Features

Surviving the Crunch

Elaine Stritch's remarkable stage career has encompassed Edward Albee, William Inge, Stephen Sondheim and Noël Coward. She hasn't always been easy, and she hasn't always been popular with her colleagues - but today, in her brilliant cabaret act at New York's Café Carlyle, she's a bigger star than ever. EDWARD HIBBERT sits down with his favorite tough-talking chanteuse.

opera news
Stritch in rehearsal at Manhattan's Carlyle Hotel for her current act, "At Home at the Carlyle ... Again"
"We always understand ourselves in retrospect."
View More Images

opera news
© Dario Acosta 2006
opera news
© Dario Acosta 2006

There can be few more invigorating ways to spend one's day off from an eight-performance Broadway schedule of The Drowsy Chaperone than to partake of afternoon tea at the Carlyle Hotel with the indomitable Elaine Stritch. Dressed in an impeccably chic navy-blue suit, straw hat and oversized glasses, the unofficial Mayoress of Madison Avenue joined me in the low-key, elegant ambience of the dining room. With her trademark disarming candor and razor-sharp intelligence, she spoke with me about, among other things, drinking, her one-woman show and Judy Garland.

OPERA NEWS: Let's begin by rewinding to 1976. I'm a student at RADA, the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and I get my unforgettable introduction to you onstage. Your performance as a recovering nightclub singer, in Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady, was so extraordinary I felt compelled to write you a fan letter. I'm still waiting for the reply!

ELAINE STRITCH:
[laughs] I didn't know you, did I? I never write to people I don't know.

ON:
It was a performance that showed your great balancing act — peerless delivery of the astringent one-liner, coupled with raw vulnerability and ferocious passion. Do the demands of a Tennessee Williams or Edward Albee character offer you the same gratification as playing high comedy or bringing down the house with an eleven o'clock number?

ES:
I'll tell you what's easier to do — physically and probably, unknowingly, mentally — is drama.

ON:
So you found playing an alcoholic in A Delicate Balance….

ES: 
Oh, that was hard. I almost thought that was a musical. It had enormous complication for me, because I am an alcoholic. I would have two or three drinks before I went on, so I could keep myself disciplined, because I wanted to succeed, but I also needed — underline — needed it. I absolutely had to have it.

ON:
So Small Craft Warnings, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? — more physically and emotionally manageable than doing Sail Away?

ES:
I wouldn't say manageable. It's a very hard question. It came easier to me. Let me see if this makes any sense. Years and years ago, [there was] a famous director, Jed Harris — a scary guy, who fell in love with me. That figures! Women were jumping out of windows for Jed Harris, and I was sneaking around going out with the stage manager. But he said if you are playing emotion, tragedy, whatever you want to call it, you don't have to get eight hours of sleep. You only have to get eight hours if you're playing comedy.

ON:
I'll drink to that.

ES:
That sort of explains what I'm talking about. I can go in after a night on the town, so to speak, and play Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? With a hangover, you can be brilliant. Not for long.

ON:
In the days of wine and roses, Elaine, were there nights when a crashing hangover might have sent you to new levels of brilliance?

ES:
Yes. Most of the time it worked for me. Tragically, because that kept me going for longer. Because I said, I'm fine. Then I could go and hit the booze again.

ON:
What was the first show you did when you were clean?

ES:
I did a benefit, a salute to Sondheim, probably. I was introduced by Plácido Domingo, and I was so excited about that.

ON:
That's good for OPERA NEWS — a link.

ES:
Yeah. Life is a tapestry. I was about to go out there to sing "Ladies Who Lunch." I tell this in Elaine Stritch at Liberty. And standing in the wings, and I didn't know him at all, was Michael Feinstein. And he squeezed my hand, and he said, I think, something brilliant — "You're not going to stop the show the way you usually do, Elaine. Just do it." I knew exactly what he meant, because it's true. You can't go out there after years of having a couple of brandies and then suddenly cold sober, without any help at all. I did it, and I got through it, and it was a very polite thing. Then I realized that this was my road. The road I had to take. I will never forget Michael for that. He prepared me for what I considered failure.

Stritch
Stritch with accompanist/music director Rob Bowman and musicians
© Dario Acosta 2006
 

ON: Do you ever have stage fright?

ES:
Oh, my God. Are you crazy? I was so scared when I got to the theater, but I never worried about it, because I knew exactly what to do. You have the cure in your dressing room, so what am I worried about? I never drank at rehearsals, because I wanted to learn what the hell I was doing, you know. You don't drink when you rehearse. But if Hal Prince yelled at you and it scared you, you excused yourself and had a brandy. And came back and said, "Hal, what were you saying?"

ON:
When you were emerging in New York, the wisecracking female, à la Eve Arden, was pretty much second banana in a show. You turned that around and emerged as the wisecracker and the romantic lead.

ES:
They didn't used to do that. That was a new thing in the theater. And it started — I was in a musical in Westport, Connecticut, a tryout of a new musical, Texas, Li'l Darlin'. I played the part of a funny girl who was the love interest. And Johnny Mercer, or the power that be, said, no, we can't do this — you've got to have a [separate] love interest. So I didn't go in with the show. It went in without me. That's because I couldn't sing soprano and fall in love.

ON:
They wanted Shirley Jones, as opposed to the wisecracker.

ES:
Exactly.

ON: 
Sail Away is the one, really, that …

ES:
That's the one that Coward had the courage to do. He's not going to follow any rules. If he thinks you can do something, you do it.

ON:
But you're the wisecracker that got away. There was a whole roster of them — they came on chewing gum and —

ES:
Well, that's what I nearly became in Hollywood. I went to California and did a part in a movie, Perfect Furlough, with Janet Leigh and Tony Curtis. I played that part. I played the wisecracker, the girlfriend who wore the rollers at night and didn't have the date, and Janet Leigh went out with Tony Curtis. But I got the laughs. So they wanted to get me out there [to Hollywood], because Eve Arden was getting up in years, and I was going to be the new Eve Arden. And I don't know what told me that I shouldn't do that.

We have to think about life. We just can't think about what part I'm going to play and what reviews I'm going to get and what magazine I'm going to be in. We have to think about what the hell is going to happen to us, you know.

ON:
I'm still delighted by what I'm blessed to do. I also think about where I want to live down the line — in London, New York. Things other than planning your next career move.

ES:
Well, in your case, the sooner you latch onto that, the smarter you are. When you're talented, you're in trouble. There's no two ways about it. That's the way it is.

ON:
I had a mentor in London, Lindsay Anderson, a great director, who said to me once, "You'll always work, because you're very good. But you're never going to find it easy, because you're doomed to be the one thing that actors shouldn't be — intelligent." I remember at the time thinking what a perverse comment, but I know what he means now. Some of the great talents are as dumb …

ES:
Yeah. And it's very difficult for you to sit around and see mediocrity succeed. It's hard.

ON:
Darling, lest we forget, this is a magazine for opera aficionados.

ES:
The opera critic of the Times came to see my club act, did you know that? The opera man came because of my association with James Levine, and that darling woman — what's-her-name, Renée Fleming? — she says to me, "I guess we've got to have classes, Elaine," because he told all the opera stars to take a lesson from me.

Stritch
© Dario Acosta 2006 

ON: Have you ever had a singing lesson in your life?

ES:
Oh, yeah. From a coach. You have to exercise your vocal cords correctly. When you're nervous, your voice tightens up, and you push it, and you sing in the throat, and in a couple of nights it's gone. I had a coach called Bert Knapp, who was a barker at Ringling Brothers Circus. I went three times a week to him. His advice to you when you went to audition — here was his psychology. He would have you sing the lyrics from a song like "From this Moment On," and while you were singing it, he would have you balance a yardstick in the palm of your hand, so your thoughts were, "I can't drop this yardstick." It wasn't on [your voice].

[There is a short hiatus, at this point, as the dining-room phone rings incessantly. There is not a waiter to be seen, so Miss Stritch strides to the phone and, before you can say "The Ladies Who Lunch," asks the person calling to hold while she demands a writing implement from a couple of East-side matrons quietly sipping tea at a corner table, then proceeds to take a reservation for two for lunch the following day. "Thanks for calling, darling. This is Elaine Stritch. I'm glad you'll be dining here at the hotel." She hangs up and returns to continue the interview, as the matrons stare at us incredulously.]

ON: Your list of film credits is pretty eclectic — Who Killed Teddy Bear, Woody Allen's September, Providence.

ES:
It's very eclectic. This morning I got a residual for….

ON:
For Who Killed Teddy Bear?

ES:
No. That would be four cents. Here's why I did that movie. Some agent said to me, they want you to play a dyke who runs a discotheque and gets stabbed by Sal Mineo on East End Avenue.

ON:
But not before you've made a pass at Juliet Prowse.

ES:
Who could turn that down? It's a Bette Davis part! But I'm the one who said to the writer, I have an angle about how to play a homosexual who's not sure of herself, not quite sure of the other person, is the other person gay, or is the other person straight? So I said, if it doesn't work, this is the way I wanna play it. If she says, Oh, no, my attitude is, how dare you think that I wanted to — please, I tried to be nice to you, for Chrissake. I'm as straight as they come. Wink, wink, nudge nudge.

ON:
Do you watch the dailies?

ES:
NO! You can tell how the dailies are when you go through the gate in the morning! Are you kidding? "HI! 'MORNING, MISS STRITCH!" You think, thank God, the scene worked. I have a Judy Garland story for every moment of her life. She was so funny. When she went back to MGM to get a job — because they had sacked her, and she had been away in the crazy house and rehab and everything, and she's back and she's clean — she puts on the navy blue suit, single strand of pearls, Peck and Peck. That'll take you back. Little gloves. It's 104 in California, and she's going to read — Judy Fucking Garland — is going to read for MGM for a part in a movie. You ready? So she goes through the gate, and there's no "Good morning, Miss Garland" look. You know what the guy says to her at the gate? "Miss Garland, aren't you hot in that suit?" She said she had four pairs of shields underneath — she was so frightened.

ON:
I'd like to see you do some dark, challenging work.

ES:
Maybe it'll happen. I think if Woody found something for me he would give it to me. It's hard for me to get a film. Mike Nichols I just beg to find something for me.

ON:
Your one-woman show, Stritch at Liberty, was a triumph! Does the thought of returning to the confines of a naturalistic play or a book musical — is it anticlimactic for you, or even possible?

ES:
It's a must for me. I have to do that. That's what I enjoy most. At Liberty I had to get off my chest.

ON:
So you would be happy returning to the constraints of a straight play?

ES:
Absolutely. Just because of the old-fashioned thing of escape. We always understand ourselves in retrospect. You don't understand yourself in your future plans, and it's hard as hell to understand about today. Yesterday you can start to think intelligently about. You've been there, done that. You've worn the T-shirt. You can start to get a little smart about that. I had to do Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Everybody kept saying I should do it, so I finally said, ALL RIGHT! I'LL DO IT!

ON:
Much has been said and written about the "death" of the Broadway musical. Do you at your most realistic see a return to an articulate, melodic book show?

ES:
I don't see anything. I want the theater to go on. Nothing is ever going to be the same. Oscar Hammerstein lyrics are not gonna be brought back. "Later in the second act, when she begins to peel/ She proves that every single thing she's got is absolutely real." Is there anything as sweet and funny and dear as that?

ON:
Are you excited to be working on a new club act?

ES:
It's so hard. It's harder than Virginia Woolf. It's harder than Small Craft Warnings. Than Sail Away.

ON:
But you do it with such ease.

ES:
You know, I said last year, I've never done a club act and gotten paid for it. That's the whole story of my life. I have this thing that Coward died of, and it's a dis-ease. But it's not cancer. It's the fact that he didn't want to go out anymore, because the demands were too great. You know exactly what I'm talking about. Coward couldn't take it anymore. He just … couldn't … take it. [She hammers the table to punctuate each word.]

O
N: Who has been the most lasting influence on you as a performer? Hasn't got to be a star.

ES:
Of course not, but it probably will be. [Long pause] Lemme tell you something. I almost cry when I talk about this. The way you help me, the way anybody helps me, is to make it easier for me. Please help me. Please don't be fooled by me. Please know what I'm all about. Please understand me, because I don't know how to tell you how I really am, except when I go on the stage, and then I can. But you gotta help me to get out there. And the people who have are Harold Clurman, big time. Hal Prince, big time. Noël Coward. And Gerry Gutierrez. Those four directors, and a few actors thrown in there, too.

I went to an evening at the Stella Adler Theatre Studio, to sit at a table with Zoe Caldwell and the like, about people who had worked with Harold Clurman. I was so full of emotion, to know that there once was a man who lived like that in the theater. I could hardly talk about it. He did not put up for one minute with bullshit in his life. I needed somebody like that. I needed somebody to be good to me, so I can be good to the audience. That's what I've been fighting all my life.

ON:
Remember that show Desert Island Discs? You choose your favorite albums. I'm doing a weekend in the desert with who makes me laugh the most. I would take you and Maggie Smith. Who would you take?

ES:
That's quite a parlay. The three of us? I wonder if I would take a comedian. A funny person. Jesus Christ, who would I take? Maybe I'd get a dog!

ON:
That's a perfect way to end.

EDWARD HIBBERT is currently appearing on Broadway in The Drowsy Chaperone. He was Gil Chesterton on Frasier for eleven seasons and will soon be seen in the feature, The Prestige. He is also a literary agent at Donadio & Olson.

Send feedback to Opera News 



Follow OPERA NEWS on FacebookTwitter Button 

Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6