Elaine Stritch: An Appreciation

Photo by Brigitte Lacombe
Elaine Stritch

THR's lead theater critic pays personal tribute to the legendary Broadway performer, whose exacting professional standards were as renowned as her tart tongue and eccentric style.

Across the New York theater district, marquees will dim their lights on Friday evening in honor of one of the all-time greatest brassy broads of Broadway, Elaine Stritch. But a more fitting remembrance might be for theater lovers to take to the streets and accompany that symbolic ritual with the final roar of the Stephen Sondheim song most indelibly associated with the beloved performer, who died on Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Michigan, at 89.

"A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch —
Everybody rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

A jaded, booze-fueled anthem about Manhattan socialites, culture vultures and housewives, bravely smiling in the face of their suffocatingly empty lives, "The Ladies Who Lunch" comes from the landmark 1970 musical by Sondheim and George Furth, Company.

The song is an acerbic, no-bullshit swipe at cultivated phoniness that also mirrors the salty, tell-it-like-it-is persona for which the inimitable Stritch has long been famous. Her struggle to nail that song during a difficult 18-and-a-half hour recording session was chronicled in D.A. Pennebaker's superb 1970 documentary, Company: Original Cast Album. And that marathon studio session also illustrated an unstinting perfectionism that she never abandoned, even long after issues of aging, declining health and failing memory would have caused performers made of less stern stuff to throw in the towel.

In 2010, I was lucky enough to attend Stritch's 85th birthday performance of her hit cabaret show, At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim … One Song at a Time.

Among the audience that night at the Hotel Carlyle, Stritch's Manhattan home for more than a decade, were Sondheim and celebrated director-producer Hal Prince, Broadway luminaries like Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone, and a table of media power blondes that included Liz Smith, Leslie Stahl, Cynthia McFadden and Sheila Nevins.

A long-term diabetes sufferer, Stritch had been hit by a major hypoglycemic crisis that morning and was still reeling from a massive booster shot. But while she freely confessed her frailty that night, she held nothing back. Uninhibited and emotionally naked in front of the starry crowd that packed the Carlyle's intimate cabaret room, she insisted on stopping and starting several times over until she got the lyrics right on another brittle Sondheim classic, "Every Day a Little Death," from A Little Night Music.

PHOTOS Hollywood's Notable Deaths of 2014

That same indomitable spirit in the face of formidable odds — the tough-as-nails exterior barely masking the vulnerable core — was depicted with memorable poignancy throughout Chiemi Karasawa's lovely 2013 documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.

It was there also, albeit with greater reserves of strength still intact, in her wonderful 2001 solo show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which won a Tony Award and two Emmys after being filmed for HBO. A free-flowing confessional that looked back over her career, her rocky love life, the tragic loss of her husband John Bay to brain cancer and her long history of alcoholism and recovery, At Liberty became the benchmark by which all subsequent showbiz stage memoirs were judged — and usually found inferior.

No less than her tireless work ethic, Stritch was defined by her artistic adventurousness. Few actors have the range, not to mention the penetrating self-knowledge, to deliver incisive performances in works by everyone from Kern, Hart, Rodgers, Hammerstein and Sondheim, through Noel Coward and William Inge to Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee.

Anyone who saw At Liberty will recall Stritch's hilarious account of stammering through a request to Ethel Merman — whom she was understudying in Call Me Madam and who famously never missed a performance — for permission to take a second job in a show happening simultaneously. That involved a quick commute each night to New Haven to perform the second-act strip number "Zip" in Pal Joey. Growing tired of the long explanation and groveling plea, Merman reportedly responded, "Oh, Elaine, just go sing your f—in' song."

In addition to her cabaret acts, I was fortunate to see Stritch perform a number of times — in At Liberty, in Prince's rousing 1994 revival of Show Boat, as human debris in a trash can in Beckett's Endgame in 2008 and in the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music, when she and Bernadette Peters replaced Angela Lansbury and Catherine Zeta-Jones in the mother-and-daughter roles the following year.

Whether she was directly addressing the audience or in character behind the fourth wall, the sly humor, droll delivery, searing intelligence and self-effacing willingness to reveal the frightened woman within made Stritch a stage actor like no one else.

I regret that I wasn't in New York to see her play the witty alcoholic Claire in the Tony-winning 1996 revival of Albee's A Delicate Balance, by all accounts the definitive interpretation of that role.

But Stritch was as famous in New York for her personal style as she was for her singular brilliance onstage. I once saw her sauntering along by Madison Park on a sweltering summer's day wearing her signature look of a long white men's dress shirt, with a Mack Sennett bathing beauties-style hat and what might have been the shortest shorts ever sported in Manhattan by an octogenarian woman. More often, the look involved tights, and in winter, an outsize fur or a long vest over the shirt.

In what was easily the most enjoyable celebrity interview I've ever conducted in 25 years as an arts journalist, I sat down with Stritch in 2010 for a Los Angeles Times profile as she was preparing to go into A Little Night Music.

She was waiting for me when I arrived, seated in a small private dining room at the rear of the Carlyle restaurant and looking like Annie Hall's nutty grandmother — in a Windsor knotted houndstooth tweed tie, long black wool vest, cream silk blouse with voluminous ribboned pirate sleeves, signature enormous eyeglasses and a black sailor hat.

"We'll have the smoked salmon because it's the best thing they do here," she decreed by way of an intro. "And I can't drink so you'd better. How about a nice crisp glass of white?" "Sancerre?" I ventured. "Good choice," she replied, adding to the drinks waiter, "Keep 'em coming." Then, back to me, "You're paying, right?"

That scheduled 20-minute one-on-one turned into almost two hours of unfiltered reminiscences about the highs and lows of her career; snatches of song lyrics as she struggled to remember a title; a detailed, critical appreciation of the 30 Rock cast, with whom she fraternized in her recurring role as Jack Donaghy's irascible mother Colleen; a pithy assessment of a Broadway culture in which sophistication and elegance were in rapid decline; and her crippling fears about being up to the challenge of playing the imperious old-world European dowager, Madame Armfeldt.

Stritch admitted that, her memory not being what it was, it was inevitable she would forget lines or lyrics. And she often did during the run, as daily reports in online theater chatrooms testified at the time. But I don't recall anyone ever complaining that they saw something less than a performance of delicious wit and thrilling emotional honesty.

She shared an anecdote about the producers of that Night Music revival timidly asking her to record a "funny" pre-show cell-phone announcement, which would also serve to let audiences know that it was OK to laugh during the somber opening scene.

"I told them, 'If we need to try to get laughs before the show even starts then we're in trouble,'" she recounted. "And I said, 'Don't bother asking Ms. Peters either, because I've already talked to her and she won't do it either.' I hadn't said a word to Bernadette about it, but I'm playing her f—in' mother, so I can say what I like. That shut 'em up."

The wicked cackle that followed that story came back to me this morning when I read the sad news of Stritch's passing. And so did the tears in her eyes as she hugged me and said, "I'm terrified," seemingly oblivious to the fact that most New York theatergoers would be too delighted to be watching this force of nature perform to mind, however many lines she flubbed.

She was one of a kind, and the lights on Broadway will be a shade less bright from now on without her, not just on Friday. Everybody rise.