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
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.