I have to confess that I was a bit nervous to phone Tony and Emmy winner Elaine Stritch at 9 PM on the Sunday preceding her Tuesday, July 13 return to Broadway in the Tony-nominated revival of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theatre. Turns out, it was one of my favorite interviews in months. After our lengthy chat, which was filled with much laughter, I realized part of the reason why the Tony and Emmy-winning Elaine Stritch At Liberty was so successful: Stritch is as interesting — if not more so — than any character she could ever play. The multitalented artist is witty, funny, refreshingly candid and extremely intelligent. She is equally open about her insecurities, and despite her many critical accolades, awards and years in the business, she retains an enthusiasm for her craft that is contagious. We spoke at length about her return to Broadway, her Tony-winning co-star Bernadette Peters and her love for composer-lyricist Sondheim. I also couldn't resist asking why this theatrical force of nature had never taken on the role of Rose in the great American musical Gypsy. Read on to see just what Stritch had to say:
Did you have rehearsal today?
Stritch: We certainly did.
How are things going?
Stritch: Well, we did our first full run-through in full costume and makeup. It's a very interesting adventure, it really is, because we've got two of the key characters of A Little Night Music stepping into a company that has been united together and doing a beautiful show, what I think is a beautiful show. I think it's very, very — an overused word — but it's very special. It's a special musical comedy. I always will call them musical [comedies] — as soon as I hear a violin with dialogue, something is up! [Laughs.] This is a stunning book, and that's what draws me to it. It's Guys and Dolls gone serious, you know? 'Cause that's how good it is. It's as good as Guys and Dolls. That's how good it is, in its way. And I think Guys and Dolls is one of the most brilliant musicals ever written.
Did you ever do Guys and Dolls anywhere?
Stritch: No. I think when I was the age to play [Miss Adelaide], I didn't know how to. It was too scary to me. I wasn't ready to do that kind of thing. This is the way I go to the theatre: When the theatre is right, and it's done to perfection, I don't want to be in it. What do I want to be in it for? I mean, I had the time of my life [seeing it], and I didn't go and say, "I can do that!" a la A Chorus Line. No, I can't do that now! I want to watch this now, so that when my turn comes, I can invite whoever played Miss Adelaide — she was brilliant – Vivian Blaine [to see me in a show]. I [did] invite Vivian Blaine to see me, and you know, she did come to see me in a show and she flipped. And [it was] fair exchanges, no robbery, [just] "Come on in!" I just got so excited about her thinking I was good, I can't tell you.
How did A Little Night Music come about?
Stritch: An agent that I used to have called Merritt Blake – I don't know who got my name to him, but they called Merritt and said, "The producers of A Little Night Music want to talk to you." And so, the casting agent called me, and then I got kind of excited. Who wouldn't? Every time you're offered a part, you get excited about it, certainly. But I had just finished an awful lot of work, one thing after another. And one of the most difficult things I've ever done in my life was my show honoring Sondheim, and I was beat. I mean, it took me a year to get that anywhere near ready to perform. But I wanted a challenge or I didn't want to work, so rather than sing a group of songs for a club act, I decided to do all Sondheim. And boy, be careful what you ask for. I mean, that's hard work, his stuff. That's really hard work! I consider [Noel] Coward hard work, too, but not quite as complicated. In a way, he could've been as complicated as Steve, but Steve — you gotta be ready to really show your mettle, because it's tough stuff. Tough stuff. But anyway, one of the things that made me finally decide to do it was the fact that Bernadette was going to do it.
And you've never worked with her before, right?
Stritch: No, but I dig her. On both sides of the fence – I dig her in the theatre, I dig her out of the theatre. I don't know her well, but I know that she's okay. I know she's okay. I can tell by looking at her. I can tell by meeting her socially. And, she's an actress. I told her today that she should really go after playing Blanche [in Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire].
Tennessee Williams' name came up because . . . [he] wrote a one-act version of Glass Menagerie with a happy ending, and Susan Charlotte, who does the lunchtime theatre, asked me to do a reading of it. I had done a reading of it in … New Jersey, and it was a big success and people loved it. . . . Anyway, I promised her I'd do it, and the date . . . [is] tomorrow night. I can't believe I'm doing this! I cannot believe I'm doing this! I said to Steve [Sondheim], "I'm staying in your class, so it won't be too much of a jolt." He got a kick out of that. But you know, when I got to thinking about it, Andrew, I did it for the right reasons. I did it because I don't believe in canceling. I just don't. And so, I found that why shouldn't I do a reading? I don't have to think of any lines. I'm going to do a reading of Tennessee Williams, and it'll take my mind off of the terror of Tuesday night['s first performance in A Little Night Music].
What was the rehearsal process like for you, since you were going in as one of two new people in the cast?
Stritch: It was the most frustrating, hardest thing I've ever done in my life. First of all, during the rehearsal, I had another previous commitment. And, Bernadette had a lot of commitments, too, and she was the same way about it. I knew she would be. She left our rehearsal yesterday for Broadway Barks…
I explained that to the kids in the company the other day and said, "It's nothing to do with [being a] replacement. It has to do with you play Hamlet this week, and I'll play him next." That's all this is, it's just, "It's your turn." I just got home an hour ago, and tomorrow night [July 12] a car's coming to pick me up at 5:30 to take me to the Acorn Theatre to do the reading of Tennessee Williams.
It must be nice to be in demand.
Stritch: Oh, of course. It's always a compliment to be asked to do anything in this crazy business. It will keep my mind occupied, and I've got an awful lot of energy, and when you have an enormous amount of energy and you're given 24 hours to sit and think about doing the first performance on Broadway of A Little Night Music, you're going to be angsty and nervous and apprehensive and jittery and unsure. So I'm going to be occupied at least for four hours tomorrow, and then I'll go home and go to sleep and get up, and another day, another dollar, you know?
Did you get to work with Trevor Nunn at all?
Stritch: I was working at Hartford Stage. I did the dedication to Sondheim show, Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim: One Song at a Time, up at Hartford Stage – another commitment that I not only did not want to turn down, but I refused to. So they took me with that into consideration, and Trevor flew in [from] London, spent one day with Bernadette and then drove up with me to Hartford Stage because I commuted — I didn't stay up there. And he drove up with me, and [we] had a three-hour trip in the car, and then he saw my show on Sondheim, which he was delighted with. And I thought, "That's worth two weeks of rehearsal" — to have him see work, to see how you work. . .
We knew each other briefly from London when I lived there. And he congratulated me on my performance and then we talked. I read "Liaisons," with Rob Bowman, who's doing the conducting, and he did the brilliant job of all time this afternoon, and I feel so proud of him because he's my musical director. And, I think Steve was very pleased with him, too. But anyway, I spent a day with Trevor Nunn, and then he saw my show and then he went home, and that's it, folks. And he's not coming again until after a week of previews, [but] we have a very, very capable assistant director who's a darling guy. I would like to have had more time with Trevor Nunn. He's a hugely successful director, and I would have liked to have had the experience of working with him on a really, really interesting, brilliant musical. So I didn't get that chance, and it was disconcerting.
I can understand that. You want the person whose vision the show was.
Stritch: Yeah, and you want to slow down and say, "Wait a minute, why do I do this? Why do you want me to do that? I don't understand that."
How would you describe the character of Madame Armfeldt?
Stritch: Madame Armfeldt? She's got a few exit lines like Groucho Marx, I'll tell you that, which I'll play down, believe me, but I know they're there. I recognize basic comedy when I see it. I think she has to have humor or she couldn't have lived the life that she did. You don't live lives like that without humor, you just don't, and she [is] loaded with it, and so is Desiree. And, we are very much alike, Bernadette and me, really very much alike, and we're finding things every day in playing the parts. She's got the same kind of humor that I do. Our sense of humor – I love that expression – it's a sense of humor, a deep sense of humor, and I see it in her. That happens once in a while in acting. You get in a company, and you're playing opposite someone who is like you, so you're on the same page, so to speak. And she goes very deep as far as humor is concerned, and we've talked about it time and time again, and we both are a little frightened of it because it's so powerful . . . but it's not getting in the way, it's adding, I think. I'm just sad that I don't have more material with her, but the times we have together pay off. I feel that they pay off, so they must pay off, 'cause I don't feel bulls*it in the theatre. Not for a minute. I don't feel bulls*it for a minute. When I think I'm right, which takes a long time, I know that the audience is going to think I'm right. I just know.
The only real fear I have is I am not ready to open. I say that openly, if you'll pardon the pun. I would like to be more secure, but I'm not, so I have to deal with that. I'm good at memorizing, but with any angst, you're always terrified of going up on your lines. It's a natural thing. Regional theatre would've been safe for me my whole life, so you miss Broadway, so that would be fine, too. But regional theatre is the ideal way of working in the theatre. And repertory – oh, boy! Would I have loved that! The National – I'd love to play the National before I leave the building. Maybe I can push Trevor Nunn to do something. I'll say, "I missed rehearsing with you before, so come on, you owe me." [Laughs.]
When you're working on a character, do you like to try and figure out the back story or do you mostly focus on what's written?
Stritch: I would say I more tend to get the person's background through the material. Let me tell you something: If I played a prostitute in prison, I wouldn't go to the prison and go to the prostitute's place where they solicit to find out how to play a part. I'm an actress, I know how to play a prostitute. I think actors are a little iffy that research, I really do. I mean, up to a point. . . . No, I don't do a lot of research. I sort of am the research of all those people. I lend myself very easily towards escaping outside of myself and playing somebody else. I really love escaping to other human beings, because I like human beings and I like to have the experience of being an awful lot of them and seeing what that's like. I want to see what that's like, and I want to see what that feels like.
What's it like being confined to the wheelchair for the entire show?
Stritch: Oh, big, big, big, big question. Big question, and a very good question. Just once, I get up out of the wheelchair, and I've justified it by her wanting to stretch her limbs. But [as I play it], it's much more difficult to walk than any other Madame Armfeldt I've ever seen. I really am more comfortable staying in the wheelchair, because I don't think . . . she's got an ulterior motive for [staying in] the wheelchair. I think if she could be out of it, she'd be out of it playing croquet.
Has Sondheim been involved at all in the rehearsal process?
Stritch: Not really [because] he's been away a lot of the time we've been in rehearsal. He's been wonderfully generous with me, and I've been on the phone with him several times and talked a little when I had problems because he understands me . . . well, let me just say it, I think he understands an awful lot about me. A whole lot about me, I think he understands. And so therefore, he's a comfort to me, and he has a brilliant mind. He's given me a couple of ideas to play the part . . . Wow! I mean, the fact that I got it free is amazing! And I came off the stage on Friday, and I ran to the telephone — I have Angela [Lansbury]'s dresser, which is the greatest gift she could've ever thought. She's just wonderful, [and] she gives me the phone, [and] I call Sondheim. I just got off, and I tried what he told me to do, and I screamed, "It worked! It worked! It worked!" He was genuinely glad to hear it. And I'll tell you something about Sondheim. Sondheim scares the s*it out of everybody, as you probably know, but when he gives me an idea and it works, I can't get to him soon enough. And I only understand that later in my life because I know people are usually too frightened to even thank him. And, I was like I was five years old, jumping up and down telling him, "It worked! It worked! It worked!" And it's made the song a little easier because it's straightened certain things in my mind out. And the happiness of finding it makes the part seem easier because you know it's going to work, you know that the things he's told you is going to work. It was thrilling.
How did you go about learning and interpreting "Liaisons"?
Stritch: You just learn lines — you get girlfriends over, boyfriends over, friends of yours to cue you. . . . [Often the] person that's cueing you, you just start screaming at them. 'Cause if you don't know the line, you say, "I got that!" I mean, you really [scream] until you turn into a maniac. Because when you don't get it right, you could kill the cue-r and yourself. We have jokes about it in the theatre, about the poor person that agrees to cue. So I always give them a very generous present, because I'm telling you it's hard work to cue . . .
But here's the worst thing about this way of going into a show – you don't have the time to enjoy the process. And that is a cheat, and that I don't like about this experience. But then, it has its original points, too, and there are good things about being put to the test so quickly. It's a challenge, and when it goes even halfway – I don't expect to really be playing this part [for a while] — and they're not going to invite the critics for two or three weeks. I don't think any actress should be judged on a performance of three-and-a-half weeks of rehearsal, and not even that. I had under three weeks rehearsal. That's murder. That is just murder, and it's not that long a part. However, Madame Armfeldt is written in such a way that it . . . feels like a longer part. It's a difficult part, don't ever think it isn't. It's a difficult part, but it's so rich.
Are you aware of the buzz within the theatre community? It really is the event of the summer that you two are going into the show.
Stritch: Oh, my goodness. Well, I have heard that. I don't deal with [the] Internet and Twitter and Schmitter and whatever. I really don't, because it just complicates my life. I'm exposed to too much bulls*it as it is, just living my life. But I certainly enjoy it when friends send me pictures of myself. I think, "Whoa! This is fun. I didn't have to leave the house." [Laughs.] I like that!
Everyone's very excited.
Stritch: That makes me so happy, you have no idea. It really makes me happy. That's so great. It's so great, it really is. It's made me happy and terrified. If there is such a thing, it's in the theatre, I'll tell you that. If there is such a thing, it's in the theatre, and don't anybody doubt it. This is not all laughs — an awful lot of them, but oh, boy. The highs are higher than any other, and the lows are matching in the other direction.
I really give people a lot of credit who have managed to make a career in the theatre and keep it going. It must be hard always looking for the next project.
Stritch: Right, and then getting used to that and getting to learn that and getting your nerves to the point where you can play it. My husband's favorite line of all time from a play is from Twentieth Century. My husband did an evening with John Barrymore in London many years ago, and John Barrymore's line turned out to be my favorite line. You have to hear the reading. The reading is, "I love the theatah and all the chah-ming people in it!" And when that guy read that line in Twentieth Century, I tell you, I went to the floor. I really did. It's a great line, and I know exactly what he meant, exactly what he meant. But you know, if you're living right, you can change that, that little bit of devilment. The theatre is a tough racket. Lots of phonies in the theatre . . . and there's nothing worse to me than going to the theatre and seeing a bad actor. I can't stand it. It's like the Italian opera. I want to get up and say, "Get off! Because you're just mucking me up. You're just confusing me. You have no right being up there and acting like that, in more ways than one." But boy, when somebody's doing it right, it's the most exciting form of entertainment in the world. Oh, my God!
I agree with you. It touches you in a way that other mediums don't.
Stritch: It's the only one that does. And I love movies and I love ballet, but the legitimate theatre is a killer when it's right.
I always think it's the one medium where you see something and you walk out and you loved it and you say, "I have to see that again!"
Stritch: Absolutely. My sister, who just left the building last year — she was 91, so that's not bad — the first night that she saw Company in New York, she said, "You have to see this again. You just have to because you cannot get it all [in one viewing]." And she's a summa cum laude bulls*itter of all time, my sister, and she saw Company about five or six times — certainly because of me, but also because every part of that book, that music, every lyric was just a knockout! And as you said, there are plays that you just have to see again.
Was your sister also in New York?
Stritch: No, she was [in] suburban Michigan. Birmingham, Michigan.
Were you close with her?
Stritch: Oh, yes. Not as close as I could've been if we'd been born 50 years later, you know. But for that time of growing up – I love my sister and my sister loves me, and that's enough said, but there should've been more said. We missed opportunities to tell each other stuff. That's what I started talking about about Sondheim. I want him to stop scaring us all so we can tell him how much we love him, and actually, his birthday did that. And look what it did to him! He practically dissolved!
Also, when they announced the theatre being named for him. He was so moved by that, too.
Stritch: Oh, my God! Oh, my God! He's so anxious about stuff like that. He's so hungry for it — I believe this about him, anyway, 'cause I've been afraid of him for many years. I've been in love with him all my life, Andrew. There's no question. And, I'm talking attracted. I think he's one of the most attractive men I've ever known. No question. And, you know what you're in love with, you're in love with his talent, because it tops everything else. You know, everything else disappears, and here's this human being who can give you thoughts like that. Holy Toledo.
And no one will ever, perhaps, reach the heights that he did.
Stritch: Well, listen, let's hope. Let's hope. I don't think he had any purpose in being here if somebody doesn't follow him. Do you know what I mean? We've all got a reason to influence people, and look at the people he's influenced in his life. I mean, anybody that's privileged to go with him where he goes with lyrics and music, and I've finally understood that it's not just the lyrics, it's the music. Because the lyrics can't be there without Sondheim's music, and I defied that. I wanted to prove it to myself, and then I found out that anything that Sondheim does is worth it. Either it's music and lyrics or lyrics and music – you just pay attention to this guy, that's all there is to it.
I have to ask: How did you escape from ever doing Gypsy?
Stritch: I don't know. I think they were nervous about me. I was having such a good time in my life. I never, never drank too much on the stage. I had it all figured out. I was very disciplined, but to give someone like myself a part that size, with that much responsibility, and eight shows a week – I don't think that they trusted me, and it's their loss!
It is their loss.
Stritch: It's their loss. I say it loud and clear, and I'm glad you agree with me because it is their loss. I could have played the backside off of Gypsy, and then I would have assumed the responsibility that I had with that.
I'd love to see you play the role even in a concert or benefit setting.
Stritch: That sounds good. Maybe I will get a chance. I did it in my show, and I purposefully made it the opening number. I intend to do it. If I get to the point where I'm rested enough – just do it in stock. Do it in regional theatre, and listen, I look pretty damn good on the stage, and I could play that woman as a form of theatre. I mean, look at the great actresses of the past. They played parts 30 years younger than they were. I wouldn't be afraid to play it at all, but it does have to be soon, or else I'll have to be where Madame Armfeldt is. And, I'll give you a big secret of how much I know about how to play Gypsy. She ain't in no wheelchair. [Laughs.] You can't sing "Rose's Turn" in a wheelchair. I defy anybody to do that. I beg them!
Well, if anyone could do it that way, I bet you could.
Stritch: [Laughs.] Well, boy, with that kind of encouragement, I'd probably be talked into it.