This is a post I’d rather not write, but it was inevitable. Elaine Stritch has died. Though I can’t presume to speak for her, I can say for myself that she is fortunate to leave the world with her talent substantially rewarded and recognized, and with a career that gave her so many opportunities to express herself.
No artist ever thrilled me more, and I’m very lucky to have seen her often. First was Company — and even though I was still a kid, I knew somehow that I was experiencing something genuinely unique. Then there were a number of appearances in various cabaret venues, as well as a couple more musicals (miscast as Parthy in Show Boat, Stritch was nonetheless delightful). Her performance in A Delicate Balance is one of the greatest I ever saw. And ultimately, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, which I saw twice — once in New York, and then in Philadelphia.
Stritch continued to perform — notably at the Carlyle — and I thought about seeing her again, but ultimately decided against it. I’d seen her at her peak, and didn’t want to experience anything less.
Below, you’ll find what I wrote in May 2003, when I reviewed her Philadelphia At Liberty stint for City Paper.
“Like the prostitute said, “It’s not the work — it’s the stairs.’” So begins Elaine Stritch, with the ring of authority: Though no hooker, the lady knows something about uphill climbs.
No single description can do justice to Elaine Stritch At Liberty, the one-woman show that the diva (a legend among theater folk, though a well-kept secret to much of the rest of the world) has fashioned together with the help of critic John Lahr.
It’s a showbiz memoir, full of delicious stories about everyone from Ethel Merman to Marlon Brando — but it’s more.
It’s a confession about addiction. For 60 years, Stritch wouldn’t go on stage without a reinforcing drink, usually followed by several encores. But it’s more than that, too.
It’s a cabaret concert that showcases the 78-year-old Stritch’s still-spectacular legs and inimitable, gravel-and-bourbon singing voice (in the 30-plus years since she premiered “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, Stritch’s imprint on the song remains unequaled.)
And it’s more than that. ESAL is a lesson in luminous star quality — the sort that survives any adversity and glows brighter with the years. In fact, Stritch is no mere star. She’s also a great actress, alive to every nuance, utterly engaged in the emotional world around her. Every story is a travelogue, and with each one, we’re there: In the Imperial Theatre, rehearsing for Call Me Madam or celebrating with champagne at Toots Shor’s. In a sense, the show documents a marvelous New York that now is gone forever; but at the same time, what is so deeply moving is how much Stritch and her life are completely in thepresent.
Well, all right. Nothing is perfect, and ESAL dips a bit in the second act, as Stritch goes on too long about booze-filled Lost Weekends and her ultimate recovery. But even this has a deliciously sly undertone as we watch the audience weigh the pros and cons. (Let’s see — what do you get from a half century of alcoholism? A mind like a steel trap, razor-sharp timing, the energy of several kindergarten classes and the gams of a Rockette.)
More seriously, who among us would be willing to make a Faustian bargain to take on Stritch’s demons — if we could also have her talent?
For better or worse, we don’t get that choice. Let’s instead simply be grateful that one of the theater’s most brilliant lights is sharing herself with us. ESAL is the first “Broadway show” at the Academy of Music in more than 20 years. I know it will be many more years than that before we see anything comparable.