Friday, April 5, 2013

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

This news may not have made the national headlines, or even the entertainment section.  But here at the NY Branch, this is big news.  All the local papers have mentioned it, and the Grey Lady Herself, the Times, was present Tuesday and filed a report.  

There are only five performances, though the Times suggests they are not really performances;  perhaps they should be called "evenings."  But on Opening Night, Liza was there with Tony Bennett.  So was Bernadette Peters and her Into The Woods creator James Lapine.  Even Tom Hanks spent his only night off from his own show to schlep up to the Upper East Side to pay tribute.  Here in New York, attention is definitely being paid:  Elaine Stritch is saying goodbye.
Though she claims she'll be back, it seems unlikely.  Stritch's cabaret career at the Cafe Carlyle is legendary.  She has lived upstairs from the club for over a decade, but has decided to move back to her hometown in suburban Detroit, to be near the family she left 70 years ago.
Aging's a bitch, no matter who you are, but when you are a stage performer, it's particularly grueling.  It's why Peter O'Toole retired not long ago (I wrote about that here), and why Dame Maggie Smith has lamented that, because of advancing age, she will never return to the stage.  At 88, Elaine Stritch is calling it quits. 
Stritch can get laughs anywhere, including in a trashcan.
Beckett's Endgame was never so funny.

Decades of diabetes and alcohol abuse have taken their toll, as well as the natural effects of growing old.  She's had several minor strokes and several physical falls, one of which broke her hip, requiring her to use a cane.  Her memory is so faulty, according to the Times critic, that her farewell cabaret is sadly uncomfortable.  She also admits to being back on the sauce, allowing herself one drink per day. At age 88 and in poor health, is anybody going to tell her no?
Elaine's final Broadway appearance was in 2010, replacing Angela Lansbury in the revival of A Little Night Music.  She freely admitted she was wrong for the part of the courtly courtesan, Madame Armfeldt.  Bernadette Peters, playing her daughter, was wrong too, but as both women are considered premiere interpreters of the work of Stephen Sondheim, the public responded, and the revival's life was extended.
Despite a career which is stunning in its longevity (she made her Broadway debut in the 40s), she is hardly a household name, and I doubt middle America could pick her out of a line-up. 
When Company took her to London, she met her
husband, and stayed. She did Neil Simon (The
Gingerbread Lady) and Tennessee Williams
(Small Craft Warnings), and spent four seasons
headlining the above Britcom, Two's Company.

But she's truly a theatrical icon.  It's hard to explain her appeal;  she may not be one of those "love her or hate her" types, but there are still lots of people who do not understand why she is so revered.  She took over for Uta Hagen in the original Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, and Woody Allen has made good use of her in several films.  Even David Letterman has used her, in a running gag about a horny housewife.  She will be remembered, most especially, for her musical performances, but even in her prime, her voice was more a bray than a belt.  And in recent years, her musical ear has become downright lousy.  Still, she's sometimes called "Broadway's last First Lady," mostly due to her musical resume. 
Stritch and Bea Arthur appeared together in an early TV program, but a bit of a rivalry sprang up decades later.  Elaine tells the story of losing the role of Dorothy on The Golden Girls due to an unfortunate ad-lib.  Arthur, whose one-woman show landed on Broadway simultaneously with Stritch's, assured her audience she would NOT be singing "I'm Still Here," a direct dig at Elaine, who was up the street bringing down the house with the number. Bea's show was nominated for the Tony, but she lost it to Elaine's.
She understudied Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, and headlined the national tour. She has also toured in Mame and The King and I
As Joanne in Company.

Noel Coward placed her in a supporting role in Sail Away, then elevated her to the lead out of town.  Her performance in Company is considered one of the great performances in the history of the musical theatre.

Through most of her critically acclaimed Broadway career, the Tony Award remained elusive. 

Why do the wrong people travel?, Stritch wondered in Sail Away.
She was nominated twice for her musical work: she lost her award in Sail Away to both Anna Maria Alberghetti (Carnival) and Diahann Carroll (No Strings), as there was a tie that year, and she lost her award in Company to a tap-dancing Helen Gallagher (No, No, Nanette). 

The only time I saw Stritch live onstage was in A
Delicate Balance. She was spectacular.
She is also a strong dramatic actress, evidenced by her two Tony nods for straight plays:  she lost her award in Bus Stop to Una Merkel, whoever the hell that is, and her award for A Delicate Balance went to Zoe Caldwell's Maria Callas (Master Class).  She finally won the award for her autobiographical one-woman show At Liberty.
Elaine Stritch: At Liberty is available on DVD and is worth seeing.  She relates her journey as an artist and as a woman with surprising self-deprecation and candor. Her stories about Brando and Garland and Merman and others are riveting.
She did better with her television work, which has yielded seven Emmy nominations over the years, and three wins. 
Playing Alec Baldwin's mother
has earned her multiple Emmy nods, and one
win so far. Look for a final nomination for her
this year as well, for an episode in which she
comes out as a lesbian.

Her guest turn as a lawyer on Law and Order in 1993 earned her a trophy (she beat out, among others, another Broadway oldster, Gwen Verdon, who was nominated for an episode of Homicide), and she was repeatedly nominated for her recurring role as Alec Baldwin's mother in 30 Rock (she won in 2007).  Her third and most meaningful Emmy win was for the HBO presentation of the show for which she won her lone Tony, Elaine Stritch At Liberty.  It is fitting, then, as we say goodbye to a true theatrical treasure, that this week's Dance Party comes from that acclaimed one-woman show.
All of New York is hurrying to the Carlyle this week, for Elaine's swan song.
Stritch has probably three signature songs from various times in her musical theatre career.  The 11:00 number in Coward's Sail Away, "Why Do The Wrong People Travel?" is surely one.  The second is most definitely the song for which Elaine will be most remembered, Company's "The Ladies Who Lunch." 
As the acerbic, chain smoking, martini swilling Joanne, Stritch cemented her reputation as a performer who takes no prisoners.  In Company, after a failed attempt to seduce leading man Dean Jones, she raised her glass to toast the Ladies Who Lunch, introducing one of the masterpieces of musical theatre. 
But there is a third song which became closely associated with Stritch in her later career.  In 1985, our gal participated in an all-star concert staging of Follies, and stopped the show with her rendition of this number.  There is a clip of that performance out there, but I prefer the one below. 
The man's shirt over black tights was a
signature look for Stritch through the years.

This week's Dance Party is from At Liberty, and features our Elaine at her best: honest, rueful, and endearing.  Yes, Elaine Stritch can be endearing.  I imagine this week's farewell "evenings" at the Carlyle are pretty endearing, too;  how could they not be?  A great theatrical performer is bringing her career to an end. But like everything else she's done in her life, she's doing it on her terms.  Everybody rise.