Elaine Stritch made her take-no-prisoners way into my consciousness when I heard her sing “You Took Advantage of Me” and “Too Good for the Average Man.” I’d bought Decca’s cast album for the 1954 revival of On Your Toes mainly because I’d become a fan of Richard Rodgers’s music for the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” ballet—not for Stritch, about whom I’m not certain I previously knew anything.
What she did with the two Rodgers and Lorenz Hart songs stopped me in my tracks. Her bravura renditions all but stopped the LP in its tracks. I was dazzled by the grit, the humor, the bravado. There were some Ethel Merman elements there, of course, which indicated she was working in an honored Broadway tradition, but the style was new to me—a styling laced with irony that knock-it-straight-to-the-back-row-of-the-upper-balcony Merman never went in for.
I was immediately jazzed to find out more about Stritch. Since I wasn’t in New York, where she was based, I didn’t come across her much until I saw the lousy 1955 Jennifer Jones-Rock Hudson remake of A Farewell to Arms—with Stritch as a buck-them-up nurse. Hardly a great showing for her, and no noteworthy film career followed.
After that, things were quiet for Stritch and me—not even any television sightings I can recall—until I got my hands on the Goldilocks original cast album and heard her signature rasp on, among other Leroy Anderson-Jean Kerr-Walter Kerr-Joan Ford ditties, “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?” and “I Never Know When (to Say When).” Once again, I encountered a spirited world-weariness with which I’d never before been gobsmacked.
That unique quality may be precisely what prompted Noel Coward, who’d written “World Weary,” to tailor Sail Away for her. During the New Haven leg of its out-of-town try-out, I finally got to see Stritch on stage and making it totally hers with “Useful Phrases” and “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?” At that point she was splitting leading-lady duties with Met soprano Jean Fenn. By the time the show reached New York, however, Coward had combined the Fenn role with Stritch’s. So on the original cast album she’s heard infusing “Something Very Strange” with her brand of melancholy tang.
No need to give every chapter and verse of my Stritch viewings, because the point here is to acknowledge Stritch as a spectacular one-off. The only problem is that when, at 88, she leaves the Carlyle Hotel—her home for the past decade and where she’s done her memorable cabaret work—and returns to home town Detroit and its swanky Birmingham suburb, she not only takes her personal belongings but she takes the last of a type of high-wattage show-business esprit.
(And by the way, you’re probably figured out I didn’t see her supposed farewell appearance—during which she reportedly did very little singing—or I’d be writing about it.)
But okay, I’ll report that I finally did meet Stritch. She was appearing as Parthy in Harold Prince’s 1994 Show Boat revival, and I was sent to interview her in Toronto where the Garth Drabinsky production was trying out. Although she’d insisted during interview negotiations she’d only meet after the evening performance—and I’d come for the matinee—at the intermission she let it be known through a stage manager that she’d changed her mind.
We’d have a two-part interview—part one between shows at a French restaurant across from the York Center for the Arts and part two at her favorite downtown restaurant, where we’d be ferried in her chauffeured limo.
What was Elaine Stritch really like? She was like everything they’ve ever claimed. Her major intention was to make it clear she minced no words. She was forthcoming about: her affairs with Marlon Brando and Ben Gazzara and the Rock Hudson crush; her alcoholism and how whatever show she was in dictated what she drank (beer for Bus Stop, cocktails for Company); her diabetes and the memoir about it (Am I Blue?: Living With Diabetes and, Dammit, Having Fun!); the joyful life she’d led with her late husband John Bay; the Noel Coward-“Stritchie” years; and show-biz people she’s known, loved and flamboyantly disliked.
By the time the second meal concluded, she and I had bonded in a way Marie Brenner has termed intimate distance. That’s until the Mirabella issue with my article on her appeared containing a harsh remark about one of her closest theater associates. She called, despondent that I’d printed it, even though she’d okayed the quote immediately after megaphoning it over the plat du jour.
That’s when I realized Stritch may have long campaigned to be perceived as someone who told the unvarnished truth but wasn’t necessarily that person. I got it that Stritch was actually, as many performers are, deeply vulnerable.
And that’s the woman who shows up throughout Chiemi Karasawa’s just-released 80-minute documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me, which, though it boasts footage of her throughout her career, is mostly a record of her at 86 and 87.
This is the Stritch who tries the patience of many people around her to the extent that more than one of those interviewees ends by insisting “she’s worth it.” Actually, Noel Coward, who adored her, is on record elsewhere as declaring she could be “tiresome.”
This is the Stritch who, in rehearsal for her Sondheim cabaret show will say, “It’s hard enough to memorize Sondheim’s lyrics when you don’t have diabetes.” This is the Stritch who, when asked what scares her the most, says, “What scares me the most? Drinking.” This is the Stritch of whom Harold Prince says about her strict Catholic upbringing, “The convent girl is there always.” But most outstandingly, this is the Stritch who, if she actually quits New York City, will depart as one certifiably irreplaceable Broadway star.
In the film, Prince—who directed Stritch in Company as well as in Show Boat—states that Sondheim wrote “The Ladies Who Lunch” for her. But when you think of it, Sondheim might have written every one of his songs for her.
I contend she’s his greatest interpreter. Think not only of “The Ladies Who Lunch” but of her “Rose’s Turn,” her “I’m Still Here.” Pay attention to what—as a Stella Adler-Erwin Piscator-trained actor now in her 80s—she does in the film with “I Feel Pretty”. There’s nothing like it.
Sondheim has often mocked his lyrics for the West Side Story ditty. He’ll never have to again.