Most of us have probably seen or heard Elaine Stritch at some point in our lives. Sail Away, Bus Stop, Two’s Company, Providence, An Inconvenient Woman, September, Company, 30 Rock; she’s been a part of so many projects that you could have stumbled into her at any point of her career. For me, the biggest project was Stephen Sondheim’s musical, Company. Granted, the production that Stritch starred in is not a film (although the recording of the cast album was the subject of a documentary), but it was the project that introduced me to the massively talented actress, and what a whirlwind watching her and listening to her has been for me.
Today, Elaine Stritch passed away at 89 years old.
And now, I’d like to propose a toast.
Here’s to the lady who was a Broadway legend. Here’s to the lady who saw Marlon Brando in his pajamas and walked out of his place. Here’s to the lady who made me laugh constantly as the ridiculously over-the-top Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock. Here’s to the lady who helped make Company the masterwork it is, and the kind of musical that struck a major chord with me. Here’s to Elaine Stritch.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I saw Elaine Stritch at Liberty for the first time. I’d seen bits and pieces of it — like the one above — but never in full. Tonight, that’s what I’m watching again; in part in tribute to Stritch and in part because it’s so damn great, and just one thing that solidifies her legacy.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty is a two and a half hour one-woman show all about the very woman herself. She starts off from her days at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, sneaking into clubs while her nanny ratted her out for whatever crazy thing she’d been doing that week. Then there’s being the understudy for Ethel Merman, co-starring with Gloria Swanson and others in The Women, and creating the role of Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. She talks about her alcoholism so nonchalantly at first and then segues into how she quit and her sobriety. It’s like reading a tell-all autobiography, but it’s a stage production instead.
There wasn’t a single thing that was too taboo for Stritch to say or sing about on stage. She’s a woman in her seventies singing on stage in practically nothing but a shirt and tights. It’s the kind of thing that’s not heard of often, as much as actors and actresses are used to baring themselves for their audience. One can only imagine how it must have felt for her, performing this day after day for months. It’s one thing when you’re playing a character, it’s another when there’s no role to play and the tale is your own. And it shows, when she pauses and looks away from the camera. She talks about how she used to nervously put her hands in her mouth back in Company — and you can see her do it a couple times in the album recording documentary — but that young woman is no more. She’s mature, and she’s not going to fuck this up because she’s been through life and she’s come up on top every single time.
That being said, her still being here was twelve years ago. Just below, I’ll be including a video of Elaine Stritch singing Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from the musical Follies. You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to, but in it, she talks about how she always told Sondheim she’d never sing it in her sixties or fifties or forties like all those other women who did it. She wanted to wait until the time was right. For her, right was in her seventies in that same Broadway show I’ve been discussing. And she kept singin’ it, time and time again. Even when she couldn’t remember some of the words, midway through her eighties, she still sang it, and added that Stritch flare that everyone knew and loved. If anyone deserved to sing it, it was her.
Here’s to you Elaine Stritch. Your voice, your stage presence, your charisma, your wit, and your genuine emotion — even though you’re gone — it’s all still here. And it always will be.