Elaine Stritch: There was nothing like this dame

Broadway legend Elaine Stritch died at her home on Thursday. Stritch was 89. (Reuters)

As acting breeds go, Elaine Stritch was one of theater’s Great Dames. She strayed, from time to time, into movies and television over the course of an astonishing 70 years in show business. And, as she proved in her priceless recurring stint on “30 Rock” as Alec Baldwin’s relentlessly cantankerous mother, she was as on her comedic game at 85 as she was at myriad other junctures of her entertainingly self-dramatizing life.

But the theater was where Stritch stretched out most sublimely, in roles highlighting her been-there, done-that sass. It was her turn as the scalding Joanne in the 1970 Stephen Sondheim-George Furth musical “Company” that will forever be recalled as the ideal distillation of her talent. Forty-four years on, her rendition of “The Ladies Who Lunch” — one of the most exhilarating send-’em-home-cheering numbers ever written — remains the platinum standard. No one, but no one, could do it like Stritch.

And now that she’s gone, having died Thursday in Michigan at 89, you just might pick up her whisky-voiced insistence in the wind, that no one ever will.

“She wants the stage like a hot dinner,” journalist and author John Lahr remarked to me in 2001, when the autobiographical one-woman show he had written with her, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” was in previews at off-Broadway’s Public Theater. “Want” was a big verb in the Stritch vocabulary, for the extraordinary size of her need — to be in the theatrical moment, communicating to us some essence of her outsize personality — was a key to the powerful compact she always sought to seal with an audience.

If you have ever seen D.A. Pennebaker’s absorbing film of the making of “Company’s” original cast album, then you have clear documentary evidence of this. In the grueling recording session the film depicts, a haggard Stritch could not for the life of her lay down a track that came close to the ecstatic “Ladies Who Lunch” she delivered onstage. “It’s breaking my heart but not my spirit,” she said later, rewatching the hours-long ordeal. On film, you can see the frustration on Sondheim’s tired face.

And yet, when she returned the next day for a follow-up session, freshly coiffed and glamorously made up, she nailed it, in the unparalleled version you can still hear today. Call it what you will: professionalism — or the terror of failure. “You pull through these things,” she would explain, “because you cannot quit.”

She got her start on Broadway in the early 1940s, settling into one of those careers that allow an actor to segue from plays to musicals and back again. The original 1955 production of William Inge’s “Bus Stop,” with Kim Stanley, is on her résumé, as is the musical comedy “Call Me Madam,” in which she understudied none other than Ethel Merman. As she recounted in “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” she never went on for the compulsively reliable Merman — a good thing, because she was at the same time appearing in a revival of “Pal Joey” in Connecticut, singing the Act 2 comedy song, “Zip.”

I first saw her on Broadway, with my standing-room ticket to “Company,” and although she might not have been a famous name in most American households at the time, she instantly became one in mine. “God, I don’t have enough,” Stritch observed half-jokingly to me about fame, during an interview I conducted with her years later. Never a great beauty, rarely the recipient of top billing and not in the strict sense a chameleon, she nevertheless was a touchstone for an audience. As a result of her authority and flawless timing, she could compel you to notice her. And we obliged.

She’d have another peerless moment with Sondheim, singing an exuberant rendition of “Broadway Baby” in the still-talked-about 1985 concert version of “Follies” at Lincoln Center, featuring Lee Remick, Barbara Cook, Mandy Patinkin, Carol Burnett and George Hearn. She continued to work in plays and musicals into the 1990s: She was an endearing Parthy to John McMartin’s Cap’n Andy, in director Harold Prince’s 1994 revival of “Show Boat,” and a riveting Claire, embittered sister to Rosemary Harris’s Agnes, in the 1996 Broadway revival of Edward Albee’s “A Delicate Balance.”

Although she would appear one final time on Broadway, as Madame Armfeldt opposite Bernadette Peters in a 2009 revival of Sondheim’s “A Little Night Music,” it was her one-woman show, which moved from the Public Theater to Broadway in 2002, that was the more apt valedictory. It was also the show that finally got her a Tony.

The evening gave her the opportunity to reflect on some of the ups and downs of her life, particularly her happy recollections of her 10-year marriage to actor John Bay, who died of a brain tumor in 1982, as well as about her long struggle with alcohol. Audiences learned that this seemingly confident performer needed a drink to quell her stage jitters.

She was notoriously demanding, as theater publicists and people who encountered her in New York hair salons can tell you. But there was a sharpness of wit and an offstage vulnerability that were disarming. Holding her hand as we both made our way onto the stage of the Neil Simon Theatre for a talk-back after a performance of “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” I was aware of how fragile, how spent, she seemed from the evening’s labors.

And then we sat down before the paying customers. The lights blazed to life, and so did Stritch. A Broadway baby, always, to the very core.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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