Two and a half minutes into this interview, Elaine Stritch's eyes begin narrowing to slits. Wearily, she regards the reporter sitting next to her in the back seat of her limo, and then she asks the one question he has dreaded for days of frantically applied cold medication.
"Do you have a cold?"
Howdaya lie to a legend who makes a living telling the truth onstage? You don't. "I had a cold, but I think I recovered." Think? she blinks. Not good enough. (Not well enough.)
The screeching of brakes and the burning of rubber perhaps only occurred in the mind of the writer - there are psychic skid-marks - but, with head swimming swiftness, a new seating plan is put in effect. Suddenly, he's in the front seat, riding shotgun, staring straight ahead, pointing his tape recorder behind him at the husky rumble filling the car.
"Is it working or not?" she rasps insistently from the back. "You keep looking at that machine, Harry. Are you getting this or not? I can't relax if I don't know it's taping." Relaxation doesn't come easily to a human dynamo like Elaine Stritch, especially after she has just had her whole life pass in front of her - and played all the parts herself. These days she is giving - figuratively and literally - the performance of her life, and no common cold or conceivable carrier is keeping her from her appointed rounds five times a week.
Elaine Stritch At Liberty, the best-reviewed theatrical happening of the season, opened November 7 at the 267-seat Newman Theater in the Joseph Papp Public Theater and, on the strength of uniform raves, winged its way uptown to the 1,300-seat Neil Simon Theatre, where this flinty, indefatigable force of nature still has no problem taking 'em all on.
The trick is, she does it one-on-one. She seems to be telling you, and only you, the story of her life - and telling it for the first time every time. Repeat viewers marvel at how well Elaine Stritch acts Elaine Stritch. She's the master of being 'in the moment' (or, as she does it, Being There). Once, when she went to the Actors Studio for a tune-up, Lee Strasberg just waved her away with "Elaine, you were born with The Method." Praise from Caesar!
Of course, it helps to have put 76 years into a role which, on paper, runs 47 pages and, in playing time (depending on the appreciation of the audience), two and a half hours. The play - "constructed by John Lahr" and "reconstructed by Elaine Stritch," then directed like a house afire by George C. Wolfe - qualifies as The Annotated Elaine Stritch Signature Songbook. She replays her biggest hits between anecdotes. Sometimes lyrics are punctuated with one-liners; sometimes, stories are sliced and diced by verses.
"It's like a really good book musical. 'Now that you've got a fella of your own, I guess I can tell you about mine. His name is Mister Snow . . .'" and she hops a ride on Carousel. "I wanted it to have that kind of flow. The other thing would be 'And then I wrote . . . ,' 'And then I sang . . . ,' 'And then I did . . .' I didn't want that. It's how the music in my life became part of my life, how songs I do in the show fit the time I was at in my life."
For some time, in gala benefit after gala benefit, Stritch proved she could talk a good game, extemporizing with eloquence and assurance about the honoree at hand. What she was really doing, she now says, was testing out material for a one-woman theatre piece.
At the Carnegie Hall salute to Judy Garland, a producer finally stepped up to the plate: "John Schreiber is responsible for this whole show because he's the one who said, 'I will back you with walking-around money for a year - or two, if you need it - because I want you to do your own show.' I'd always thought about doing that show, but John Schreiber was the guy who said, 'Do it.' And he's the one who came up with the idea of John Lahr."
Lahr, The New Yorker's theatre critic who has been Boswell for Joe Orton (Prick Up Your Ears) and his own dad (Notes on a Cowardly Lion: The Biography of Bert Lahr), stitched Stritch's words into the scripted story of her life, giving the piece a theatrical shape and drive. "The thought process that John Lahr contributed made it possible for me to do this," Stritch readily admits. "We both wanted it to be a play. I've said many times that I couldn't have done this without John Lahr. I probably could have, but I couldn't have done it with the richness that I'm doing it. He deserves a helluva lot of credit."
Boiling one's life down to basics is a bruising experience - "especially when we started to find that everything we wrote was working." One loss Stritch laments is a segment where she sings a Lerner-Lane song from Carmelina - "Why Him?" - and sandwiches in "little stories about a lot of the bastards I've gotten excited about."
Also not making the cut: the story of Stritch and Garland plotting to go from boozing buddies to "Bosom Buddies" and co-stars in Mame, crisscrossing roles according to their pub crawls. "I told her if she wanted to go out on the town, I'd do Mame the next day, and, if she would stay home one night, then I could do Vera - y'know, we could switch parts, depending on who wanted to go out and get smashed. She looked at me and said, 'Elaine, what about matinee days?'"
The limo rolls up to Stritch's hotel-away-from-home, and out she alights, followed by her entourage and, at a healthy distance, the inquiring reporter. The interview resumes in an alcove off from the lobby, star and scribe positioned at opposite ends of a long table.
Stritch orders some kind of cappuccino concentrate and asks the reporter what he'll have. The same. "No, have a drink." Black American coffee. "No, a real drink." Howdaya say no to a legend who fueled and fortified almost all of her performing career with alcohol? You don't. "Ketel One martini, up, with olives." Stritch heartily approves: "Atta boy!"
But she doesn't imbibe - and shehasn't since a near-fatal diabetic attack persuaded her to ditch the sauce permanently 14 years ago. Incredibly, the drinking didn't interfere with the singing and dancing and acting. Indeed, Stritch's most indelible Broadway moment was her booze-fueled rant as the serial divorcee in Company ("The Ladies Who Lunch"). She was just as harrowing - and as Tony-nominated - playing (sober) the drunk in A Delicate Balance, crediting her success to the sensitive direction of Gerald Gutierrez.
She became a Broadway Baby in 1947, arriving with the war whoop "Bongo Bongo Bongo / I don't wanna leave the jungle / Ohnononono." It was from a song called "Civilization," in an otherwise forgotten musical revue called Angel in the Wings, but it won her the thankless chore of standing by the chronically healthy, cast-iron Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. ("I was 20. I looked 40. I got the job.") While not going on in Madam, she did "Zip" on the side in a Pal Joey revival, and then toured with Madam.
She has been a Tony nominee since she tended the Bus Stop diner, and a Tony-nominated star since Noël Coward overhauled his Sail Away two weeks before opening, eliminating a leading lady and bringing Stritch's comic support front and center. Equally at home in musicals (On Your Toes, Goldilocks) and dramas (Love Letters, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?), she thinks she has at last stumbled onto a favorite role: herself in Elaine Stritch At Liberty.
"Before this show, if anybody said, 'You play yourself,' I'd say, 'I don't want to play myself. I've been trying to get away from her for a long time.' The reason a woman becomes an actress, I think, is to get away from herself. Escape. Any actress'll tell you that. You forget about Elaine for two hours every night and go out and be Parthy in Show Boat or that drunk in A Delicate Balance. That wasn't me! I'm clean! You can do anything you want and never get blamed for it because that's somebody else - a creation of Albee's, Inge's, Coward's. Now, with this play, Elaine Stritch is beginning to be my favorite part. What it did is make me like myself a bit more.
"It's also what sobriety did for me. Ididn't know myself till I stopped drinking. I like who I found. If you can achieve that in life, you're ahead. If you like yourself, then others like you. It's what they tell you as kids: 'You can't fall in love til l you fall in love with yourself.' Sometimes, you're the last to know. 'Stritch is a smash, and she's the last to know.'"
That's just like Stritch to dictate finis to her interview. But she actually ad libs a better button in her parting shot. "Get rid of the cold," she orders the writer, "and I'll marry ya."