Leading Ladies of Broadway Propose a Toast to Elaine Stritch
By Adam Hetrick
October 21, 2011
Glorious. Larger than life. Dangerous. These are just a few of the words used to describe Tony Award-winning stage veteran Elaine Stritch by some of the actresses who have been influenced by her singular talent and who have shared the stage with her.
The unstoppable octogenarian recently wrapped up an encore run at the Carlyle, aptly titled, Elaine Stritch At Home at the Carlyle: Singin' Sondheim... Again. Why Not? and is set to take center stage at the Town Hall Oct. 22 in her first solo concert there in her decades-long career.
Presented as part of the Broadway Cabaret Festival, the one-night-only event will be a personal tribute to Stephen Sondheim and promises a few surprises that audiences have never heard Stritch perform.
Playbill.com spoke with a host of Broadway leading ladies who, in Stritch fashion, offer candid, hilarious and heartfelt stories of their encounters and feelings for the iconic actress who defined roles in Company, Pal Joey, Sail Away and perhaps, most notably, as herself in Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.
Elaine Stritch is my guardian angel. She always just appears in my life, most synchronistically, when I need her counsel or guidance. It's amazing! Whenever I am in some existential despair or don't know which path to take she just shows up and sets me straight.
I used to do engagements at the Carlyle Hotel and she would sometimes venture down from her suite to my show and stand at the bar and from the back of the room and, in the middle of my set, offer me advice. My favorite quote of hers about my performances is "Betty, you need to make the martini dirtier! Add an olive or somethin'!"
Last year, as a part of my new show at Feinstein's "For the Love of Broadway," I did a song she originated in the musical Goldilocks and did a tribute to Elaine as my introduction to the song. We invited her to come. We had arranged a lovely table, and after some coaxing she arrived but insisted on standing at the back. She was dressed in a charming shirt, skirt, little shoes and matching hat. I did my tribute, and Elaine came forward to the stage and held court. It was wonderful!
I have seen her shows at the Carlyle and am always enchanted and overwhelmed at her glorious and fascinating history. It's always a privilege to see her. I love her abandon, her brashness and her heart. I love Elaine Stritch with all my heart and want to be just like her when I grow up.
The first time I met Elaine was when we were both playing Carnegie Hall. I ran out of hairspray and went next door to her dressing room to see if I could borrow some. She gave me some and told me I wasn't allowed to spray it near her. I went outside in the hall and sprayed the crap out of my hair. From that moment on we were friends. I idolize her and I hope to have a career with as much longevity as hers. Absolutely great!
Very early on in my career I got what I thought was such a high compliment. Somewhere back in the 80's I was doing a benefit and I sang a song that this person had written and they said, "Oh, she's like a young Elaine Stritch." And I thought, "Oh my God, that is such a high compliment!" I've always had such an affinity for her and I've always loved her and adored her. I think she's such a fantastic entertainer. I hope that I'm doing what she's doing when I'm her age – if I get to be that lucky.
She's one of a kind. And is deeply influential. Her larger than life interpretations have left their indelible mark on the roles that she's created. It's a challenge, to say the least, to reinterpret them.
Let me begin by saying, I just love Elaine. She has been wonderful to me and my son Max. She is the most honest and arresting performer, and unusual person, that a young singer who wasn't yet an actress, could have the good fortune to meet. I was fresh from Ohio and green as grass when I got Company. Elaine was like some rare, eccentric bird-like Auntie Mame to me. I learned my work ethic from watching her and listening to her on stage every night. Elaine was still drinking then and sometimes she tore through "Ladies Who Lunch" and other times she was so vulnerable it was brutal to listen to her. She made it alright to be scared, but was always elegant. She NEVER missed a performance and when Marlene Dietrich visited us backstage for two days, Elaine let her wait on her, picking up her dressing room. I loved that so much! I don't think anybody has a better sense of humor or wit.
Elaine Stritch is dangerous. On and off stage. She is filled with talent, that's clear. But you're never sure what she's going to do with a song, a scene, or even a line. So you best keep your eyes on her, lest you miss something. Marlon Brando was like that – the really greats are like that. I know, you know what I mean.
We worked together on the spectacular Follies in Concert at Avery Fisher Hall. After one of the rehearsals, she came up to me and said, "You know kid, you gotta learn to take stage." I was stunned. When I rehearse I'm working, not performing. Cut to the show – a smash. Everyone killed (as they say), I too, killed BIG. After the show she said to me, "I guess you learned." She and I really do laugh together. They filmed a little of one of our exchanges on the DVD of Follies in Concert. [She's] dangerous, completely original [and] achingly funny. I think the kid has a big future.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
I remember opening at the Carlyle in April of 2009, heavy with pregnancy and jittery with nerves. Having never done much cabaret, I was relieved to hear supportive yet very present laughter coming from the back of the room. Squinting through the darkness, I recognized the sound and shape to be Elaine Stritch (how could I not?). Having drifted down from her home on one of the higher floors of the same building to catch my show, she was perched there, lending a hand to a newbie. I later received a congratulatory letter from her under my hotel room door. I keep it with fondness.
The first time I saw Elaine Stritch was when she was starring in Company and when she was doing "The Ladies Who Lunch," I thought, "WOW! What is she doing and how is she doing that?" It was just so startling and so amazing! I'll never forget that performance.
Then, of course working with her [in A Little Night Music]. I've never known anyone who was more supportive of other actors. She's so terrific and I truly love her a lot!
The first time I met Elaine was backstage at James Joyce's The Dead. She pushed open my dressing room door, stuck her leg up on a chair, hiked her skirt up, and said something like, "Hi. I need to shoot up my insulin," which she then proceeded to do. I was completely enamored.
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN
One of the first things I ever saw her do was "Zip" at Rainbow and Stars. She used just the absolutely least amount of gas, and traveled the greatest distance imaginable.
While in previews for Company in the fall of 2006, I had a luncheon with Elaine at the Carlyle. We were both being interviewed for an article in The New Yorker that actually never ran. Anyway, upon meeting me she said, ''Oh, you're too young for Joanne." (I was in fact older than her when she originated it.) We got along well, although she drove the interview and she told me she didn't want me to know when she was coming to the show.
So one night shortly after the luncheon, I'm looking out at the audience as I could often break the fourth wall during the performance, and who do I see right smack on the aisle, five or six rows back? Elaine Stritch in the whitest of white suits! I wasn't bothered at all, just thrilled. After the show, I heard the unmistakable voice on the staircase and greeted her on the stair landing. She looked at me and said, "Wonderful, you were just wonderful.'' A moment I'll never forget.
For tickets to Elaine Stritch at the Town Hall phone (800) 982-2787 or visit Ticketmaster.com. The Town Hall Town Hall is located at 123 West 43rd Street.
Click here to read the full line-up of the Broadway Cabaret Festival, which concludes Oct. 28 with A Tribute to Judy Garland and the Art of American Dance.