A Night at the Theatah

On Thursday night I did something that I never thought I’d be able to do–I heard Elaine Stritch sing her signature song “The Ladies Who Lunch” live, on stage.

THE Elaine Stritch. ELAINE STRITCH!

Now, some of you reading this are thinking, “Wow, most excellent! I’m so jealous!” Others of you are thinking, “Really? Wow, I didn’t know she was still alive.” And then there are those of you who are thinking, “Elaine who?”

This is Elaine Stritch we’re talking about here; one of the American theatre’s greatest living performers. Ever! Up until her one-woman show Elaine Stritch At Liberty became the hottest ticket on Broadway two seasons ago, she was best known for her show-stopping performance in Stephen Sondheim’s Company, in which she sang the above-mentioned song.

Company is my favorite “Broadway musical I’ve never seen.” Yes, unfortunately, when it premiered on B’way I was not yet old enough to drive, so I missed my chance to see Elaine Stritch in THE role of her career. I don’t remember how I came across the cast recording for Company, but I was hooked by the music, the clever lyrics and, most of all, Elaine Stritch’s voice from the first listening. Stritch has this great, booming, resonant, gravelly voice that has been her trademark and even back then reflected hard living (and as it turns out hard drinking.) And what great delivery–one of the best musical comediennes, and long one of my favorite performers.

Okay, I’ll confess, back in high school I was a complete musical comedy freak. I owned only two pop music albums in my youth (and they were gifts)–my entire record collection consisted of Broadway cast albums. (Actually, they were mostly 8-track tapes, to date myself even further.) It wasn’t long after I acquired the Company album that I had the entire recording memorized and was belting out the lyrics right along with Elaine. Yes, if I was going to grow up to be a star on the Great White Way, she was my ideal.

Everyone has a moment or two (or three or 50) in history that they wish they could travel back in time to witness. Narrow that down to entertainment events (The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, Buster Keaton performing in vaudeville as kid) and at the top of my list would be seeing Elaine Stritch perform in the original production of Company.

So, time travel ahead some 30 years to 2001, when Elaine Stritch returned to the stage at the age of 77 in her one-woman autobiographical tour-de-force At Liberty. I knew it was a must-see. And it was–fantastic! Over the course of three hours, through a seamless blending of story and song, Stritch tells her life story, from Michigan teenager sipping her first scotch to a survivor of five decades of show business. An alcoholic, Stritch admits to “throwing back a few” every day; there wasn’t a time she stepped on a stage without having a drink first, that is until about 16 years ago, when she kicked the bottle for good.

A living repository of theatre history, she has stories, from hilarious to poignant, about dating Marlon Brando, understudying Ethel Merman, throwing over fiance Ben Gazarra for Rock Hudson (?! — yeah, exactly) and a road show production of The Women starring Marge Champion and Gloria Swanson, from which she was let go after the opening night performance for a final curtain ad-lib. This is no little old lady tottering around on the stage, telling quaint stories in a feeble voice. Stritch’s comic timing remains razor sharp, profanity and all, and her pipes are as booming as ever.

At Liberty is Stritch’s reflection on a life she admits to the audience she doesn’t feel she was present for, full of lost opportunities and major screw-ups. But as she sings in one number, “I’m still here!” and thankfully, I got to witness it firsthand.

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Open question: If you could time travel back to any cultural event (music, dance, performance etc.) at any point in history, what would it be?