Saturday, July 19, 2014

Bawdy Broadway Baby: An Elaine Stritch Appreciation

Around 20 years ago, I was attending a book appearance and signing by Elaine Steinbeck at Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey. All was going swimmingly, as the widow of John Steinbeck, with easy humor rolling from her southern accent, effortlessly demonstrated why the Nobel laureate had fallen in love with her more than four decades before.

Then a gentleman from the audience, remarking on her very active social life, began a question: “As one of the ladies who lunch…”

I groaned as soon as I heard that last phrase. He might have meant it innocently. But Ms. Steinbeck, a longtime theater professional, was, I was sure, intimately familiar with what the phrase had come to mean after its use as the title of one of Stephen Sondheim’s songs in his 1970 musical Company: a clique of middle-aged women with plenty of money and time on their hands with nothing better to do than hurl zingers in between downing vodka stingers.

Sure enough, Ms. Steinbeck took umbrage at the thought that she would be a member of such a group. If her questioner wasn’t properly abashed after her pointed response, he had no emotional intelligence whatsoever.

Now, if another Elaine—Elaine Stritch, who passed away at age 89 this past Thursday—had heard the question, the fellow would have been lucky to make it out of the auditorium alive. “Stritchie,” as she was nicknamed, had already spent two decades in the theater when she entered Broadway legend as Joanne in Sondheim’s epochal show. She poured a lifetime of acid wit and one too many mornings of hung-over self-loathing into her much-married, seen-it-all, caustic character. When she commanded, at the end of the song, “Everybody rise,” everybody obeyed—then stopped the show with thunderous applause.

In the more than 40 years since that performance, countless actresses have played Joanne. But Stritch had long ago set the prototype for the character.

Stritch was a character in her own right, an actress who brought her own fire and mordant humor to every role she played. It’s easy to think that channeling that swagger came naturally.

Just how much it cost her was suggested by D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary on the recording of the original-cast album of Company. At the end of a marathon recording session, she continually, inexplicably muffed her interpretation of the song. Sondheim, Stritch, and record producer Thomas Z. Shepard could barely repress their exhaustion, stress, annoyance and embarrassment until Shepard told the actress to go home, sleep, and come back when she was rested. Stritch did so, a day or two later, though not without stopping for drinks to fortify her. This time, she nailed it.

That scene revealed everything you could ever want to know about how even a talented, accomplished theater professional could be so insecure as to verge on total ineffectuality. As a teenager, Stritch discovered the magical and dangerous impact of alcohol on her personality: Nobody need ever know that she was, at heart, shy and nervous.

As an adult, Stritch found alcohol a help for coping with anxiety about performing. She quit in the mid-1970s after the onset of diabetes. But, as she prepared to retire from the stage in her late eighties, the old insecurities returned, and for awhile—until health complications set in again—she permitted herself a glass or two of alcohol.

By that time, of course, she had become an icon of the stage, particularly in works by Sondheim—not just Company, but, the mid-1980s Follies in Concert (where, even in an all-star cast, she brought the house down with “Broadway Baby") and A Little Night Music. And her Tony-winning one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2002),  reviewed the events and personalities in her life, including an improbable convent education (though not so improbable when one recalls she was the niece of a Roman Catholic cardinal), the men she got (Ben Gazzara, Gig Young, husband John Bay), and the men who got away (JFK, Marlon Brando, and her closeted Farewell to Arms co-star, Rock Hudson).

The last closings years of her career spread her fame beyond the bright lights of Broadway, with appearances over several seasons as Colleen Donaghy, the tough handful of a mother to Alec Baldwin’s network exec on the sitcom 30 Rock. That was not her first foray into TV work, though. 

Before that, she had appeared in the TV movie version of Steel Magnolias (as tart-tongued Ouiser Boudreaux, of course), The Ellen Burstyn Show, Two’s Company (a British comedy series with Stritch as a bestselling American author who deals with a wry butler), and The Trials of O’Brien (with the actress playing secretary to Peter’s Falk’s Columbo prototype, a rumpled defense attorney). I saw an episode of the latter at New York’s Paley Center for Media, and on YouTube there’s an entire episode of the early Sixties sitcom adaptation of the old Broadway hit My Sister Eileen, with Stritch as the appropriately cast witty writer Ruth Sherwood.

“Old age ain’t no place for sissies,” Bette Davis observed in her declining years. Stritch, a kindred spirit, would no doubt agree.

Reviews of her last cabaret shows at the Café Carlyle read like obituaries, trying to pay appropriate tribute to a New York institution while gingerly acknowledging that she forgot lyrics, stepped on punchlines, and turned on audience members when they laughed at times she deemed inappropriate. (See, for instance, this New Yorker blog post from a year ago by Sarah Larson.)

The same reviews indicate that audiences overlooked those last flawed shows. Fans preferred to remember and celebrate the brassy, whiskey-voiced blonde in long white man’s dress shirt, black vest, and black tights who had made a personal anthem of survival of another Follies standard, “I’m Still Here.”

Now—sadly—she isn’t anymore.

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