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

By Andrew Gans
30 Jul 2010

Stritch in Night Music
photo by Joan Marcus

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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!

Question: 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.

Question: 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!

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: Was your sister also in New York?
Stritch: No, she was [in] suburban Michigan. Birmingham, Michigan.

Question: 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!

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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!

Question: 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.

Question: 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!

Question: 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.

[For more information, visit nightmusiconbroadway.com.]

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.