Early in her lengthy, landmark career in musical theatre, Elaine Stritch was a spry young belter. Today, half a century later, the irresistibly inimitable Stritch is widely known for her trademark flaming gravel. Fortunately, the loss in vocal suppleness hasn't mattered at all — the main attraction has always been the indomitable Stritch personality. Indeed, her greatest role has been that of herself in her brilliant Tony and Emmy Award-winning solo show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty.
Moreover, the famous Stritch persona has been the subject or focal point of a number of screen productions over the years, including D.A. Pennebaker's acclaimed "Company: Original Cast Album," "Follies in Concert," the documentary about the making of Elaine Stritch At Liberty and innumerable variety specials, talk shows and award ceremonies, where her participation is always a highlight, living on ad infinitum in unforgettable viral videos.
Best of all is Chiemi Karasawa's riveting new film "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" (opening Feb. 21 at the IFC Center and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York, with other cities immediately following). "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" chronicles the final stretch of Stritch's life in Manhattan and on the road before retiring to Michigan last year. It's a fascinating, unadorned look at the humanity inside this theatrical titan, offering insight into the unflaggingly hard-ass attitude and relentlessly passionate pursuit of truth that have enlivened and invigorated all the characters Elaine Stritch has played. It whets your appetite to revisit her entire esteemed body of work, particularly her legacy of recorded music.
Click through to read my selections for the essential Elaine Stritch on disc.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty (Recorded Live On Broaday, 2002)
Without a doubt, the number one essential Elaine Stritch recording, Elaine Stritch at Liberty captures the star at her salty, straight-shooting best. There are hilarious, enlightening and moving stories aplenty perfectly plotted into the evening, which also includes some of the grand dame's signature songs within the set list. Besides gems like "The Ladies Who Lunch," "Broadway Baby" and "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?" Stritch puts her indelible stamp on a host of numbers from shows she hasn't done, including "The Party's Over," "Something Good" and a heartbreaking medley of "But Not For Me" and "If Love Were All." The highlights of the recording, though, are definitely the extended sequences integrating singing and monologue, like the hilarious "There's No Business Like Show Business" opening and an inspired rendition of "Zip," elucidating the tremendous obstacles Stritch faced commuting to New Haven for the out-of-town tryout of Pal Joey while standing by for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam on Broadway. This indispensable trove of theatre history achieves the meta feat of creating new history in that the piece itself is the ultimate jewel in the crown of Stritch's Broadway reign.
"Stritch" (1955 solo studio album)
The only other solo recording in the Elaine Stritch discography is another album to treasure. By contrast with Elaine Stritch at Liberty, the voice on "Stritch," is agile and bright, downright feminine, even. Listening to Elaine Stritch sing these jazzy arrangements of showtunes and standards, full of vim and verve, it's easy to imagine what a delight she must have been entertaining in a 1950s supper club. "Are You Having Any Fun?," "That's The Beginning of the End" and "The Object of My Affection" are particularly hard to resist, as is the absolute all-time best version of "If You Hadn't, But You Did." While much of her familiar sass is abundant on these tracks, it's also impressive just how musical she is and how well these swinging recordings hold their own in the company of other great vocalists of the period, like Rosemary Clooney and Dinah Washington. You can sit quietly and engage in her interpretations, or you can enjoy it as dinner or cocktail party music, setting the mood in the background.
Company – 1970 Original Broadway Cast Recording
You could certainly make an argument that the original cast album of Company is the definitive Elaine Stritch recording. Never mind that she only sings solo on two tracks; her scintillating presence is felt on the entire disc. From the opening number, where she is unmistakable, barking "Robbie, love," to her warmly ribbing, "I don't think you'll ever be a kid again, kiddo" in the final moments, Company belongs to Elaine Stritch. And the solos she does get are worth showing up for. "The Little Things You Do Together" is a quintessential Sondheim song, which only Stritch could fill with just the right combination of sweet and tart, and "The Ladies Who Lunch," of course, is legend. Nobody knows those ladies like Elaine knows them. Nobody hates those ladies like Elaine hates them. Elaine is those ladies. Elaine is fabulous.
Sail Away – 1962 Original London Cast Recording
Sail Away is an essential Elaine Stritch recording for several reasons. Of course, it's a worthy inclusion simply for preserving a major career achievement of Stritch's and because it was written by Noel Coward, it represents a piece of work by one of the greats. But Sail Away is also special because it's a real leading lady role for Elaine Stritch. As she explained in Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a last-minute script change gave her character "the laughs, the guy and the eleven o'clock number." The number in question, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?" — with its sardonic flourish and vivid minutia — is classic Coward and also pure Stritch, and I want every single recording of it. Stritch herself prefers the London cast recording of this show (over the Broadway cast, which was also released), where her performance is slightly more relaxed and comfortable vocally. I require both.
"Follies in Concert" (Recorded Live at Lincoln Center 1985)
As Stritch tells the tale today, Stephen Sondheim initially balked at her request to play Hattie Walker and sing "Broadway Baby" in this historic gala presentation of Follies; he thought she was too young. But Stritch has always been cast (and cast well) in roles decades her senior. Arguably, it's only recently, in her 80s, that she's finally caught up with her image. Or maybe it started in "Follies in Concert." She brings out great pathos in the underside of Sondheim's paean to working actors, all while mining it for every morsel of dazzle in her singular style.
Goldilocks - Original Broadway Cast Recording
To hear it mentioned, one might assume the 1958 flop Goldilocks is about the eponymous folk tale heroine. It is not. As a matter of fact, for our purposes, Goldilocks is about one thing and one thing only, and that is young Elaine Stritch's affecting performance on the cast album. If the recording fails to capture the comedy Stritch is said to have delivered onstage, it is a worthy addition to her discography for her lovely legato renditions of "Who's Been Sitting In My Chair?" and "I Never Know When To Say When." This is as close to Elaine Stritch the ingénue as one can get.
Show Boat – 1993 Toronto Revival Cast
In the 1994 revival of Show Boat (recorded pre-Broadway), Elaine Stritch is said to have served as, if you'll pardon the pun, something of an anchor. Unfortunately, all that she sings on the cast album is "Why Do I Love You?" and even that was only added to beef up the previously non-singing role for the star. Still, she sings the song with rare vulnerability and, as always, makes a lasting impression.
Pal Joey – 1952 Broadway Revival Cast
Although Elaine Stritch's role of Melba Snyder in Pal Joey amounts to little more than a cameo, it includes the great song "Zip." For those only familiar with her rendition in Elaine Stritch at Liberty, it may be odd to hear it without her interspersed commentary. What's really odd is the fact that Pal Joey first opened 11 years earlier without Stritch; "Zip" sounds so much like it was written and conceived for her. Melba's ironic portrait-in-song of Gypsy Rose Lee's intellectual ennui whilst stripping is the perfect vessel for Stritch's one-of-a-kind dry delivery. It's also fun to hear the Merman in her voice from this period since we know where she was half an hour before showtime.
On Your Toes – 1954 Broadway Revival Cast
Another Rodgers & Hart triumph for Elaine Stritch, albeit a personal one, the short-lived 1954 revival On Your Toes gave her the chance to sing three songs. Second banana Peggy Porterfield usually gets only "Too Good For The Average Man" and the zesty "The Heart is Quicker Than The Eye," but this production added "You Took Advantage Of Me" to take advantage of the musical comedy savant. Stritch went for the jugular on this number, and she stopped the show. Her recording on the cast album demonstrates a brilliantly calibrated climb from the sweet introductory verse to the hooting and hollering of the end. The young Stritch even incorporates uncharacteristic head voice into this no-holds-barred performance.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)