We conclude our celebration of the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by speaking with Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch, who earned a Tony nomination for creating the role of Joanne in the original production of the landmark musical Company and later belted out a show-stopping "Broadway Baby" in 1985's Follies in Concert. Stritch will offer an encore engagement of her critically acclaimed At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time April 20-29 at the Carlyle Hotel.
In the recent Stephen Sondheim celebration with the New York Philharmonic, Tony and Emmy Award winner Elaine Stritch was one of six women (Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Audra McDonald, Donna Murphy and Marin Mazzie were the others) all dressed in red, who delivered Sondheim tunes onstage while each of the other five watched her colleague's performance. Stritch recently told me by phone that she had no idea Tony winner LuPone would be singing Stritch's signature tune from Company, "The Ladies Who Lunch." "I totally did not know!" Stritch exclaimed. "I had no idea, because when you only have one day rehearsal, and you've got a 9:30 AM run-through with the Philharmonic and you're working your tail off – you don't look at who's doin' what. I knew nothing about this . . . and my costume wasn't ready until the actual show, so [Patti] never saw the hat [that I would be wearing], and I never realized she was gonna sing my song, so it was a total, total, improvisational, honest-to-God miracle that when she said, 'Does anyone still wear a hat?,' she suddenly looked at me, [and] it was the greatest take I've ever seen in my life. 'Cause I had one on, and it was just totally real."
Stritch says there was a real sense of camaraderie that March 15 evening at Avery Fisher Hall. "Everybody [was] helping everybody as much as they could to get around backstage," says Stritch. "We didn't know what we were doing. You know, 'Everybody wear a coat, walk onstage, it's the beginning of a party, blah blah blah.' It's getting direction on your way to your entrance," she laughs. "It was madness, but I'll tell you, it was worth every single bit of it, because that show was a smash, I thought. . . . It was one of those thrown-together [events] – and this Lonny Price is an extremely talented man. . . He's got a great sense of the stage, and I got along fine with him."
|photo by Richard Termine|
That said, Stritch admits she was "more frightened that night than I have been almost ever on the stage, because I was under-rehearsed, and nothing is worse for me than not to be rehearsed. I have to know my material backwards – and I hadn't done 'I'm Still Here' since my [first engagement at the Carlyle ended]. And all of Sondheim's stuff, as I well know . . . is more difficult than the last one." Stritch said she did modify her "I'm Still Here," so her performance can eventually be aired on PBS' "Great Performances" series. "[Lonny Price] made me cut my one 'fu*k' for Channel 13, and I did it with the greatest of pleasure. In my show, I said, 'I'm still heeeerrree … Fu*k!' That's the way I ended the show, and it was great in the show, but I . . . changed it to the teenager's great expression, 'Yuk!' So it worked, it worked, it worked. You have to give in some time, and probably I can give in to one or two 'fu*ks' in my lifetime," she laughs.
Stritch says she met Sondheim years ago at a party of a mutual friend. "He was interested in me – not in the boy and girl [way] . . . . but he found me an interesting woman, and he stayed and said, 'I'll take you home.' And then he asked me to sing, and then I asked him to accompany me, and then we discovered that both of our favorite Rodgers and Hart love songs was 'He Was Too Good to Me,' so I sang that with Steve. And as a result I put it in my show, the first cabaret I did at the Carlyle."
Her professional collaboration with the composer-lyricist began four decades ago with the original, Tony-winning production of the fragmented marriage musical Company, which featured a score by Sondheim, a book by George Furth, direction by Hal Prince and musical staging by Michael Bennett. Stritch says she became involved with the groundbreaking musical because "Hal Prince wanted me desperately, and George Furth had written a series of one-act plays and had asked me to do it. He [also] asked Kim Stanley to do it . . . and it would have been wonderful, but he couldn't get it off the ground. And then he got the idea of doing it as a musical, and he took it to Hal and Steve, and they got it on."
[AUDIO-LEFT] "Everything stands out in my mind about the rehearsal period," Stritch adds. "It was an extraordinarily exciting [time]. Nobody really quite knew what we had, but I did. I knew that this was going to be a first of its kind. I knew it was gonna be a big switch, you know, from the norm, and something new and inventive and exciting and spirited, and it was all those things. And it went through a lot of periods of change and disagreements and it was an exciting show. I moved out of my apartment, which was way up on the East Side, and I moved around the corner from where we rehearsed down on 18th Street. . . . I moved out of my apartment because I couldn't stand the wait and traveling back and forth to rehearsal. That's how exciting the rehearsals were."
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