Thursday, April 4, 2013

Elaine Stritch: The Long Goodbye

Hearing of a young Elaine Stritch's first meeting with Stephen Sondheim is one thing. Hearing her tell it herself is another. As she says goodbye to New York City and her 65 years here she is overflowing with stories to tell.  She sings a song or four but her farewell appearance at Cafe Carlyle is more about spending an evening hearing tales of a long life on stage and off.  Her memory is fuzzy at times, her hip replaced, but if you talk while she's talking she will, with malice aforethought, threaten to "kill you."  She may be "tired" but she's still got her zing.

There is something to seeing a legend, stripped down, vulnerable, and admitting her flaws.  At 88, she's earned them.  "I'm going to perform for you and tell you what I feel about things," she said.  She warned up front that she might struggle to find the lyrics but suggested the audience sit tight and "Let me just find them.  It will be more fun."  She did manage to bungle a lyric from Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me" (one of my favorites).  Rather than "I was his queen to him" she sang "he was a queen to me, who's going to make me gay now."  She caught herself and made a joke of it. 

But as she talked, you could hear her speak with reverence in her voice about the "footlights" and as a memory came back to her of a time or place, with a squinty smile on her face, you could see it dazzle in her eyes.  Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, her co-star from A Little Night Music, passed around a silver bowl full of anecdote ideas.  Audience members selected cards and then shouted out the famous names and incidents that Stritch wanted to recall.  "Quentin Crisp."  "Jane Fonda."  "Couple From Greenwich at Virginia Woolf."

Her memories included, a cab ride on her way to a matinee of Company.  Visiting Katherine Hepburn backstage during her run in Coco (including a spot on imitation of Hepburn's affected drawl).  Getting drunk with Judy Garland and talking about maybe doing Mame together. A Bette Davis zinger (delivered with Davis aplomb) at the expense of a dead Joan Crawford.  When she told a story that started with her waking up at a man's house on the Upper East Side, the audience whistled.  She raised a hand to the audience and clarified the record, "Gay as pink ink" she said.  When someone shouted out from the anecdote cards, "Rex Harrison Fuck Up" she blanched for a moment, and then moved on to another story. Some stories shall remain unspoken or forgotten, I guess. 

When she told us of her time in summer stock with Bela Lugosi, she acted out a scene from that production of Dracula including the snafu that turned a serious moment in the play into audience laughter.  Her storytelling was so vivid that it felt like we there with her as her young boyfriend resists saying his line, "I will drive it in deep"--an inescapable double entendre from a vampire stake driving scene.  Despite her hip, she's thrusting the stake into imaginary Dracula with gusto.  For this moment, we are back in time with the young vivacious Elaine Stritch.  

Donning her giant eyeglasses to read a fan letter from a third grader, she expresses appreciation over those who have appreciated her.

Saying farewell to Elaine Stritch as she leaves New York feels so unexpected.  When I moved to New York, I never thought that maybe someday, when I was old, I would move back "home" again.  In my mind, you run away to the big city, become a stahh (sorry I'm from Massachusetts so that's how we pronounce star--also if you're in Newsies) or not.  I never thought the final act would be back in anyone's hometown.  But Stritch is headed back to Michigan to be close to her family.

I never imagined Elaine Stritch was FROM anywhere, let alone Michigan.  I guess I've always just thought of her as part of New York, or maybe sprung from the head of Zeus fully-formed ready for battle with a martini.  But she is headed "home."  Fear not, she says that "Everything is coming back in Detroit.  And if it doesn't, I will make it."  That I have no doubt.  Elaine, we will miss you.  But we are grateful for all you have given us.

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