Bold and brassy Elaine Stritch, who became a theater legend with performances in musicals by Rodgers and Hart, Noel Coward, and Stephen Sondheim—then made audiences laugh with an acclaimed one-woman in which she interspersed songs with reminiscences of these and other show-business luminaries—said goodbye to the cabaret world she had once conquered with a sold-out, five-night gig at the Cafe Carlyle in early April 2013.
I wrote a tribute to Stritch following her death in July 2014, but this particular engagement seemed too poignant not to discuss in more detail. It brings to the fore a question most fans wish they never have to confront: Should favorite entertainers take their last bows at a point when their skills have already visibly deteriorated? In other words, what kind of memories do they want to leave their audiences?
Celebrities—including Tom Hanks, Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli, Martin Short, Michael Feinstein, Mandy Patinkin, and Bernadette Peters—came out in force in April 2013 to pay tribute to the 88-year-old actress, who had already announced that, due to a variety of ills—diabetes, eye troubles, falls leading to a hip replacement, and small strokes—she would not only cease performing but return to her native Michigan, to be near her nephews and nieces.
Most accounts of the engagement followed the line laid out in a review by influential New York Times critic Stephen Holden: pay tribute to her irrepressible spirit, but inform those about to attend what they could expect: “For the truly faithful, just being in Ms. Stritch’s presence was enough, but a cabaret performance it was not, and the show’s dearth of music did seem to leave some unsatisfied.”
In one sense, Holden was perfectly correct: Stritch’s friends were more than willing to overlook the inevitable frustration and shortness of memory that their beloved “Stritchy” exhibited.
In truth, she probably had the group in the palm of her hand with her first lines: “Isn’t this fantastic, what a star I am? I mention I’m going home, and I’m a star immediately! This used to happen with my boyfriends—as soon I’d say ‘I gotta go home now’ they fell in love.”
Stritch first made her name in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, in which she gave indelible life to the number by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart about an insouciant stripper. Several years later, she impressed Noel Coward in her appearance in Sail Away.
But she became a talent impossible to ignore in Sondheim’s Company. That landmark 1970 musical provided numerous solo opportunities for its cast members to shine, but arguably none made a bigger impression than Stritch, who helped make the title of her big number, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” an instantly recognizable catchphrase for women of a certain age seeking to match their marital disappointment with “another vodka stinger.”
The force of Stritch’s incendiary performance in that tale of urban couples fumbling through the Age of Aquarius might have been ephemeral but for the original-cast album. A long-shelved TV documentary by D.A. Pennebaker about those painstaking recording sessions detailed the actress’s continued ineffectual attempts to recapture for vinyl the magic she had had little problem summoning nightly—as well as her eventual triumph, after being sent home to rest.
From the various accounts of those last Carlyle shows, it seems clear that the small, intimate band of listeners on those early spring nights knew better than to expect songs delivered in a strong voice from a steel-trap memory. (Even the frequent prompting of her faithful accompanist, Rob Bowman, wasn’t always enough to get her through.)
“This is the kind of show where we don’t know what is going to happen,” the actress said. That sense was confirmed later in the evening when Stritch admitted that she was so scared before the show that she had had half a drink, then again when she couldn’t always control the reactions of the room.
Nevertheless, they had come, from what many may have guessed might be the last time, to say thank you to a salty force of nature who had given them stories and memories they would dine out on for the rest of their lives.
Given Stritch’s reputation as a stage performer, I was surprised to see from her listing on the Internet Broadway database that there was a 20-year hiatus between Company and her next appearance on the Great White Way, in A.R. Gurney’s Love Letters.
Although some of that time was in London, during her marriage to John Bay, she made the most of one short appearance: the 1985 concert revival of Sondheim’s Follies, where she delivered—what else?—a close-to-definitive rendition of “Broadway Baby.” (Sondheim would continue to play a major role in her midlife-to-late life reinvention, as she appeared for the last time on Broadway in his A Little Night Music and made his “I’m Still Here” an integral part of her one-woman show.) It was easily enough to get her inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 1995.
I hope that some writer even now is at work on her biography, interviewing those who knew her while some are still alive and their memories are fresh. In the not-so-distant future, I wouldn’t be surprised if some short-sighted millennial editor at a publishing house dismissed her as being only of local interest. Stritch lived a vivid, exuberant, but complicated life, and it would be a shame if her bright flame were extinguished amid a fickle posterity.
(For a vividly impressionistic account of Stritch’s next-to-last performance, see Sarah Larson’s piece in The New Yorker.)