ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: "You Were Wonderful! The Show Stinks!" Remembering Elaine Stritch's Sassiest Moments

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21 Jul 2014


The cast of The Ellen Burstyn Show, 1986

Megan Mullally became friends with Elaine during "The Ellen Burstyn Show." Ellen played Megan's mom and Elaine played Ellen's mom. When Megan starred in Young Frankenstein, she gave one of her opening night tickets to her husband and the other to Stritch. Megan remembers taking the final cast bows to wild applause and turning to walk offstage and get ready for the big swanky cast party. There was Elaine, who had somehow left the audience, gotten backstage and walked to the wings by the time the bows were over. Megan was standing in full costume with her gown and Bride-of-Frankenstein wig on when Elaine grabbed her and said, "Megan! You were wonderful!" Followed immediately by "The show stinks!" Megan was like, "Can't I take off my costume first?" If you want to hear this story live and hear Megan belt up a storm, get the full concert we did together! Here's a preview.

I only worked with Stritch indirectly when I wrote my very first opening number for the BC/EFA Easter Bonnet Competition. I re-wrote the lyrics to "Food, Glorious Food" and changed it into "Hats, Glorious Hats." The whole song featured lyrics about various hats on Broadway and all the performers did signature Broadway hat dances choreographed by a young upstart named Kathleen Marshall. After the non-stop hat references, there was a pause and Stritch walked onstage. I was conducting and I loved watching her know exactly how to work a crowd. As soon as she entered, she got crazy applause and she turned to look at the dancers, blank-faced, holding her stare forever until the applause died. She then turned around and got another laugh. She finally began her famous "Ladies Who Lunch" line and knew to pause after "Does anyone..." so she could receive another enormous laugh and applause. It added three minutes to the number and it was amazing. Watch

And finally, I've been doing non-stop deconstructions to lead up to my Deconstructing Broadway appearance in London August 10. On the day she passed away, I did a deconstruction of my favorite moments of hers from Company. Watch

Last Thursday, I had John Rubinstein on "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," and I immediately asked him about his father, Arthur Rubinstein. For those who don't know, he was considered one best pianist in the world. Here he is playing one of my favorite pieces, Rachmaninoff Concerto number 2 in F Minor. 

Turns out, John was born when his dad was 60 years old! When John was a kid, he took piano lessons and his dad would have him perform for whoever happened to be visiting... AKA Bernstein, Stokowski and every single 20th-century classical music titan. Seriously! I asked John what these celebrities thought of his piano playing, and he said they enjoyed it as much as anyone who has to watch their friend's child perform for them. John felt he wasn't a great pianist but knew he was a good musician. He thinks now that he probably should have been a conductor. But one day when he was a teen, the famous conductor Stokowski heard him play the piano and suggested he play something from an orchestral score. Stokowski plopped down a giant score, with tons of staff lines and asked John to play it. (If you don't know, many of the instruments in an orchestral score are in different clefs, meaning you have the transpose them all as you play; the trumpet one step, the French horn five steps, the bass down the octave, etc.) John panicked and couldn't do it, and that's what scared him from ever being a conductor. He then decided he wanted to be an actor and didn't want to go to college. John's parents were completely against skipping school and took him their friend to talk sense into him.

Of course, in keeping with his childhood, their friend was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. They all went out to eat and Arthur told Laurence that John intended to skip college and enter show business right away. He asked Laurence to give him some advice, AKA convince him to go to school. Well, instead of extolling the virtues of a good education, Sir Olivier instead turned to John and simply said, "Hit the streets, boy!" Backfire! Here's John telling that story


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