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Stritch on Stritch

A true Broadway original, Elaine Stritch talks candidly about teaching, touring, and teetotaling.

By New York City
"Hey, how are ya?" says the unmistakable voice at the other end of the phone. Elaine Stritch's deep, raspy vocal tones can't be described as inimitable, because so many people "do" her; not only Christine Pedi, whose impersonation of La Stritch is a highlight of Forbidden Broadway, but lots of other folk--many of them male!

Stritch's talent as a dramatic actress has never been in question. She nailed her supporting role in the original Broadway production of William Inge's Bus Stop; she did the matinees of Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, acquitting herself impressively while offering Uta Hagen some respite from that exhausting role; and she received a 1996 Tony Award nomination for her brilliant performance in the revival of Albee's A Delicate Balance. Yet it is mainly for her turns in such Broadway musicals as Pal Joey, Sail Away, Goldilocks, Company, and (more recently) Show Boat that Stritch has achieved the status of an icon.

The lady has done a number of interviews lately in conjunction with the release on DVD of D A Pennebaker's documentary on the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Company. The film is famous for its final sequence, in which Stritch--at the bitter end of a marathon, 18½-hour recording session for the landmark Stephen Sondheim musical--attempts to satisfactorily record her character Joanne's caustic aria "The Ladies Who Lunch" for show-buff posterity. The DVD adds to the merriment (!) with newly recorded commentary on this sequence in particular and the film in general by Stritch, Pennebaker, and producer/director Hal Prince.

Though most of her recent press has focused on the Company documentary, Stritch kindly agreed to speak with TheaterMania on a broader range of subjects in a phone interview from her home in Sag Harbor. And here she is, ladies and gentleman...

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TM: The Company DVD has created quite a stir, Miss Stritch. Had you seen the documentary in recent years, before you recorded the commentary?

STRITCH: Oh, sure, but not very often. It certainly isn't light entertainment for me, I can tell you that!

TM: You speak a lot about the "Ladies Who Lunch" section of the film. But I'd like to ask you a more general question: Do you think that people alter their behavior at all when they know that cameras are running?

STRITCH: I wasn't aware of any cameras. Pennebaker worked with lapel pins--I don't know what else to call them. I knew they were doing some sort of documentary, but I had no notion of anybody filming me, or I would have put makeup on! My whole thing that day was to get anything I had to do with Company on the record, sounding as good as possible. If I knew the cameras were on me, I certainly wouldn't have gone into the control room and yelled and screamed.

TM: "The Ladies Who Lunch" is a pivotal number in Company. Did you honestly think it might be left off the album if you didn't perform it at full strength?

STRITCH: Absolutely! If I didn't get it right, they wouldn't have put it on the record, or maybe they would have had somebody else come in and sing it. I don't know what they would have done! But the idea of my not eventually getting it was ridiculous. How could I not get it if I was singing the song eight times a week over at the theater?

TM: Didn't it occur to anyone earlier in the session to lay down an orchestra track for the number and then bring you back into the studio another day--which is what they ended up doing--rather than put you through all of that?

STRITCH: Well, they wanted to get it that night. First of all, it cost more money to make a track and then bring me in again. And it was inconvenient. The conductor, Steve Sondheim, and everybody had to be there--including me, which was the miracle of all time, because it was a matinee day. Steve was my hero, because he held out for the good recording. That's one thing I know as a performer, most of the time: I know when I'm good or not. And I knew that those first takes were bad. I was overplaying, scared, nervous, and tired.

TM: Well, it turned out brilliantly in the end.

STRITCH: Because I was rested. Hal Prince knew that I always had a drink before I performed--there's a little Sinatra in all of us!--and he mentions in the interview [on the DVD] that I had one [during the first recording session]. But I did not overshoot the runway. The interesting thing is that, for the final recording the next day, I also had one drink beforehand to relax me. I mean, it was like Custer's last stand! "This is your last chance, Elaine. We all got up early this morning just for you. You'd better get it!" So I knocked back a Bloody Mary, said "I'd like to propose a toast," and I thought, "Fuck you! I'm rested, I'm well, and I'm gonna sing the shit out of this song!" Of course, as soon as someone's who's scared about something gets it right, they start to act like a smart ass. I hate that in people, but I do it myself.

TM: My understanding is that you stopped drinking several years ago, partly because you're a diabetic.

STRITCH: Well, you can drink as a diabetic. You can have two drinks a day, is what they say. I don't want two drinks a day; I want 11 drinks a day. But I don't drink anymore.

TM: You played a lot of roles that weren't documented through cast recordings, either because you replaced other people or you did them regionally or on tour. For example, Sally Adams in Call Me Madam.

STRITCH: I did the national company of Call Me Madam. I didn't replace anybody! They don't do recordings of national tours unless a great big star is involved. If a big country/western star went out on tour with Annie Get Your Gun, they might record it, but I was a beginner when I was doing all that stuff. I've been in the theater since 1945. It was a wonderful compliment that Leland Hayward wanted me to take Ethel Merman's part out on the road in Call Me Madam--and to have the show be such a big success and make a lot of money with an unknown person like myself. Hello! That was fantastic, and it offered me a lot of experience.

TM: I suppose you were quite unknown at the time.

STRITCH: Well, I had just left Pal Joey, in which I got brilliant notices in New York. I turned my back on it because I wanted to go out and learn how to do more.

TM: Wasn't Chita Rivera in the chorus when you did Call Me Madam?

STRITCH: Yes. I'm performing at an evening in her honor for the Drama League [on February 5] and I'm going to sing something from Call Me Madam, which she'll get a kick out of, I think. That show was a long, long time ago!

TM: The concert revival of Sail Away that you did at Weill Recital Hall was amazing. Maybe you could give me a few words on what it was like to go back to a role that you first played in 1961.

STRITCH: To have a great director like [Gerald] Gutierrez guide me along to play that part again, and to have it still be a love story, was magnificent. In fact, I think the love story was more poignant than when I first did it, because it's much more interesting for a woman in her seventies to fall in love with a man his his fifties than for a woman in her forties to fall in love with a man in his twenties. Who gives a fuck about that? To get to be my age and to be accepted as a romantic lead in a musical, that makes me feel very good about myself.

TM: Of course, you were also in the concert revival of Company at the Vivian Beaumont Theater, with almost the entire original cast. Are any of your other Broadway musicals ripe for that kind of treatment? For example, Goldilocks?

STRITCH: There's some wonderful music in Goldilocks, but it isn't a good show, so why the hell should we bring it back?

TM: Fair enough. Over the past several years, you've been in a number of films: Autumn in New York, Small Time Crooks, and so on. I guess you could say it almost amounts to a second career for you.

STRITCH: Well, I don't know about that. I do 'em when they call me and the parts are good, because the only place you can really make money is in films or television. And, when you do television, they lock up your life for seven years.

TM: Overall, are you happy with the present state of your career? Of course, we all want more...

STRITCH: That's my drug of choice: More! [pauses] Why aren't you laughing? That's pretty funny! You laugh in the wrong places! What was the question again?

TM: Are you satisfied with the way your career is going at the moment?

STRITCH: Yes. I'm confused at times, I have problems about it; but I'm very fortunate to be in demand like I am, at my age. I don't think age should have anything to do with anything.

TM: A Delicate Balance, by the way, was an incredible show.

STRITCH: I'm glad you enjoyed it. It was a good company and a wonderful, wonderful play. [pauses] Can you let me go now? I'm so tired of talking about myself, I could scream.

TM: Maybe we can end with a question about what your next project might be.

STRITCH: I'm very seriously considering doing the musical of The Royal Family on Broadway. It's an original musical, and I think it has a chance. Another thing I'd like to make room for in my life is teaching; I did it once at Stella Adler's and it was the most grueling thing I ever did, but also the most satisfying. I want to start doing it again in about five or ten years, when I look a little bit like Maria Ouspenskaya. And I'm eventually going to do my own show, but that's in its early stages. Ninety minutes of me!

TM: Do you mean a club act?

STRITCH: No, I don't do clubs. I don't do windows, you know? Though maybe I could whittle it down and go into the Carlyle, if the money's good.

TM: What about the Roundabout Theatre's Follies? The word is that they didn't approach anyone who had done the show before. Were you asked to be in it?

STRITCH: No, for obvious reasons. Give new people a chance. I did the concert version of Follies [with the New York Philharmonic in 1985], and I have a few songs from it in the show I'm working on for myself. When you do your own show, you can do whatever you goddamn well please!

TM: In the meantime, I hope you're enjoying life in Sag Harbor. I had heard that you sold your house there but, obviously, that was incorrect information.

STRITCH: Rumors fly. If I got the right price, I'd sell a lot of things!


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