Elaine Stritch (1923 – 2014)
“Why did I choose the career that I chose? I want to be talked about. I want to be written about. I want everything about me! And I don’t make any bones about that.”
Stritch is one of my favorite showbiz figures, plus she’s 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 was so glad that I had experienced her special something. 70 years of terrific performances is an awesome accomplishment. At just a bit more than 67-years-old myself, it would be the equivalent of putting on a show my whole life.
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, 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 don’t believe in directors fiddling around with or “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 Seattle 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 he never intended or wished for the musical to be performed by an all-male cast. I was Sorry/Grateful.
When I saw Company in 1971, I felt that I had never encountered such a commanding, star-wattage, steamroller of talent as Stritch in any of my young theatre going experiences. I became obsessed with Stritch and my adoration never wavered through the decades.
Stritch’s career began in the 1940s. She made several film appearances, including in Woody Allen‘s September (1987), but Stritch was most at home working on stage in musicals, plays and her solo cabaret acts. She gave her all with her whiskey, smoky voice and her “been there-done that” demeanor and crusty charisma.
Stritch was blunt, cynical, and didn’t suffer fools gladly. 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 when she was 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, she adopted Sondheim’s ode to showbiz survival, I’m Still Here.
Stritch is at her Stritchiest best in her deeply personal one-woman show, At Liberty. In it, she 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 most of her signature songs. It 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.
Stritch was one of the major interpreters 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.
Liaisons was the most difficult song I’ve ever done on the stage. I couldn’t wrap my arms around it. You know what Steve Sondheim said to me, which I found brilliant? I called him the night before I opened and said, ‘I can’t get ahold of this song. What should I do to give it a punch? To get me stopping the show. I only get one and a half songs’. His advice was: ‘At the end of the song, burp’. And I loved it. That’s it! Thank you, God—or Sondheim, whichever you prefer. At the end of the song, I burped and they went crazy. I gave it a shot and I did it from then on.
In her last decade, Stritch gave audiences the pleasure of her company with her Emmy Award-winning performances on 30 Rock (2006-13), as the mother dearest of Alec Baldwin. Their scenes together are like heaven to me.
Try and catch Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (2013) an unflinchingly honest documentary directed by Chiemi Karasawa, produced by Baldwin, available on HBO On Demand.
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 at last Garland turned to Stritch and said:
Elaine, I never thought I’d say this… but goodnight.