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Elaine Stritch: A toast to a stage legend

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Allan Warren

“I’d like to propose a toast.” They’re just six simple words introducing “The Ladies Who Lunch” in the musical Company, but they’re the six words that introduced the scene that got theater and cabaret audiences talking about Elaine Stritch, who died today at age 89.

This bit, which unfolds over about 12 minutes with the tension of an ace Hitchcock thriller, is about as apt a descriptor of Stritch’s legacy as any: In the benchmark 1971 D.A. Pennebaker documentary Company: Original Cast Album, Stritch famously tries to get through a marathon show album recording. Tugging at her hair with voice tired and weary, her resolve dwindling, with composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim nervously shrinking in the sound booth, even Stritch cannot deal with the sound of her voice on playback after the less-than-stellar take. “Oh, shut up!” she screams at herself in agony. They all agree to table the recording of “Ladies” until the next day. And just some hours later, they reconvene in the studio, everyone on pins and needles, and she absolutely nails it. And cast album history is made.

Stritch, you could say, kicked and (literally) screamed her way to glory. And that path to glory was not an easy one, by any means. She was candid about her struggles with alcoholism. Her husband, actor and playwright John Bay, died after only 10 years of marriage. Her other Hollywood relationships were also plagued with bad luck, including those with Oscar-winner Gig Young (who took his own life at age 64), Marlon Brando (who she denied a “nightcap” when she was 17 years old), and she famously tossed aside beau Ben Gazzara for a crack at the swoonworthy Rock Hudson. (“And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be,” she famously quipped.) She botched a tryout for one of the lead roles on The Golden Girls, which would have made her wealthy beyond her wildest dreams. She was diabetic for decades, resulting in blood-sugar drops that would hamper (but never dull the impact of) her live performances later in life.

Any one of these things could have crippled a lesser-willed actor. But Elaine Stritch constantly emerged, then re-emerged, and somehow very quietly managed to become a force in nearly every entertainment medium. And her desire to conquer only got stronger as she grew older.

After all, how many actors—major or minor—get two outstanding biographical pieces about them? Her self-penned (with an assist by New Yorker critic John Lahr) Elaine Stritch at Liberty in New York City in the fall of 2001 became, quite simply, the bar-none standard set for theatrical solo shows. Gliding and crooning across the stage with no props, save for one chair, in her trademark white button-down shirt and black tights, it was two-and-a-half-hour reminder of why the theater has the ability to change lives. Stritch’s guided tour explored her career harrowingly and without sentiment (with all of the above anecdotes included).

Liberty was staged mere weeks after the fall of the Twin Towers, at a time in which people needed to be coaxed to attend live theater, especially below 14th Street in Manhattan. But this little bioplay at the Public Theater quickly became the must-see event of that season—not just because of the ecstatic reviews, but because Stritchey (as her great pal Noel Coward affectionately called her) became a symbol for the uneasy emotions of  the time, and like the city of New York, persevered simply because that was the only way to do it. The show would then transfer to Broadway the spring following, where it win a Tony for Special Theatrical Event. (The follow-up HBO film version would later win an Emmy as well; she ended up with three total over her long career.)

Stritch’s other autobiographical gem was released only five months ago; Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me (now available on Netflix to stream) follows her final days as a New Yorker before prepping a permanent move to Birmingham, Michigan, to live in her childhood home. The film, like Liberty on stage a decade beforehand, was a close examination of her daily routine, and the findings therein produced winces as often as cackles. In the documentary, Stritch is seen fighting the cameraman on how to best capture her putting a box in a hallway, showing off the little bottle of gin she takes a limited swig of per day (with her full sobriety seemingly a thing of the past), and aggressively, profanely prepping her final concerts, all while battling the rigors and setbacks of health in old age. It is, simply, a definitive portrait of an artist from the inside out, and what happens when your body begins to deny your mind of all that you’d like to accomplish.

Her role as Jack Donaghy’s irascible mother on 30 Rock won her a guest-actress Emmy in 2008. Tina Fey and Alec Baldwin, her costars, praise her fierceness and many gifts, though they hint that she wasn’t the easiest to work alongside. (In an amusing bit in Baldwin’s late, lamented WNYC podcast “Here’s The Thing”, he even calls her a “pain in the ass” to her face, and she doesn’t put up any fight on the matter—something she was not known for.)

Yet despite the sometimes downbeat nature of her autobiographical works, the tone never became grim. The edges were hardened, but the heart was constantly omnipresent, which transformed her roles in shows like Company, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Sail Away, Show BoatA Delicate Balance, and even three years ago in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music opposite Bernadette Peters. As many of the actors who surrounded her over the years have said, she was incapable of an inauthentic moment, onstage or off.