By Peter Filichia
Can’t you just see Elaine Stritch entering heaven, looking around, seeing all those angels in their wings and muttering “Does anyone still wear a halo?”
All right, in many ways Stritch wouldn’t seem to be a candidate for heaven. But in her prime, she was more than heavenly on stage.
Last Thursday, we got the news that we wouldn’t be seeing her on stage any more. Oh, she’d said last year that she’d retired, but while she was still with us, there was always a chance, however slight, that we’d again see her on or off-Broadway. Now that is sadly not even a possibility.
In 2000, when the late lamented Show Music magazine asked me to name The Greatest Female Musical Theatre Performer of the Last Half-Century, Stritch was my choice. I did have an agonizing going-back-and-forth between her and Chita Rivera. And although Rivera had appeared more often on Broadway and had had more hits, Stritch had already been a known commodity with five Broadway shows under her belt before Rivera ever set foot on a Main Stem stage.
Once we learned of Stritch’s death, many of us pulled out our albums on which she appeared, from Pal Joey to Sail Away and beyond. That included the 1985 Follies in Concert, in which she sang a much-slowed-down rendition of “Broadway Baby.” At the time, many were disappointed that she didn’t do it in the usual brassy tempo. However, one can defend her choice; after all, the second line of the song does include the adjective “tired.”
But I never heard anyone take umbrage with her line before “Who’s That Woman?” No one else on that starry stage was better qualified to dourly say “I haven’t danced in thirty years.” Listen to her on the recording and you’ll also hear the six solid seconds of grateful laughter and applause that her delivery warranted.
Because this was Follies in Concert, dialogue had to be dropped. I wouldn’t be surprised if the first exchange to go was the fierce encounter that Phyllis (Lee Remick) had with Stritch’s Christine. (Yes, she played Hattie, too, but here she had Christine's line.) In the original 1971 text, Christine asked Phyllis, "Don't you remember me at all?" to which Phyllis flat-out said, "You never liked me." Give Christine credit: she handled the insult in classier fashion by remarking with a surprised "What a thing to say." The remark did not soften Phyllis in the least, who then added "I never liked you either." Now – can you imagine how Elaine Stritch would have reacted to such a verbal slap-in-the-face? This Christine might have given Phyllis a roundhouse punch in the nose and jaw that would have sent the lady to the hospital where she’d have to eat through a tube for at least two weeks.
That brings me to what happened four years ago at the dress rehearsal of Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Alice Tully Hall. Stritch was sitting on-stage with Patti LuPone, Marin Mazzie, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy and Bernadette Peters. They sang in alphabetical order, so LuPone started with “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Her rendition got Stritch to stand and wildly applaud. After they hugged and Stritch sat, the applause from the audience hadn’t abated at all, so LuPone gestured to Stritch to stand up and take her own bow. The sharp, quick gesture that Stritch gave is one that a master gives a dog as a command to sit. And that, my dears, was the end of that.
I was privileged enough to be part of the first paying audience to see and hear Stritch do “The Ladies Who Lunch” at Company’s world premiere at the Shubert in Boston on March 23, 1970. The memory is so vivid that I could take you right now to that stage and point out within a quarter inch where she sang the song, oh-so-close to the lip.
That’s how much of an impression she made.
“The Ladies Who lunch” is probably the song most associated with Stritch. Some years back, when she opened The Easter Bonnet Competition by saying “Does anyone …” the packed Palace Theatre was shaking with laughter and applause! Ol’ pro that she was, she waited it out before saying the additional four words.
Note that when Sondheim, Furth and Prince were creating Company they gave Stritch the musical’s first line. Can’t quite picture her starting the show? Ah, but Company opens with Bobby’s coming home to a slew of answering machine messages. There would be no one better than the acerbic Stritch to say “Hi, this is a dirty phone call.” They were also smart to have Stritch’s voice start the action, because in 1970, hers was the best-known and most easily identifiable voice in the Company company.
It still is. Don’t you love when she cackles out a “Ha-ha!” in “Side by Side by Side” after David remarks that Bobby reminds him of the Seagram Building? Add to that her case-closed voice when she says of Bobby “He is just crazy about me.”
All right, you know Stritch from Company, but do you know her from Goldilocks, in which she portrayed turn-of-the-century stage star Maggie Harris who’s recruited to new new-fangled flickers? This 1958 musical has nothing to do with the fairy tale — although that title might have made theatergoers think it did. That may be one reason why the show could only muster 161 performances.
To be fair, Stritch did have a (delightful) song called “Who’s Been Sitting in My Chair?” which does suggest the Goldilocks story we were all told as children. It, by the way, contains my favorite mondegreen – you know, a word or phrase that’s mistaken for another. For years,I’d assumed that she was singing “I’ve got a yen for a lappi lomi” and that a “lappi lomi” was some sort of jewel. Years had to pass before I realized that Stritch was singing “I’ve got a yen for a lap below me.”
This is one of Stritch’s three solos, although she takes part in two duets, and is the centerpiece of the opening number, appropriately called “Give the Little Lady (a Great Big Hand).” It’s a razz-ma-tazz song, which we do think of as her specialty. But take a listen to “I Never Know When (to Say When)” and you will hear a plaintive, soft, vulnerable Stritch not at all like the one you know. It’s a terrific torch song to begin with, one of the great 11 o’clock ballads (thank you, composer Leroy Anderson and lyricists Joan Ford, Walter and Jean Kerr) and allows Stritch to mourn her lost love with a style worthy of the best of the chanteuses. And yet, by the second B-section, she’s rallying. No wonder that Don Ameche’s character couldn’t live without her.
I also remember Stritch in the press room at the 2001-02 Tony Awards, when she was genuinely in tears. She was extraordinarily upset that the orchestra cut her off during her acceptance speech. She said she knew that “they can’t allow everyone to recite the Gettysburg Address” – the wrong image, really, for that was a very short speech – but stated that this was a pretty emotional moment for a woman her age, and being played off by the orchestra spoiled the entire evening for her. She admitted that she’d had tougher problems in her life — diabetes and alcoholism among them — but that this was an evening she’d wanted to relive for a long time. And while she conceded that she knew she should rise above it, she wasn’t able to think that way at the moment.
When we asked her what she wanted to say that we didn’t hear, she replied that she would have quoted a Sondheim Anyone Can Whistle lyric: “What’s hard is simple; what’s natural comes hard.” She felt it apt because she’d found working easy and winning a Tony hard — although she did consider herself a winner in the grueling game of her life.
Since her passing, everyone who ever met Stritch has been coming up with his own story about her. One recently surfaced that early in her career Marlon Brando asked her for a date and she turned him down. Perhaps that’s what happened, but the story she told me is that Brando wouldn’t go out with her because she was related to a Roman Catholic Cardinal, one Samuel Stritch, who presided over the Chicago diocese in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
But the conversation I most remember with Stritch was the one in which we discussed her stint as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? She recalled that when the national touring company opened in 1963 in Boston, those banned-in-Boston censors were outraged by Edward Albee’s language. “You can’t take a four-letter word out of a line and replace it with ‘fudge,’” she said, with disgust pervading the last word. “They actually changed ‘Jesus H. Christ’ to ‘Mary H. Magdalene.’ I’ve always pictured God in heaven saying, ‘Why dump it on Mary Magdalene? Use me! I’m fine with it!’ I’m sure God has a good sense of humor.”
Now Elaine Stritch is finding out for certain. I wouldn’t bet against her being right.