Elaine Stritch Gets a Star-Studded Sendoff From the Broadway Community

Elaine Stritch Black Hat - H 2014
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe

Elaine Stritch Black Hat - H 2014

A gallery of theatrical luminaries paid tribute to the legendary Tony winner in an emotional afternoon of songs and stories

"Elaine Stritch walks into a bar."

Those were the irreverent first words of Everybody, Rise!  A Celebration of Elaine Stritch, a loving tribute to the theatrical legend who passed away last July at the age of 89. They were uttered by Nathan Lane, who continued the story thusly: "A bar with which she was not too familiar. She told the bartender, 'I'd like a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.'"

"This event would have pleased her no end," the Tony-winning actor continued, "because it's all about her." Lane proceeded to give a warm salute to the indomitable performer who "often treated pants as an overrated accessory." At one point he had to compose himself when he seemed about to burst into tears.

A gallery of theatrical luminaries proceeded to deliver anecdotes and songs throughout the two-hour event, "constructed by" George C. Wolfe, who directed her hit one-woman Broadway show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, for which she won her sole Tony Award in 2002 after four previous nominations.

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Among the performers delivering songs with which Stritch was associated were Bernadette Peters, Betty Buckley, Christine Ebersole, Michael Feinstein and Laura Benanti. Tony winner Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) donned Stritch's signature outfit of a button-down shirt, hat and black tights to sing "Broadway Baby" from Stephen Sondheim's Follies.

Presented at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre, the tribute featured a giant screen displaying a succession of drawings of the star by the famous caricaturist for whom the venue was named. Clips from Stritch's film and television appearances were also shown, as well as scenes from this year's acclaimed documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me. Among those in attendance were Tommy Tune, Charles Busch, Chita Rivera, Christine Baranski, John Turturro, Joy Behar, Ellen Burstyn and F. Murray Abraham.

Peters, who co-starred with Stritch in the recent Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, declared, "On her own terms, Elaine Stritch has left the building," referencing an expression the performer used in lieu of saying someone had died. Famed director Hal Prince commented, "Thank God the Pennebakers captured her performance during the recording session of Company, referring to the 1970 documentary Original Cast Album: Company, in which she's seen delivering her legendary rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch."  

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Columnist Liz Smith, a friend of the star for more than six decades, admitted, "Elaine left me some money in her will … astounding. And it had a message: 'For you to take Barbara Walters out to dinner.'" She also recounted stories of Stritch's many romantic encounters, including a late night "emergency call" from her when Marlon Brando was pressuring her to sleep with him.

Actress Holland Taylor commented, "There was always the element of danger with her, and the possibility of dying of embarrassment." Joseph Rosenthal, Stritch's attorney of many years, revealed that in her will she left $500,000 each to the Actors' Fund and the Juvenile Diabetes Association, as well as money for a fund for aspiring actors at the Stella Adler Studio.

Actor Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who also appeared in A Little Night Music and who served as one of the memorial event's producers, described Stritch's funeral: "It was a small, private affair … flowers from Elton John, a priest singing "I Feel Pretty," nothing special." Her nephew Chris Bolton recounted asking his aunt how she had the courage to leave home at age 17 to pursue a theatrical career in New York City. "I had to express myself," she answered. "If I didn't I would have exploded."

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Musical director Rob Bowman, who collaborated with Stritch on her solo Broadway show and her many engagements at the Cafe Carlyle, delivered a moving tribute, declaring, "Elaine, I know you're digging this!"

The event fittingly concluded with a performance by its honoree, in the form of a vintage clip of Stritch singing "The Ladies Who Lunch," her trademark number with its repeated exhortations of "Everybody rise!" Of course, everybody did.