Elaine Stritch performs “It’s Today”

When Elaine Stritch performed her landmark one-woman show At Liberty, one of the funniest anecdotes involved her failed audition for The Golden Girls. It didn’t go well for her and the part ultimately went to the legendary Bea Arthur (who it seems was even in the character’s description in the pilot script), a contemporary of Stritch’s at the New School for Dramatic Research and whose solo one-woman show opened in the same season. Though the two are distinctive in their inimitable deadpan deliveries, it makes perfect sense that there are roles through their careers which they have shared. One of these roles is Vera in Mame. Arthur famously originated the part on Broadway opposite Angela Lansbury to Tony-winning effect. Stritch later went on a national tour as Vera opposite Janet Blair, whom she also apparently understudied. (She’s perfect for Vera, not so ideal for Mame – at least in the musical).

Stritch went to the London in 1972 for the West End premiere of Company and she ended up staying for a decade. During this time she met and married actor John Bay and took up residence at the Savoy, while also starring in her own hilarios Britcom Two’s Company with Donald Sinden about a brash American writer and her staid British butler. This is an appearance on the 1979 Royal Variety Performance performing an expectedly Stritch-like rendition of “It’s Today.” (I especially like how she splits from the chorus kids for her own one-woman kickline).


Recording “The Ladies Who Lunch”

When the original Broadway cast of Company went into the Columbia recording studios to lay down the revolutionary Sondheim score, theatre fans were afforded an incredible opportunity as documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker was on hand to tape the marathon 18 hour session. It was to be the first in a series, but the full project never materialized. But this one session became the legendary Original Cast Album: Company. Before present union regulations, the tradition was that a cast album was recorded on the first day off after opening night. In that one day. It was a marathon session which started early in the morning and would usually take up the entire day and often go well past midnight.

Sitting like lords in the sound booth, Sondheim and 12 time Grammy winning record producer Thomas Z. Shepard give input and feedback regarding individual performances. Producer-director Harold Prince is also on hand to observe. But it’s mostly Sondheim and Shepard running things, conferring with conductor Harold Hastings, orchestra and performers. It’s quite clear that the original cast album is the definitive performance and everyone and everything must be perfect, down to the last note. Therefore, Sondheim asks Beth Howland that she sing rather than speak more of the patter of “Getting Married Today” and they re-do “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” when a wrong note is heard in the tight three part harmony. Dean Jones, whose singing on the album has always sounded impassioned to me, stands at the microphone like an automaton throughout most of the session.

But the most memorable segment was the notorious attempt to record Elaine Stritch‘s “The Ladies Who Lunch.” Coming at the end of the session, Stritch tries her hardest to get out her showstopper. She’s in her trademark tights and long button-down shirt. No make-up and her hair askew. However, for a variety of reasons  – physical exhaustion, vocal fatigue included – she just can’t nail it. She gives it her all, but to the disappointment of those in the booth her takes are lackluster. Sondheim suggests taking it down a half tone, Stritch’s response is that she can do it if she takes her hat off (among similar signs of nerves and exhaustion). It doesn’t go well, and in fact each take gets progressively worse as the session progresses. Tensions arise with an impatient record producer and a perfectionist composer struggling to figure out how to fix the problem. Eventually we cut to Stritch screaming at her own performance on the playback.

It’s decided to have the orchestra lay down the track and to have Elaine come in and record over it another day. When she returns to the studio several days later, it’s like night and day – Stritch coiffed in full hair and makeup for the show – hits the home run heard on the cast album. A triumph for all. In the DVD commentary, Hal Prince suggests that Stritch might have been playing to the cameras in the room – even down to the hair and makeup. Stritch denies it outright – that she was at her worst and quite humiliated and insecure and that she doesn’t even remember where she ended up that night. The star also talks about how hurt she was to hear Shepard say, “Once more from the top. Sung.”

Pennebaker, using just three hand held cameras captured the entire day of recording and whittled it down into this hour-long documentary showcasing the hard work that goes into the creation of a cast album. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to do his full series (I can’t imagine what the Follies session must have been like with all the devastating cuts Capitol insisted upon for the record) Who knew making a cast album could be so riveting? (And yes, one of those 12 Grammys was for Company).



Elaine Stritch wins an Emmy

Up until the time Elaine Stritch won her 2004 Emmy Award for the D.A. Pennebaker HBO special Elaine Stritch: At Liberty (a documentary taping of her landmark Tony Award winning solo show), the awards ceremony was one of the dullest in memory. But when the legendary stage actress won for Outstanding Individual Performance in a Variety or Music Program, she bounded onto the stage with an energy and excitement that invigorated the audience and amused everyone in the house as well as at home. The speech was one of the funniest I’ve ever heard – and typically Stritch (she was the only winner who had to be censored). It was a highlight of the ceremony, and became a great running gag for the rest of the evening.


The item was picked up by news sources and blogs and was voted “Best Loose Cannon” by Entertainment Weekly. Fellow nominee Ellen DeGeneres invited Stritch to appear on her talk show the very next day, and Stritch accepted. She talked about her stage career and of working for George Abbott. Again, proving to be one of the funniest women in the room. Here is an excerpt:


Bernadette Peters in “A Little Night Music”

The summer nights in New York are now smiling broader than ever. A luminescent new star has taken the reins of A Little Night Music and has wholly revitalized what was once a lugubrious affair. The excitement among the theatre crowd has been considerably high since it was announced that Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch would be replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury in the Broadway revival. Peters is giving the stage performance of a lifetime as the one and only Desiree Armfeldt, bringing the desperately needed Midas touch to a rather colorless staging. I all but hated the production when I attended its first preview (save for Lansbury, naturally), but with the addition of Peters, this Night Music is now a must-see.

Peters’ performance is a master class in poise, finding humor and humanity in her portrayal of the aging actress looking to settle down. But, not only is she bringing her A-game, but she is bringing out the best in those around her. Her relationship with Alexander Hanson’s Fredrik is loose, flirtatious and sexy and eminently more believable. With Peters running the show, you see why the men are drawn to her, but also understand her desperation to settle down with her family.  From an acting perspective I was impressed with the choices she was making – unexpected, original and wholly valid; not only is she likable, you want to stand and cheer for her by the finale. Everyone has that level of ease and for the first time it feels like a genuine ensemble onstage at the Walter Kerr. To say the production is better would be a colossal understatement; it’s like night and day. The change is especially apparent in the first act, which previously felt like Lutheran penance but is now a more breezy (if not brisk) farcical set-up. The knives were always there, but the whipped cream was lacking – it is now more balanced, more nuanced and more satisfying.

Then there’s “Send in the Clowns.” The delicate, intimate musical scene is one of the most anticipated in the entire canon. Not only was it the highlight of this revival, but it may be the greatest thing I’ve ever seen Bernadette Peters do – and that includes her superlative “Rose’s Turn” from the 2003 revival of Gypsy. Desiree and Fredrik sit on her bed as she makes the leap, risks everything for love only to have her dreams shattered right in front of her. Peters’ acting in the scene was truly remarkable. Between her beauty and nuance, it was impossible not to watch her as she listened, reacted and ultimately interrupted with Sondheim’s most famous song, tears streaming down her porcelain cheeks (and I might add, of most of the people around me). With Peters at the helm, the scene becomes the emotional apex of the show, as it should be (with Lansbury, it was “Liaisons”), a quiet showstopper that will continue to haunt you long after you’ve left the theatre.

Elaine Stritch has also joined the company, replacing Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt, Desiree’s  imperious mother and former courtesan. Stritch delivers her lines as well as her one major solo (“Liaisons”) with a brittle, no nonsense approach, delivering one liners with blunt honesty and the driest of wit. The actress doesn’t quite have all her lines, but she manages to make those moments work as though they were a genuine product of age. Understudy Bradley Dean was on for Aaron Lazar at the performance I attended and is even funnier and more in tune with the character than Lazar.

The rest of the company remains the same yet they’ve all made vast improvements, over the course of a mere month. Ramona Mallory is more restrained, and Hunter Ryan Herdlicka is bringing more clarity to Henrik’s hilariously over-the-top self loathing. The most pleasant surprise: Erin Davie has finally found her Charlotte. Davie is starting to get the laughs she’s missed before, has stopped playing Charlotte as a victim and the growth is exceptional. Leigh Ann Larkin’s accent still makes little sense, but even she is finding depth that wasn’t apparent a month ago. This was my first time seeing Katherine McNamara as the uncanny, wise beyond her years Fredrika and she is superb (the children hired for this production are exceptional). The Liebeslieders are, of course, marvelous, though I wish the silly “sway-ography” (only way I can describe it) they perform at the top of the “Night Waltz” would be cut. (I still miss the real overture).

For the record, I still hate Nunn’s hamfisted direction, those hideous sets (I really want to take a bottle of Windex to those mirrors), costumes and orchestrations, but this time the misguided scenography didn’t bother me. It’s by no means an ideal production, but when Desiree is well cast, very little else matters. Everything is better because of Bernadette. The ensemble finally feels like an ensemble and it should only grow better and stronger with each performance. The final preview for Bernadette and Elaine ran a bit longer than that never-ending first preview, but the hours seemed to pass in an instant. I only wish the producers opened with Bernadette in the first place. Peters and Stritch are contracted until November. Trust me, if you miss this star turn you’ll regret it for years to come.

‘How the Stritch Stole Christmas"

Courtesy of Langley Studios:

“Every one down on Broadway liked Christmas a lot.

But the Stritch who lived just north of Broadway, on Mount Carlyle, did not!

This Bats Langley Studios parody is meant in the spirit of playful caricature of the great Elaine Stritch. Miss Stritch is an inspiration. Merry Christmas, and we hope you enjoy.

Thank you to Nick Clark-Spear for lending his vocals and lyrical talents, Dr. Seuss for creating such a perfect foundation for the parody, and Ms. Stritch, Ms. Chenoweth, Ms. Cook and Mr. Grey for providing the inspiration for this venture.”

It’s a bit mean-spirited, and I don’t agree with their assessment of At Liberty at all, but I couldn’t help but laugh… (sort of like the cut Family Guy bit). Speaking of Stritch and Christmas, the promos for 30 Rock don’t seem to have our annual appearance from the sardonic legend. Anyone know if she’s going to be on this season?

Elaine’s Showbiz Number

According to Playbill, Elaine Stritch will be headlining the Paper Mill Playhouse production of The Full Monty this spring. She will be taking on the role of acerbic rehearsal pianist Jeanette Burmeister, originated by the late, great Kathleen Freeman in the original Broadway production. The show runs at the Playhouse in Milburn, NJ from June 10-July 12.