When Liliane Montevecchi was a little girl growing up in Paris, her mother used to point at “keep off” fences surrounding the grass in the park and say, "Go over the fence, because the grass is cleaner there."
So, with Maman’s approval, Montevecchi learned to climb over barriers to the cleaner, greener side of life. This included a career as a ballerina in Paris, performing in MGM musicals in Hollywood, guest appearances on numerous TV shows (including one Emmy nomination), a Tony Award winning performance on Broadway, her own one-woman show On the Boulevard, and being the “host” of Teatro ZinZanni’s shows, including the current All Dressed Up With Someplace To Go.
Chatting with the chic Montevecchi over coffee, it’s obvious that the lady has always had her eye on new destination. “I never could say ‘no’ to a job,” shrugs Montevecchi, when explaining how she traveled from Paris to Hollywood to New York and back again for more than fifty years.
It all began in World War II, a dark period for Parisians but an exciting one for a little girl who longed for an excuse to get out of classes at school. “I loved it when I heard the sirens, because it meant we would go down into the cellar and hide there. For me, it was thrilling. For the adults, of course, my mother and father, it was a very hard time.”
In ballet, the adventurous little girl found a natural outlet for her energy. As a teenager, she auditioned and was accepted into the conservatory at the Opéra-Comique. “I was in the same year as Bridgette Bardot,” she recalled. By age 18, she had joined the Roland Petit Ballets as a prima ballerina.
“Four years ago, I returned to Paris to do my show at the Opéra-Comique. It was so moving. That was where I started my career, on that stage at the age of 14, auditioning for the conservatory,” Montevecchi said.
In the decades between that audition and her return to the Opéra-Comique, Montevecchi built a career based upon moments of saying “yes” to every opportunity.
The work in Hollywood began when the ballet took her to New York. There she was scouted by MGM and invited to come out to Hollywood for a screen test. With encouragement from the mother who told her to climb over the fence in the park, Montevecchi decided to move to Hollywood and see what would happen. That decision led to roles in MGM's 1950s musicals including Elvis Presley's King Creole.
Years of more movie roles and TV appearances followed, but eventually Montevecchi was ready to leave California for France.
“I was heading home, to Paris, when I stopped in New York,” and that pause in Montevecchi’s travels led to casting in Nine as Liliane LeFleur, a role that won her a Tony in 1982. Her director in Nine, Tommy Tune, cast her again as Elizaveta Grushinskaya in the Broadway musical version of Grand Hotel, a show that earned her another Tony nomination.
“Tommy likes to rehearse in very funny places,” Montevecchi said. “One time, we were using this space where the roof leaked. So when it rained, we rehearsed with umbrellas.”
These days, Montevecchi is performing in an antique cabaret tent imported from Belgium, entertaining the supper crowds at Teatro ZinZanni with a mix of comedy, torch songs, and even a ballet stretch or two.
“Ooh, I have a great adoration for them,” she said. “The tent is divine, and the people come there because you can be a child again in this place. It’s such a pleasure.”
Playing a French fashion designer called Liliane, Montevecchi spars throughout the evening with her rival Caesar (comedian Frank Ferrante) as the pair prepare for a final showdown of haute couture.
“Frank is so funny, and the rest of the cast is wonderful to work with. It’s just love, love, love,” she said. “That’s why this theater is so successful and I keep coming back. It’s always love I find here.”
If Montevecchi has one quibble with the show, it’s that she doesn’t have enough costume changes. Her dresses, designed by real-life Seattle fashion icon Luly Yang, are beautiful, she said, but added with a smile: “I would to like to change every few minutes. When I was a little girl, my mother used to make me a new dress every day. She was a designer herself, she worked with very famous people, making hats, and I knew many of the designers working in Paris then. I remember when Christian Dior gave me the first bottle of one of his perfumes…I used to go around saying ‘oh he made this for me.’ Now I’m playing a fashion designer. For me, fashion has always been part of my life.”
One thing that hasn’t become a part of her life is saying “no” to a job. After ZinZanni's show ends in October, Montevecchi will head to Europe for a winter of performances and then back to the US. “I’m booked to play A Little Night Music at Opera St. Louis. I’ve always wanted to do that. I also want to do Auntie Mame and Sunset Boulevard.”
One suspects that this Paris original will find someplace to go for those roles as well. After all, why stop looking for better places to play when you’re having as much fun saying "yes" as Montevecchi?
This article originally appeared on Examiner.com.