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

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30 Jul 2010

Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
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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:

Question: Did you have rehearsal today?
Stritch: We certainly did.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Question: 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.

Elaine Stritch and Bernadette Peters in A Little Night Music
photo by Jan Marcus

Question: 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].

Question: 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.

Question: 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?


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