February 2, 1925– Elaine Stritch is one of my favorite show biz figures and my Doppelgänger. I wish that she was still here. I grieved something terrible on that summer day in 2014 when news of Stritch’s final curtain call came through on that Internet thing. I was sad because she is a favorite at my house, but as I played her albums that afternoon, I decided to celebrate her long life in show biz and ease up on the tears. Nearly 70 years of terrific performances is an awesome accomplishment. At just a bit more than 60 years old myself, it would be the equivalent of putting on a show my whole life.
I had read reviews of her very well received one-person show, At Liberty (2002), and although I didn’t get a chance to see it, I purchased the double CD of the show. The Husband lit a fire in the fireplace, I mixed some cocktails, and we stretched out on the sofa and listened to this fabulous woman tell stories and sing songs from that business we call show. We laughed and laughed and cried from laughing, and then just cried.
In autumn 1971, I saw Stritch in the original cast of the Stephen Sondheim/George Furth landmark musical Company (actually Dean Jones had left the show to be replaced by Larry Kert, who was replaced by George Chakaris, but the rest of the cast was intact). In Company, Stritch originated the role of the classy, brassy Joanne, a cocktail swilling 50-something who is a bit of a personal hero to me. In the early 1990s, I was in the final call-backs for this role. I actually don’t believe in fiddling around with or directors “concepting” plays that are not yet in the public domain, but I lost my head and against my own strongly held opinions, I was flattered into the possibility of playing Joanne in an all-male cast of Company at a gay themed theatre company. I didn’t need to agonize about my decision. Before casting was completed, Sondheim had served the theatre group with a cease and desist order, stating that Furth (the writer of the book) and Sondheim never intended or wished for their piece to be performed by an all-male cast. I was Sorry/Grateful.
When I saw the groundbreaking Company in 1971, I felt that I had never encountered such a commanding performance, star wattage, steamroller of talent as Stritch in any of my young theatre going experiences. I became obsessed with Stritch and my adoration has never wavered through the decades.
Stritch’s career began in the 1940s. She made several film appearances, including the demented Who Killed Teddy Bear? (1965) opposite Sal Mineo, and Woody Allen’s September (1987), but Stritch was most at home working on the stage in musicals, plays and solo cabaret acts. She gave her all with her whiskey, smoky voice and her “been there-done that” demeanor and her crusty charisma.
Stritch was blunt, cynical, and didn’t suffer fools gladly, and she admitted to being fond of smoking, boozing and partying. She finally gave up cigarettes and drinking in her 60s, when she was diagnosed with diabetes, but she returned to enjoying an occasional cocktail in her 80s.
“I drink, and I love to drink, and it is a part of my life. I’m almost 89, I’m gonna have a drink or two a day. I know how to handle it, so there.”
She embodied her own stinging, sharp acerbic personality in the characters she played. Noël Coward was one of Stritch’s biggest fans, and he created the musical Sail Away (1961) just for her. She played the sly, dry, witty hostess of a cruise ship, where she sang the deliciously snooty Why Do The Wrong People Travel?, my favorite song in Stritch’s repertoire.
Sondheim gave her the formidable vodka-soaked anthem The Ladies Who Lunch, her signature tune until, in her 70s, when she adopted Sondheim’s ode to showbiz survival, I’m Still Here.
Stritch is at her Stritchiest best in her deeply personal At Liberty. In my favorite section, she gives a knowing glimpse at her backstage theatre life, as she hysterically recounts how in 1952 she served as the understudy for Ethel Merman in the Irving Berlin musical Call Me Madam on Broadway at the same time that she had a featured role in a revival of Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey playing in New Haven. She also tells tales of the people she mingled with: Coward, Judy Garland, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Gig Young, Ben Gazzara, Hal Prince, Sondheim, Rock Hudson; and her disappointments both personal and professional (“I blew my audition for The Golden Girls!“). At Liberty is more of a monologue than a musical performance, but she does perform some of her signature songs. The show won a Tony Award in 2002 for Special Theatrical Event, but Stritch’s triumph was tempered when she was not allowed to complete her acceptance speech at the ceremony, an awkward moment I will never forget.
She closes At Liberty with one of my favorite songs, Something Good, from the film version of The Sound Of Music (1965). Stritch sings it full of genuine, quiet gratitude. This CD is an absolutely essential in the library of every Musical Theatre fan.
Stritch was one of the major interrupters of the songs of Sondheim. She made her final Broadway appearance in the 2010 revival of A Little Night Music, replacing Angela Lansbury as the ancient Madame Armfeldt. It was a role that gave her the opportunity to sing Sondheim once more with the rueful Liaisons, an aching ode to past love affairs.
In her last decade, Stritch gave audiences the pleasure of her company with her Emmy winning performances on 30 ROCK, as the mother dearest to Alec Baldwin. Their scenes together are like heaven to me. Take a look at Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013) an unflinchingly honest documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa, produced by Baldwin.
My favorite Stritch anecdote, and there are many: After a long night of drinking in a hotel room with pal Judy Garland, the sun was finally coming up and finally Garland turned to Stritch and said:
“Elaine, I never thought I’d say this… but goodnight.”