An Appreciation: Elaine Stritch, iconic Broadway star, dies at 89

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Elaine Stritch, the brassy, acerbic, jaded-but-vulnerable Broadway baby who possessed a potent stage presence, great legs, a smoke-enhanced voice and a rocky road sort of personal history, died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Mich., where she had moved after decades of living in Manhattan’s posh Carlyle Hotel. The actress was 89, and was just sassy enough to come on stage wearing her trademark black leggings and a boyfriend-style white silk shirt almost til the end.

Stritch, the Tony- and Emmy Award-winner, made Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” (from the musical “Follies”) her real-life anthem:

“Good times and bum times, I’ve seen them all, and, my dear, I’m still here.

Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here. I’ve stuffed the dailies in my shoes, strummed ukuleles, sung the blues.

Seen all my dreams disappear, but I’m here.”

In later years, Stritch, who will forever be remembered for the way she dove into the lyrics of another Sondheim song, “The Ladies Who Lunch,” from the 1970 musical, “Company,” made her life an open book — both in her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and in Chiemi Karasawa’s 2013 documentary, “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.”

The actress, who worked well into her 80s, had also found fans among a whole new generation when she appeared in the NBC comedy, “30 Rock.” She played Colleen, the domineering mother of the television executive, Jack Donaghy, played by Alec Baldwin, and won an Emmy for her portrayal.

“What made Stritch special was the brutally honest way she sand every lyric or spoke every word on stage,” said Doug Peck, the ubiquitous Chicago musical director currently working on a production on “Carousel” at the Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York. “She also can be seen as offering a lesson to all of us who do musicals, reminding us that what really matters is what you do with a lyric. People would much rather hear her sing-talk a lyric than hear a beautiful voice.”

In an interview in 2003, when she brought her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” (penned in collaboration with John Lahr), to Chicago’s Shubert Theatre, the actress was happy to discuss her work in musicals (from Noel Coward’s “Sail Away” and “Company,” to a revival of “Show Boat”), in challenging plays (from her Broadway debut in “Bus Stop,” to such demanding works as Edward Albee’s “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and “A Delicate Balance”), and in movies. And she was brutally frank about the subtext of her solo show — the heavy-duty alcohol problem that plagued her for years, until she went into a diabetic coma and realized that her next drink could be her very last.

She was exceptionally proud of her role in crafting the script for that solo turn that recwived widespread acclaim in New York, London and on tour.

As she put it: “When I first sat down to write, I would say to myself, ‘Just turn the page, Elaine. Just tell the story.’ And I like what I’ve written. What was important to me was to get past the idea of ‘crazy Elaine,’ or the idea I was just another pretty face.”

Asked whether the process of exploring herself was different from exploring the many characters she had played during her career, she explained: “The characters explore ME; I don’t explore THEM. And frankly, I’m not one of those Charlie Rose kind of actors who talks about ‘the process.’ I was raised by Noel Coward, whose simple, classic advice was to learn your lines and avoid bumping into the furniture.”

“I was such an admirer of hers,” said Jim Corti, artistic director of the Paramount Theater in Aurora. “She was so sexy and smart — even early in her career, when she sang ‘Zip’ in the original ‘Pal Joey.’ She really was one-of-a- kind. Think about it: Is there anyone who even comes close to her these days?”

Stritch said she was pleased that audiences could finally see “the human being behind the devil-may-care facade” in a show in which he chronicled her life — from finishing school days and her earliest successes on the New York stage (including understudying Ethel Merman), to her romances with everyone from Marlon Brando to Ben Gazzara (whom she dumped in favor of what she misguidedly thought might be marriage to Rock Hudson), to her career triumphs and personal disasters. The show also gave her a chance to talk about the great love of her life, her husband, John Bay, an actor who was part of the family that owns the Bay’s English Muffins company, who died in 1982 at 53.

But she was her usual frank self when noting the show was “the entertainment version of my life.”

“I had to make it true, but also entertaining — balancing tragedy and the comedy,” said Stritch “I have no interest in writing the nonfiction autobiography. But I am very interested in living the rest of my life without the use of substances. It feels mature, but it ain’t all roses. I now face really being there every day.”

When asked about how Broadway had changed since she began her career there in the late 1940s, Stritch said: “MY feeling for it hasn’t changed. But MY feeling is for the memories. I hate how casual it is now. I loved the specialness of going to a Broadway show, the sense of a big treat that you dressed up for. Popcorn is OK for the movies, but for the theater it should be pearls.”

For decades of audiences Stritch herself was the pearl — a thing that developed in response to a trapped, irritating microscopic object, but turned out to be something special.


Twitter: @HedyWeissCritic

[View the story “Remembering a legend: Elaine Stritch” on Storify]

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