STARRING ELAINE STRITCH By Peter Filichia
Whenever I encountered her, I couldn’t be sure if she’d greet me with a warm kiss or give me a look that said she’d like to cut my throat.
That was Elaine Stritch, mercurial enough to suggest that Mercury was always in retrograde. My feelings for the late star weren’t quite love-hate, but like-dislike.
So two years had to pass before I could face Alexandra Jacobs’ STILL HERE, subtitled “The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch.” Hey, if I could survive two New York blackouts and a pandemic (well, so far), maybe I could find the fortitude to deal once more with Elaine Stritch.
Jacobs’ index showed forty-nine references to COMPANY. When I turned to page 171, I immediately smiled at what George Furth, its bookwriter, said to his composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim: “Every time you run into Elaine Stritch, you know you’re in New York.”
That’s one way of putting it, and one reason why she was so ideal for COMPANY, the New York musical unlike any New York musical that had preceded it. You woudn’t have called this urban-centric show about the harsh difficulties of Manhattan couples WONDERFUL TOWN.
In the late sixties when the show was being planned, Stritch’s theatrical career had been in doldrums for most of the decade. After SAIL AWAY didn’t do business either on Broadway in 1961 or in London in 1962, she was cast – some would say typecast – as Martha in the Broadway company of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? But don’t look for her on Masterworks Broadway’s original cast album; Stritch was only allowed to do matinees so Uta Hagen could have some deserved time off.
Stritch would seem to be ideal for a play called THE TIME OF THE BARRACUDAS in which her character had a history of poisoning husbands. That one closed in Los Angeles in 1963. So not much was happening for her until Hal Prince called her for COMPANY, which, Jacobs reported, made her “practically jump through the phone.”
It worked out well for both of them. Sure, Joanne was a small part in an ensemble show, but in “The Little Things You Do Together,” no actress of the day would be more right for such a sardonic lyric as “It’s not so hard to be married; I’ve done it three or four times.” (Actually, Stritch was married but once and the union ended only when her husband died.)
What would become her signature song arrived in Act Two: “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Jacobs stated that Stritch saw herself as “fireplace, books and martinis,” so the star was right at home singing “I’ll drink to that!”
Stritch and the song also provided a memorable moment in The 1996 Easter Bonnet Competition. It’s the annual event where currently running shows put at least one cast member in a delightfully outrageous headpiece and do a skit, all to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
Nathan Lane, Andrea Martin and Tracey Ullman have emceed and received raucous laughs, but no one got guffaws faster than Stritch that spring day at the Palace when she opened the Bonnet ceremony by droning two mere words:
“Does anyone …”
And does anyone doubt that Furth had Stritch in mind when writing the show, what with Jacobs told us? His stage direction in an early draft says of Joanne “She is Elaine Stritch.”
Still, Jacobs mentioned that her getting Joanne was not a done deal; director-producer Hal Prince called in some others to audition. The author quotes two of Stritch’s COMPANY castmates who have dynamic revelations: Donna McKechnie said “Prince took a big chance with her”; Merle Louise actually quoted what Stritch had told her: “She said Hal Prince had to pick her out of the gutter to see if she could even stand up.”
And speaking of standing up, Jacobs said that Sondheim had hoped that his having Stritch repeat the word “Rise! Rise! Rise!” would actually make the ladies who had just lunched and the rest of the audience do just that.
No, that didn’t happen. However, Walter Kerr, the Sunday critic for The New York Times, said it was “a great number” and “perfectly done” by Stritch.
That was rather gallant of him, considering that he and Stritch had had some tough times when they worked together a dozen years earlier on GOLDILOCKS.
No, it’s not the story of the little girl who was guilty of breaking and entering the home of a family of bears. And yet, the logo suggests that, what with its drawing of someone who resembles Stritch dancing with a very big bear.
The title of a Jerry Herman song – “Movies Were Movies” –
would have been a much better title, for the early days silent films were the subject of GOLDILOCKS. Kerr wrote some of the book and lyrics to this original musical with his wife Jean (a first-rate and very successful essayist) and another collaborator. But Mr. Kerr may have taken on too much when he decided to direct as well. As Stritch’s leading man, Kerr cast Ben Gazzara.
Ben Gazzara??!? The guy who’d been in TV episodes called “The Case of the Sawed-Off Shotgun,” “The Killer Instinct” and “The Troublemakers” would do a musical?
Actually, he was doing Elaine Stritch, which is how he got the part. When they broke up, he no longer had it.
So, Jacobs implied, Kerr suffered from a case of whatever Stritchie wants, Stritchie gets. Pat Stanley, who had a smaller role, “believed the Kerrs were under their star’s thumb.” Said Stanley, “I think she called the shots a lot” and said “she just hated me” (because the audience did just the opposite; Stanley’s song, “The Pussy Foot,” was a staple of Fire Island watering holes for many years).
Jacobs didn’t mention whether or not if Stritch had any say or was responsible for Barry Sullivan being hired in place of Gazzara. He, the star of HIGH EXPLOSIVE and THE BAD AND THE BEAUTIFUL, also seemed a bizarre choice. Jacobs said Stritch was “steamed about winding up billed under the title and after Sullivan,” who got through Philadelphia but couldn’t conquer Boston.
Don Ameche got the phone call and came to the rescue; at least he’d sung in SILK STOCKINGS. You’d think at this point that Stritch would be promoted to top-billing; that’s what happened in 1965 when Louis Jourdan and Barbara Harris were billed in ON A CLEAR DAY YOU CAN SEE FOREVER until Jourdan departed; then the window cards read Barbara Harris and John Cullum. Thirteen years later, Cullum who had second billing to Madeline Kahn on ON THE TWENTIETH CENTURY, vaulted to first place when Judy Kaye took over for Kahn.
Not here, although Ameche and Stritch did manage to get over-the-title billing by the time the show reached Broadway. A look at the original cast album confirms that; a listen to it also confirms that whatever the problems with the book, Leroy Anderson’s music is, if not in the A-plus range, no less than A-minus.
Stritch scores mightily, barreling through “Give the Little Lady (a great big hand),” as a star who’s saying goodbye to the theater. Ah, but she forgot about the contract she’d signed with Max Grady (Ameche) to do one of his two-reelers. Not only does Maggie resent that she must comply, but she comes to dislike him because, as Stritch tartly sings, “No One’ll Ever Love You (like you do).”
Maggie has been engaged to George (Russell Nype), and she roars in anger when he takes Max’s side in an argument. “(Where is) The Beast in You?” she demands to know in a most amusing musical complaint.
You may not be surprised to hear that Maggie winds up with Max, but not until she thinks it won’t work out. And here’s the biggest surprise of all: Stritch sings a magnificent torch song called “I Never Know When (to say when).” For all our talk of how difficult Elaine Stritch could be, here she proves she could indeed be tender and vulnerable. Listening to her do this great eleven o’clock ballad always makes me drop the second word in my like-dislike description of her.
Peter Filichia can be heard most weeks of the year on www.broadwayradio.com. He’s a contributor to the new magazine Encore Monthly.