Friday, July 18, 2014

Friday Dance Party: That Existential Problem In Tights

She swore like a sailor, had a voice like a cab driver, and charged through life mowing down anything in her way.  Through it all, she remained a class act.

Elaine Stritch
1925-2014
Even after two Tony nods, Stritch found her career
dangerously dry in the mid-60s. She tended bar to
support herself (appropriately, at Elaine's in NY).


The recording session for the cast album of
Company was preserved in a documentary, which
showed Stritch struggling to nail "Ladies Who
Lunch" at the end of a grueling day. The producers
were smart to spring for a second session, which
she attended in full make-up, ready to perform that
night's show.

I first became aware of Stritch when I listened to the original cast album of Company. Who the hell was that brassy woman with the bass voice shouting about ladies who lunch?  Hers was the 11:00 number, and is, with the possible exception of "Being Alive," the most famous song from the show.  And Elaine's rendition is considered the definitive version.

Her first Tony nod came for Inge's Bus Stop, in
which she played acerbic cafe owner Grace. The
film version was only loosely based on the play,
and Stritch's role went to Eileen Heckart. 35 years
later, Elaine returned the insult, and replaced
Heckart as Wilma Bern on One Life To Live.
Our heroine escaped a priviledged but emotionally distant childhood as soon as she could;  she moved to New York from her upscale Detroit suburb before her 18th birthday.  She tells this story and many more in her acclaimed one-woman performance, Elaine Stritch At Liberty

Stritch toured the country as the lead in Call Me Madame, and together with her success "in support" in Pal Joey, it was time for a starring role in a musical on Broadway.  That role was in Goldilocks, an unsuccessful parody of the silent film era.  The project brought Elaine to the attention of Noel Coward, above, who fell in love with her dry style and wrote a new show for her. Sail Away provided our gal with her second Tony nomination, (and first in a musical).  Her competition was so fierce that she lost the award to two others, the only time the Best Actress in a Musical has ended in a tie.  Both Diahann Carroll, for No Strings, and Anna Maria Alberghetti, for Carnival, took home the trophy.
She spent some time in drama school, but it was only a few years until she began her Broadway career.  She made a splash in a revival of Pal Joey, playing a reporter who interviews the star and delivers "Zip," the kind of comic song for which Stritch became well known. 
Everyone was sure Elaine would finally
win her Tony when her performance as
Joanne in Company became the talk of
the town. She lost it to hoofer Helen
Gallagher in No, No, Nanette.

She was at her best in this kind of number, telling a story or making a list;  all her signature songs are in this vein.  A straight-out love ballad was not her strong suit, but give her a tale to tell, and she was in her element.
The only time I saw Elaine Stritch in person was in this revival of A Delicate Balance, in which she stole the show from some very accomplished actors.  It's true that she is more famously remembered for her musical roles, but her performance as Claire was one of the most memorable I have ever seen. She was again nominated for the Tony, and would have won it, if Zoe Caldwell hadn't swept into town and flattened the competition as Maria Callas in Master Class.
Elaine was nominated for the Tony five times during her career, finally winning for her one-woman show, At Liberty
Elaine's lone Tony was for
her solo show, in a category
which no longer exists.

Back in 1996, she told 60 Minutes that, if a performer believes she deserves the Tony, she does not have to win it.  Many years later, she had changed her mind.  Talking to the New York Times, Stritch recently confessed to a deep disappointment that she had not been rewarded for her lifetime of theatrical work sooner.  I agree with her.
After the Broadway run of Company, Elaine took the show to the West End, where she was so well received, she stayed. In London she had great success with Small Craft Warnings, by Tennessee Williams, and with The Gingerbread Lady, by Neil Simon (the latter would eventually end up as the film Only When I Laugh, with Marsha Mason taking the part created by Stritch). The Brits seemed to accept our gal's dry, deadpan delivery better than Americans, at least in the 70s. Her biggest UK success was as the star of the Britcom Two's Company, above, which earned Elaine a BAFTA nod. The show ran four seasons.
The first of Elaine's 3 Emmys was earned for this portrayal of
a feminist attorney defending Felicity Huffman (before she
became a Desperate Housewife), on Law and Order.
Though primarily known for her stage work, our gal had some success on screen, both large and small. 
Despite 6 decades on stage, Stritch only
became a national celebrity as this
recurring character on 30 Rock.

She appeared in the 1950s melodrama A Farewell to Arms, and she starred in a sitcom in the early 60s which was based on the stage play My Sister Eileen.  The majority of her screen fame, though, came late in her life, as she turned in hilarious performances as mouthy maternal figures. 
As Mia Farrow's mother in Woody Allen's
September, there was legitimate Oscar buzz.

She played Dyan Cannon's mother (Out To Sea), Winona Ryder's grandmother (Autumn in New York), and Jane Fonda's mother-in-law (Monster-In-Law).  Most famously, she played Alec Baldwin's mother in several episodes of TVs 30 Rock, earning five Emmy nominations for her performances in that sitcom, and winning in 2007.
The sheer longevity of Elaine Stritch's career means that she lost a few choice roles along the way.  She was in the very first Honeymooners sketch, above, before the thing became a full show.  She played upstairs neighbor Trixie.  Jackie Gleason recognized at once that Elaine's comic expertise would upset the balance of the show, and she was replaced.  Even more famously, Stritch auditioned for, and lost, the role in The Golden Girls which ultimately went to Bea Arthur.  If she had landed that role, the entire trajectory of her career would have been altered.
We are very glad Elaine Stritch continued to perform later in life.  Let's get to this week's clips! 
Our gal was known as a leading interpreter of Sondheim's
work. "Ladies Who Lunch" and "Broadway Baby" were both
signature tunes for Stritch. If she had been in the original
production of A Little Night Music, "Liaisons" might have
become another.

Yes, there are two, but this first one is quite short.  The most recent revival of A Little Night Music starred Catherine Zeta-Jones (who won the Tony) and Angela Lansbury.  When those stars departed, the producers stumbled upon a plan to keep the show running a while longer.  Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch assumed the mother/daughter roles in the show.  Here is about a minute of Stritch's performance as aging courtesan Madame Armfeldt;  the song illustrates Elaine's expertise with the "memory song," in which she can captivate an audience simply by telling a story.  The song was originated by the great Hermione Gingold:





The above performance was the last she was to give on Broadway, but she didn't give up. 
This recent documentary chronicles our star's
final few years in NY, in which she struggles
with memory loss and balance issues.

Elaine's last New York appearance was a week's engagement at her favorite cabaret, the Cafe Carlyle (I wrote about that here). She lived there, too;  she confessed to 60 Minutes that she began living in hotels when her diabetes became so severe, she needed to have someone within reach at all times.  When her health finally became so poor that even hotel staffers were not enough, Elaine left New York and returned to her hometown. She was only there a year or so before her death last week.

What a career our gal had. This week's Dance Party showcases Elaine Stritch's fine comic style, singing a Rodgers and Hart classic from A Connecticut Yankee.  Years ago, Danny Kaye's wife and beard, Sylvia Fine Kaye, hosted a series of programs for television, documenting some of musical theatre's enduring treasures.  This song is one.  This performer is another.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Dancing At The Prom

This week's Dance Party returns to its original roots: dance!
The BBC Proms is a summer concert series which has been a mainstay for the Brits since (get this) 1895.  Obviously, in those days, the only way to enjoy these musical dates was to attend them (often as a "prommer," a slang term loosely translated as a standing room ticket, or if you prefer the classical term, a groundling).  The Proms eventually found their way to radio and, naturally, to television.  Though most of the concerts showcase classical works, the Proms nowadays are likely to include popular music and showtunes.
Anna-Jane Casey's career includes several years in Cats,
Starlight Express, and Billy Elliot in the West End, as well
as numerous appearances in London's Chicago and the
Forbidden Broadway series.
Our star today is Anna-Jane Casey, and if you've never heard of her, you're not alone.  I had to research her myself.  While a busy actress in musicals in Britain, she is totally unknown elsewhere.  This week's Dance Party proves she is a talented and engaging musical theatre performer.

For our source material, who better than a Broadway legend?
Jerry Herman, here flanked by his original Mame and Dolly, has more than a few Tonys, including awards for his scores to both Hello, Dolly! and La Cage Aux Folles.  Speaking of the latter, La Cage not only won the Best Musical prize for its original production (beating out that year's Pulitzer Prize winner Sunday in the Park with George), the show also won the Best Revival Tony for both its returns to Broadway.  This week's Dance Party does not come from any of those shows.
Jerry Herman provides this week's Dance Party, from his score to Mack & Mabel.  Herman turned 83 years old last week, so it's understandable that his musical career these days consists only of revivals and various revues and tributes containing his existing material. Jerry's songs have graced the Dance Party a few times over the years.
Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur both won Tonys for these performances in Mame. Their big duet, "Bosom Buddies", has appeared twice in these pages. Go here to see them recreate the song at a Tony Award show, and go here for the rendition which appears in the disastrous film version of the show. Neither Lansbury nor Arthur appear in this week's Dance Party.

This is Karen Morrow, a leading interpreter of Jerry Herman's tunes.  She does not appear in this week's Dance Party either, but she did, here, when she belted the only memorable song to survive the train wreck which was Herman's Dear World.
This is Douglas Hodge, who does not appear in this week's Dance Party. When California's Prop 8 was making news, I took the opportunity to showcase the most recent revival of La Cage Aux Folles, for which Hodge won a Tony.
This is Tommy Tune, who also does not appear in this week's Dance Party. But when he did, his tribute included a video retrospective of his career which is really fun to watch.  And by coincidence, it features the same song which is showcased this week.
The BBC Proms are broadcast for the Brits to enjoy every summer, and every once in a while, a clip makes its way over the pond for the Yanks to enjoy.  "The Proms," by the way, is shorthand for "Promenade Concerts," a slang term also adopted by American high schools for their annual spring dance. This week's Dance Party is the grand finale to one of the BBC Proms, and features my favorite style of dance, the tap. Happy Birthday, Jerry Herman!

Friday, July 4, 2014

Friday Dance Party: Here's To The Lady Who's Staunch

This weekend, as we celebrate that revolutionary spirit of which so many Americans are proud, the Dance Party celebrates one of the true oddballs of the American musical theatre. 
Christine Ebersole as Little Edie Beale, in Grey Gardens.  There are many, many musicals out there based on films, but this appears to be the only one based on a documentary.
Grey Gardens, the musical, premiered Off-Broadway in early 2006 and despite lukewarm critical reception, transferred to Broadway later that year.  Two of the show's three Tony Awards are showcased in the clip below, as our star, Christine Ebersole, won for her performance, as did William Ivey Long for his costumes (the production's third Tony was won by Mary-Louise Wilson as Big Edie).
Though the musical as a whole was not enthusiastically received, the production at Playwright's Horizon transferred to Broadway on the strength of the two leading performances. Christine Ebersole and Mary-Louise Wilson dominated the second act of the musical, which was a recreation of the original documentary.  The first act was a flashback to the period when the Beales were High Society, and includes portrayals of Jacqueline Bouvier (later Kennedy), her sister Lee, and the young Joseph Kennedy.  Ebersole and Wilson both won Tonys for their work in Grey Gardens.
The musical chronicles the dysfunctional relationship between two society mavens, mother and daughter, both named Edith Bouvier Beale.  They were Jackie Kennedy's aunt and cousin, so when their reclusive lifestyle and dilapidated living conditions were reported by the National Inquirer in the early 1970s, they received national attention.  Grey Gardens became a documentary film in 1975 and has since gained cult status. 
 
The Beales are catnip to actresses. This 2009 TV film won the Emmy, as did Jessica Lange as Big Edie and Ken Howard as Phelan Beale, the patriarch who deserted his family and set their downward spiral in motion.

The actual Beales in the documentary. Frankly, the film
was difficult for me to get through (it took me 3 sittings,
and the thing is only 90 minutes long). I found these
women to be far more than merely eccentric, but
possibly delusional, with no ability to recognize
their true circumstances. Very hard to watch.

This week's star, Christine Ebersole, was already a Tony winner when she won again for Grey Gardens (her first award came for the revival of 42nd Street). 
Christine Ebersole (with the flowers) has had a long and varied career on stage and screen.  Here she plays a supporting role in Amadeus; she had a brief moment in Tootsie as well as many other films.  Her TV work includes a stint on One Life To Live, which earned an Emmy nomination.  She is currently in the cast of the TBS sitcom Sullivan and Son.
The inspiration for the song which was featured at the 2007 Tony Awards, and is this week's Dance Party, comes directly from the original documentary film.  As a preamble, take a look at this very short clip from the original, in which Little Edie explains the reasoning behind her "costume for today."

And now enjoy Ebersole's performance of the song which sprang from that brief encounter with Little Edie.  Yep, that costume is indeed revolutionary, but the real attraction of this clip is the quietly compelling performance of our star.