June 15, 1987 12:00 PM

Outside Liza Minnelli’s dressing room the fragrance was overpowering. On this, the opening night of an unprecedented 17-performance run at Carnegie Hall, the dazzling bouquets overflowed the dressing room and spilled down the corridor. “I’ve never seen so many flowers,” marveled one backstage staffer. Nor has New York often seen such a star-studded audience as the one that turned out to welcome Liza, 41, back to town.

Lithe and sparkling in her Halston sequins, the Liza who swept out of the wings to a thundering standing ovation bore little resemblance to the one last seen by New York audiences three years ago in The Rink. Then, chubby and languorous from a 20-year struggle with drugs and booze, Liza could barely keep pace with co-star Chita Rivera, 13 years her senior. By July of that year, Liza had hit bottom and checked into the Betty Ford Center. “Lots of people say things can’t change,” Liza told the Carnegie Hall audience midway through her strenuous two-hour show. “I’m here to tell you they are wrong.”

“She was in control of her inflection and every note,” said CBS’ Diane Sawyer. Minnelli’s husband, Mark Gero, watched rapt from the orchestra and sang along on the show-stopping finale, New York, New York. “Nobody can sing that song like Liza,” said Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner. Only after a protracted standing ovation did the crowd begin heading to the party at a nearby hotel. Observed Sawyer, “This was one of those historic nights when the performer and the magic and the place all merge.”

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