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What Was Really on Elaine Stritch's Mind

The inimitable Miss Stritch supplies some off-stage drama in the press room at the Tony Awards.

By New York City

Elaine Stritch(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Elaine Stritch
(Photo: Michal Daniel)
Had a good time in the Tony Press Room, 64 floors above the city at the Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Center, where the 2001-2002 winners would come to visit us journalists after they won the big prize last night. The press sat four scribes at each of 12 tables, bisected into six diagonal rows. We were all seated on gold chairs, just like the ones Tommy Tune used in Grand Hotel. I was second row on the aisle, a good spot to hear the journalists asking what would happen to Jesse McKinley and Patrick Pacheco's jobs at, respectively, the Times and Newsday, now that they'll be working on a new theater quarterly. They weren't just aimlessly asking, believe you me. Such talk was still going on when the Tonys started and Bernadette Peters said that she'd been a Gregory Hines fan since the Dodgers were in Brooklyn--which made me wonder if she really did see him in The Girl in Pink Tights in 1954.

We had to switch between watching and listening to the TV broadcast on infrared headsets and pulling them off to ask questions of winners when they walked to the podium--as we first did when Gina Gershon and Rob Ashford walked in. So many questions went to Gershon about what she's doing next and when she's returning to Broadway that the lady classily remarked that we should be paying attention to the guy who won the Tony. So we did and learned that Ashford was pretty impressed at winning over Susan Stroman, for whom he danced in Crazy for You and 110 in the Shade. When we asked what he was going to do next and he replied that it would be The Boys from Syracuse, Gershon asked if he needed any girls in Boys. He also said he's doing the Marty musical in Boston, then sputtered like Donald Duck when asked who'd star in it before saying that he didn't want to say. But when one of us mentioned John C. Reilly's name, he admitted that it would be he.

When we asked our next contestant, orchestrator Doug Besterman, what he'd be doing next, he said that he hoped Rob would offer him one of his projects! Actually, Besterman is quite busy doing a Mulan sequel for Disney and I Sent a Letter to My Love this summer at the North Shore Music Theatre. (You may have noticed that I haven't directly quoted any of the above. I really can't; winners in the press room talk so excitedly and quickly that I don't believe I can accurately use even one pair of quotation marks around anything I cite, so let's go for paraphrasing.)

After Besterman left, one of the Tonys' press reps gently chided us for not asking enough questions, though he soon added that if we were asking too many of one winner when another winner was at the back of the room waiting, he'd wave his hand to let us know we should wrap it up. So we did a little more grilling of Greg Kotis, who won two Tonys for Urinetown. He said that while he used to think that musicals were old-fashioned, he now has a great respect for the form. I suggested to him and composer Mark Hollmann that there just had to be at least five minutes when they considered naming the show something else instead of Urinetown, and they said the best they could ever come up with was You're in Town--but they ultimately felt it'd be unfair to spring on people what they were really up to only after they'd bought their tickets and entered the theater.

I fell down on the job when winning scenic designer Tim Hatley was up there talking, because that was precisely when Mos Def was about to sing that sunny Sound of Music song I'd heard about all week long and I was more interested in hearing that instead. All right, he didn't stay on key, but God love him for trying it. Most of the Broadwayites wouldn't have done any better if asked to participate in a rap song, right?

John Rando was wonderfully excited about his win, so I asked him to tell the room the story he told me last fall, of how his aerospace engineer father encouraged him to stay in the business even when the young director was dead broke and had few prospects. I also wondered: With best book, score, and direction already in Urinetown's corner, would Rando be angry (I almost said pissed) if it didn't take home the top prize? He said he wouldn't because he was just so thrilled with all that had happened for and with the show thus far. But I can't help wondering if he feels the same way now.

Director Mary Zimmerman came in and was soon reminded that she has often said in the press that Metamorphoses was really a school play. She was firm but not cruel in the way she answered that, yes, she had often described the show that way because she thought people would be charmed to hear it described as such, but now it was time to acknowledge that it was a professional and worldly production. She's right.

Mos Def then dropped by with Michele Lee and said he's interested in both acting in and writing a musical. Lee joked that he's penning The Lena Horne Story for her, and he joked back that she was going to replace Jeffrey Wright in Topdog/Underdog. Lee said that, now that she's finished her Allergist's Wife run in New York, she's planning to see his show on Tuesday--but asked if he'd comp her in. He said he would.

Frank Langella said the real reason he wanted to do Fortune's Fool is that he loves Russian plays, and that this was one that nobody could say Ian McKellen did better 20 years ago. What's more, he added, it's the only Russian play that has a fop in it, and that we sure couldn't find one in The Sea Gull or The Three Sisters.

Shuler Hensley got up to the podium, smiled (which he never did in Oklahoma!), looked out at us, and said that this gathering made him feel as if he were at an audition. He also noted that the Tonys were quite a bit snazzier than the Olivier Awards and that when he saw his mother at the party afterwards, she'd probably chide him for not having buttoned his coat before he accepted his Tony. Note to collectors: He also said he made a film of a Frankenstein musical that has stage ambitions, a film that the producers created specifically for use as a selling tool. Whoever gets that film first shares it with everybody else.

Manny Azenberg, lead producer of Private Lives, said he expected that the show would extend four more weeks before movin' out for Movin' Out. He also said that the impetus for the production was to see Private Lives done as if it were Ibsen before hastily adding that, while that might be an exaggeration, Noël Coward deserved better after 34 years. (Gee, I do understand disappointment in the Liz Taylor and the Joan Collins productions, but the one with Tammy Grimes and Barry Bedford in 1969 was heavenly.)

And what did Azenberg say next? I don't know, and don't believe too many in the room could tell you, because suddenly we were grabbing our headphones to hear what winner Elaine Stritch was saying on TV. How we roared at her admonition to a vociferous fan not to take up her time, and how we laughed again when she insisted that the orchestra shut up so that she could thank everyone she wanted. (Little did we then know the implications of this, but we soon would.)

We returned to John Lithgow, who reported that doing Sweet Smell of Success has been a happy experience before admitting that the happiness wasn't undiluted. He was quite eloquent in praising his show without trashing the critics who'd trashed it, but did concede that he was hurt when people dismissed it. He added that just as many people have loved the show as have hated it and that his prize was not a vindication of the show, but a tribute to it. After saying how his next role should be Dolly--because it's so nice to be back home where he belongs--he said he wanted to get downstairs to see if Sweet Smell could win Best Musical. We knew he didn't believe it could but were aware that he still wanted to enjoy the time he had left while it as still a possibility.

Stritch with Barbara Cook on the red carpetat Radio City Music Hall(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
Stritch with Barbara Cook on the red carpet
at Radio City Music Hall
(Photo: Michael Portantiere)
We asked Lindsay Duncan if there was a big difference between audiences in New York and London (where she first did the show) and she said that we applaud more--when the curtain goes up on the set, when Alan Rickman enters, when she enters, and even when the second act set turns out to be a different one. Her departure from the press pool left the field open for Elaine Stritch, who was genuinely in tears. She said she was extraordinarily upset that she was cut off from acknowledging everyone, and though she knows that they can't allow everyone to recite the Gettysburg Address (the wrong image, really, for that was a very short speech), it was a pretty emotional moment for a woman her age and it spoiled the entire evening for her. She admitted that she'd had tougher problems in her life--diabetes and alcoholism among them--and that she was still here, but this was an evening she wanted to live with for a long time and it was a real bummer. She conceded that she knew she should rise above it but said she couldn't think that way at the moment.

When we asked her what she wanted to say that we didn't hear, she said she would have quoted the Sondheim Anyone Can Whistle lyric about what's hard is easy and what's natural comes hard, for she admitted that working was easy and winning was hard--though she did consider herself a winner. She then said that she was so anxious to tell the audience how she felt and how grateful she was to everybody, only to have the curtain ring down on her. The only thing that works in life is the truth, she said, and the truth was that what wasn't working was her waterproof mascara.

We tried to lighten her spirits and asked her about her "comfortable shoes" remark. She replied that the Manolos she was wearing weren't comfortable at all. But when we asked why she didn't perform on the Tonys, she said she didn't want to because, in all these years, the Tonys had never once asked her to present, let alone perform--and that she inferred they didn't much like her.

At that moment, on TV, Mary Tyler Moore was giving out the Best Musical prize and was triumphantly mouthing the words Thoroughly Modern Millie. So, just as Stritch was finishing and Sutton Foster was walking up to the podium to talk to the press, I decided to take my leave. It wasn't because I'm not a big Millie fan, but it was the same type of walkout I did in Nashville in 1985, when I went to the Grand Ol' Opry; after I saw Minnie Pearl perform, I left, even though there was still plenty of show to go. There are some moments that can't be followed by anything else, and an emotional speech by Elaine Stritch has to be right up there with them.

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[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at pfilichia@aol.com]


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