Gone but never to be forgotten: the passing of another theatrical legend

Elaine Stritch. Photo: Elliott Franks
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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I'm in Provincetown at the extreme tip of Cape Cod this week and next on holiday, and even here I can't seem to get away from the theatre. The place – a tiny, historic seaside town with a year-round population of under 3,000 that expands to 60,000 in the summer months, particularly with gay men and women – is full of theatrical and musical legends.

In the coming weeks, there will be live appearances from Liza Minnelli and Alan Cumming (on the same bill!), Carol Channing and Tommy Tune (ditto), Helen Reddy, as well as younger Broadway names like Kristen Chenoweth, Adam Pascal, Alice Ripley, Megan Hilty and Cheyenne Jackson. I only wish I was here all summer! (And that's even before you start factoring in the drag queens that summons everyone from Bette Midler to the Golden Girls).

The good news, as that roll call of names suggests, is that Broadway is an endlessly replendished (and resplendent) resource. But it is also only too human – and human beings are not immortal. So it is with great sadness that we heard last week of the passing of Elaine Stritch at the age of 89, and one of the most original, complex (and wayward) leading ladies on the Broadway block.

Anyone who has ever met or interviewed her (or even just seen her) will no doubt have a story. Here's mine: when she brought her brilliant Broadway one-woman show At Liberty to the Old Vic back in 2002, I interviewed her at the Savoy – a hotel that she had once made her home in the 1970s when she lived in London with her late husband John Bay – and the hotel allowed us to conduct the interview in a restaurant that was shut for the afternoon.

Notwithstanding the fact that there was therefore no waiter service, she got impatient for a diet coke, and wondered how she could order one. When I pointed out the restaurant was, in fact, shut, she grew increasingly agitated, and then hit upon a plan: "FIRE! FIRE!", she yelled at the top of her voice. Someone came running, and we she was able to place her order.

A few months ago, she was interviewed by NPR in the US, and it's amazing to see the degree of self-knowledge she possesses as she says this to her interviewer Scott Simon:

I think it's adorable of you to do this and take the courage. Like I'm facing life, you're facing the courage to interview me, 'cause I'm not easy. I'm just, you know, I'm just not easy. But I can't tell you how my heart's in the right place.

To another interviewer in 2003, she simply declared: "Just describe me as a pain in the ass."

There's no doubt she was, but she was also a life-force like few others in the theatre or beyond. And those came blazing to the fore in her intimate, confessional show At Liberty, in which she arguably played her greatest role, namely herself, brilliantly summed up in the show as "an existential crisis in tights." In this intricately put together one-woman show – "constructed by John Lahr and reconstructed by Elaine Stritch," said the billing – she exposed her raw nerve endings and performance anxieties, but it culminated in one of the most ferocious acts of performance I've ever seen. (You can still re-live it on DVD). Lahr admitted in the liner notes for the CD of the show that it wasn't an easy show to make and there had been a lot of shouting between them. He referred to "that ozone of anger and anxiety that is finally the Stritch climate".

A lot of that, suggested Charles Isherwood in a recent New York Times appreciation of her, comes from a fact that,

Perhaps more than any other performer, she embodied the contradictions that churn in the hearts of so many actors and singers: Her constitution seemed to be equal parts self-assurance and self-doubt, arrogance and vulnerability. A need to be admired did constant combat with a nagging fear of being rejected. But unlike most performers, Ms. Stritch never felt the necessity (or had the filter) to mask either the egotism or the fragility, in public or in private. She made the complications of her own personality part of her art, indeed the wellsprings of it. And in acknowledging the depth of her needs, she touched a universal chord.

It certainly touched me. As Ben Brantley wrote in his 2001 review of At Liberty,

Of course Ms. Stritch is, on some level, a frightened, confused, neurotic child. What great theater performer is not? But she has always been able to feed these traits into a stylistic blaze that warms everyone near her.

But it came at some personal cost, and for much of her life, she battled with the demon of alcohol to numb her pain. As long ago as a 1968 interview, she had admitted,

I’m not a bit opposed to your mentioning in this article that Frieda Fun here has had a reputation in the theater, for the past five or six years, for drinking. I drink, and I love to drink, and it’s part of my life.

She once told Michael Riedel that what she drank depended on what play she was in. “For Tennessee Williams, it was vodka, For Neil Simon, scotch. Champagne for Noel Coward. Bourbon for Edward Albee. I guess you could say I was a method drinker.”

She would later go dry thanks to the help of Alcoholics Anonymous. But in an interview earlier this year in The New York Times Magazine, she admitted she was drinking again: "I’m almost 89, I’m gonna have a drink a day or two. I know how to handle it, so there.” She had relocated by then back to Michigan, where she grew up, and said in a very Stritchian comment,

I just want to enjoy life and relax a little bit and go out with the rich ladies in Birmingham and enjoy them. And you can’t enjoy them sober.

Here's to a lady who clearly lunched to the very end, to quote the song from Sondheim's Company that she was the first to sing.

Here's to the girls on the go

Everybody tries.

Look into their eyes,

And you'll see what they know:

Everybody dies.

A toast to that invincible bunch,

The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.

Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch."