Saturday, August 9, 2014

Commentary: Farewell, Dear Elaine Stritch

The last time I saw Elaine Stritch was in the lobby of the Imperial on 46th Street not too long before she left New York. For just a moment, i thought I’d try to catch her as she left the theatre and hurried down 46th Street. And now that she is gone, I regret that I didn’t make the attempt, that I never got the chance to tell her how long I’ve been an admirer. My devotion to Stritch began during the run of Pal Joey at the Broadhurst Theatre in 1952. I saw the production so often that my parents suggested that I just move into that theater on 45th Street. There was much to admire in that O’Hara - Hart- Rodgers masterpiece, of course, and Stritch’s rendition of “Zip” (“My artistic taste is classic and dear —/ “Zip! Who the hell’s Lilli St. Cyr?) was just one of the show’s highlights.
I did not get to see her again until she appeared in Bus Stop, William Inge’s 1955 play, which I attended half a dozen times. The play, which was directed by Harold Clurman, starred the great Kim Stanley as Cherie, a down-on-her-heels nightclub singer who is stranded with other travelers at a very small restaurant in Kansas very late at night. It doesn’t surprise that each “guest” had a story to tell. At first Stritch was the waitress. And then, in 1961, I took a group of students to see Noel Coward’s Sail Away. It was fun to watch Stritch cavorting on the stage of the Broadhurst again.

Although it was a mediocre work, I saw Stritch perform in Goldilocks at the Lunt-Fontanne in 1958 with a book by Walter and Jean Kerr based on the 1955 The Vamp. The plot was based around the silent movie industry in 1913, and it was set in the film colony at Fort Lee, New Jersey. But an audience was never really found for the production; however, I still enjoy listening to Leroy Anderson’s tuneful score.

It was her distinctive gravelly sound and sardonic delivery (in “The Ladies Who Lunch”) that made Stritch a perfect Jo-Anne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company (1970). For that show, George Furth provided a book that was almost without any plot. And the musical centered around several birthdays in the life of the show’s main character, a New York city bachelor named Bobby (Dean Jones) . His friends are all bored New Yorkers; and when he sees how boring the marriages around him are turning out, he has a problem. And at the play’s end, he attempts to stay “Side By Side By Side” with his friends as everyone asks, “What Would We Do Without You?” And yet, finally, Bobby goes off on his own.

I have written more about Elaine Stritch in a separate article on my site. And, too, there is a wonderful DVD of this great performer (Elaine Stritch: At Liberty). Watching this excellent recording isn’t quite the same as seeing the great Stritch in person. But, except for our memories, it’s all we have.