever, we need to watch someone belt out, “Come on, come through, New York, New York.” It’s also the kind of performance that reminds you that ultimately, the city will.