DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner and A Little Night Music Star Elaine Stritch

By Andrew Gans
30 Jul 2010

Stritch sings at Sondheim's birthday gala
photo by Richard Termine

Question: 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.

Question: 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."

Question: 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.]

Question: 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.

Question: 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.