DIVA TALK REVISITED: Tony Winner Elaine Stritch Celebrates Stephen Sondheim

Playbill.com celebrates the life of the late Tony-winning icon Elaine Stritch.

Elaine Stritch
Elaine Stritch

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In this interview from April 2010, the famed singing actress helped Playbill.com celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim.

Tony and Emmy Award winner 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, made her last Broadway appearance in a Sondheim musical, the critically acclaimed revival of A Little Night Music. Her 2010 interview follows:

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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."

 

Elaine Stritch at the New York Philharmonic Sondheim Concert
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."

Stephen Sondheim and Elaine Stritch share a moment at Cafe Carlyle
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Stritch also had the chance to preserve her recording of "The Ladies Who Lunch" in the famed D A Pennebaker documentary "Company: Original Cast Album," which recounted the grueling cast recording session and spotlighted Stritch's vocal trouble. "A couple of things have forced me to watch [the documentary recently]," Stritch says. "I think it's wonderful, the best documentary I've ever seen. And, of course, some cynical people in the theatre said, 'Oh, that was all a set-up.' Jesus, aren't people adorable? It was about as much a set-up as my hat two weeks ago [with the Philharmonic]." Stritch says watching herself in the documentary has been beneficial because "it's helped me to understand myself. . . . I'm not disappointed, I'm not ashamed, I'm not, 'Oh, I can't stand to watch that!' No. I like to watch everything that I do, because I find me interesting, and I surprise myself. And that's good. It isn't bad, it's good. I [do] get surprised that I had to go through as much as I had to go through to get through what I had to get through. That kind of saddens me because I did everything the hard way. But having things on film, you look back and it helps you to understand yourself. I certainly [would] like to continue to understand myself more and more, every day until I die. Because I think self-awareness is a great big gift – if you can accomplish that in your lifetime, and find out what you really are like and are okay with it, that's a good life."

Stritch's good times with Sondheim continued with the 1985 Follies in Concert, which also featured Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett, George Hearn and the late Lee Remick. Stritch wanted to perform "Broadway Baby" in what turned out to be a legendary event, so she called Sondheim to get his approval. "He said no at first, and then eventually, he let me do it. He thought I was too young," Stritch says with a laugh, "which is ridiculous. I told him, 'There's all different kinds of Broadway babies runnin' around loose, and I think they're ageless.' You know, there can be an 89-year-old Broadway baby, and there can be a 16-year-old Broadway baby. Age has nothing to do with it, but he thought so for a few minutes, and I changed his mind — because with my enthusiasm, I really wanted to do that song. And it was nice, because I made it my own. I admired the song and the way it was done in Follies. I loved Ethel Shutta – she was 80 when she sang it. That was why [Sondheim] had it in his mind that I was too young. Then he asked me to do 'I'm Still Here,' and I said, 'I am too young for that!' This is 25, 30 years ago! Steve and I have good times together. I think we're on the same page."

And, Stritch will soon offer a complete evening of Sondheim tunes in an encore engagement of her critically acclaimed At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim…One Song at a Time, which plays the Carlyle April 20-29. About her new act, Stritch says, "A lot of his songs you have to work on extra, extra, extra hard. Especially being a woman who doesn't depend on a great voice – I depend on my understanding of the material and how the material hits me emotionally and physically and psychologically and then I build on it. And I love the way he thinks, [but] he's very difficult. I'm exhausted after the show that I do on him.

When asked to pick a favorite Sondheim tune, Stritch pauses and says, "I think 'Too Many Mornings' is one of my favorite romantic songs of Sondheim's. And 'Nothing's Gonna Harm You,' I love that, and I love 'Everybody Says Don't.' I start saying what my [favorite Sondheim song is] and half an hour later I've named 'em all. You know, it's just that way."

Musing on her decades-long relationship with Sondheim, Stritch says his kindest gesture was not something he said but something he did: "We were doing a concert at Drury Lane for him in London . . . and I did two numbers that night, and I brought the house down. It was a major success, and I came offstage, and he passed me and took my hand and squeezed it. And I think I had three or four years in the bag in sobriety – and he squeezed my hand that many times. It was mind-boggling. I mean, he's an extremely romantic guy, and all of his things that he says are really outstandingly witty, or downright fall-down funny, or beautiful and warm and romantic. He's got both extremes going at all times. I don't know how he handles it . . . but I recognize it in him." And, what does Stritch think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Oh, I think he gave it his individual gifts, and in doing that he did change [it]," she answers. "I think the American musical comedy theatre became more intelligent, more sophisticated . . .and more dramatic, more risk-taking. I mean, what an outrageous risk for him to do Sweeney Todd! I mean, God, that takes courage. Courage! Real, real courage. And, he brought discipline to the theatre. You work for Sondheim, and you work your backside off, and you enjoy it because you can't wait to get to rehearsal. You've got the opportunity to do that kind of material. To be able to work in a show on Broadway and believe every word that you're saying is outrageous! God, I spent most of my time in the producer's office fighting for my lines … and you go to work with Hal and Steve and your shoulders go down and you don't need a drink."

Elaine Stritch (center, seated) with Larry Kert (foreground) and the company of <i>Company</i>
Elaine Stritch (center, seated) with Larry Kert (foreground) and the company of Company (Photo by Joseph Abeles/ Sy Friedman)