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Choosy Cher returns to screen in 'Burlesque'

Cher performs a song called “Alive Again,” which appeared on her “Living Proof” album. A portion of the lyrics go like this:   “I just wanna breathe again; like a summer’s day I need to feel the heat again.” Many of her fans probably relate. Cher stars in the new musical “Burlesque,” in which she plays a cabaret owner who helps a young woman pursue her goal of becoming a practi
/ Source: TODAY contributor

Cher performs a song called “Alive Again,” which appeared on her “Living Proof” album. A portion of the lyrics go like this:  

“I just wanna breathe again; like a summer’s day I need to feel the heat again.”

Many of her fans probably relate. Cher stars in the new musical “Burlesque,” in which she plays a cabaret owner who helps a young woman pursue her goal of becoming a practitioner of the bawdy art form. But this is her first film role since the Farrelly brothers’ comedy “Stuck on You” in 2003.

Where’s she been?

After all, movie stars are supposed to make movies. And this is an Oscar winner — for “Moonstruck” in 1988 — who was also nominated for “Silkwood” in ’84, and who has graced the big screen in films like “Mask” and “The Witches of Eastwick.”

A clue to her recent whereabouts can be found in another song she sings called “The Music’s No Good Without You,” in which the chorus ends with the words, “Come back to me.”

That’s what she does. A major reason why Cher isn’t in more films is because she’s too busy entertaining live audiences.

“I think live performances are more satisfying for her because she can get feedback from audiences,” explained Doriana Sanchez, who has been directing and choreographing Cher’s stage shows for the past 24 years. Cher spotted her in the film “Dirty Dancing” (she was the polka-dot dress girl) and asked for dance lessons. They’ve worked together ever since.

“She has great fun performing live,” Sanchez said. “But I know she also enjoys making films a lot. I think the reason she hasn’t made one in a while is because nothing that has been presented has been right for her.”

Enter “Burlesque,” a passion project that director Steven Antin has been shepherding along for the past few years. Cher plays Tess, a retired dancer and theater owner who is struggling to keep her burlesque joint alive. Christina Aguilera plays an aspiring performer who is given a waitressing job by Tess and then begins the journey to become a featured dancer.

“Tess is a woman who has been a salt-of-the-earth lady,” Antin said. “She’s had many lives, she’s been, as Cher has said, ‘I’ve been rich. I’ve been poor. Rich is better.’ That speaks to Tess, who has struggled throughout much of her life to keep the burlesque lounge together.

“The character is so close to who Cher is in so many ways. She’s the matriarch of the club. And she has created a life and a career for herself. Cher has done that so many times in her very long career. She can sing, dance, and she’s a great actress.”

Antin said he wanted Cher for the part from the very start. But “it was a very long process,” involving many meetings with studio executives, producers, with Cher’s managers, and ultimately with Cher herself.

“She is really, really, really choosy,” the director said. “She’s done it all already. She wanted to be sure it was 100 percent the right thing for her.

“There was a lot of convincing to do.”

Cher is 64, and has only appeared in six films since her Oscar-winning turn in 1987 as Loretta in “Moonstruck” opposite Nicolas Cage. Chances are it will not be her name that drives ticket sales but that of Aguilera, making her feature-film debut as an actress.

But Kim Masters, editor-at-large for the Hollywood Reporter and host of the radio show “The Business” on KCRW, believes Cher's music-making presence will help “Burlesque” because it will appeal to her base.

“Obviously Cher hasn't had a starring role in a movie for many years,” Masters noted. “For some segments of the audience, she is an icon but at this point more as a star than a movie star.

“This is the first role that calls upon her to sing on-screen, so her fans will turn out for her. Whether a broader audience will want to see the movie depends on good word-of-mouth.”

Newsweek: Reasons not to hate 'Burlesque'

And if there is one constituency that has remained faithful, it is the one comprised of fans who attend her stage show. She has been performing at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas on and off for the past three years. The engagement there ends in February of 2011, but then Cher plans a tour with a whole new show.

“She loves to perform,” Sanchez said. “She loves her audience. Everything we do in the show is geared toward her fans. She knows what the fans want to see — lots of costume changes and fabulous hair. She always says, ‘Go big or go home.’

“I think that if a Cher fan comes to the show and brings a non-Cher fan, by the end of the show that person is completely enamored with her and is a new Cher fan. That’s how great she is. There’s only one of her.”

What Antin and the producers of “Burlesque” are hoping for is that all the magic she is known for on stage will translate onto the screen, and the experience will be somewhat like getting the best of both Cher worlds.

“What’s great about Cher in ‘Burlesque’? You get vintage Cher,” Antin promised. “You get what you hope for. She really hits it out of the park as a character. We all want vintage, classic Cher. You get a modern version of that.”

Cher was the first to record the song “Take Me Home,” in 1979. Some of the lyrics go like this:

“Take me home, take me home, with you is where I wanna be.”

It appears that, even though Cher takes extended breaks from Hollywood, she and her fans continue to repeat those words to each other.

Said Antin: “I don’t think there’s ever been a time in Cher’s life when she hasn’t worked.”

Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.