‘Elaine Stritch at Liberty.’ (Photo courtesy of BroadwayHD.)
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By Ryan Leeds
Elaine Stritch. One would be hard-pressed to find a theater fan who isn’t either familiar or a fan of the late stage and screen star who passed away in 2014. She lives indefinitely on BroadwayHD with her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty.
“Star” is a term she embraced. After being declared a New York City “living landmark,” she once told the Hartford Courant’s Frank Rizzo, “‘Landmark’ and being called a ‘legend’ you can take and shove it. Those are the things in which they give you nothing. All you get is the chance to get your hair done, like I love that. Get a life.”
Tell us how you really feel, Elaine.
One thing is certain. Throughout her 60-plus year career in entertainment, no one ever wondered what was on Stritch’s mind. In one turn of phrase, she could punch you in the gut or elicit tears of laughter.
With the help of writer and critic John Lahr (who later sued her for royalties) and director George C. Wolfe, Stritch collected stories spanning her childhood to early days as a budding actress in the city where she dated fellow actor Marlon Brando. It didn’t end well.
Stritch’s work premiered at the Public Theater in 2001, and a year later, it moved uptown to Broadway’s Neil Simon Theatre. As a relative newbie to Manhattan—and a recent college graduate with an unexpired student ID—I managed to score a cheap ticket to the affair. My seat was in the last row of the balcony. Still, I was there.
Most of the recording is available on Spotify, where I’ve listened to it from time to time. But I was delighted to discover it on Broadway HD. Here, one can truly savor Stritch’s vivid facial expressions throughout the 2.5-hour monologue that breezes by, thanks to this consummate storyteller who dressed only in black tights and an oversized white dress shirt.
Stritch often adhered to the old proverb, “Never let the truth get in the way of a good story.” Many of her claims were refuted in Alexandra Jacobs’ exhaustively researched biography Still Here: The Madcap, Nervy, Singular Life of Elaine Stritch, which was released last fall—and is another gem for fans.
None of that really mattered to the Detroit native who worked with some of the biggest names in the industry, including Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Noel Coward, and Tennessee Williams. For Stritch, it was always about grabbing attention—a trick she learned as a young lady after sipping her father’s whiskey sour.
“A star was born,” she proclaimed in her signature gravelly voice. “I dominated the dinner table conversation, The evening was mine, and I was only 13 years old!”
The cocktail turned out to be one of countless drinks she would throw back throughout her career. In several interviews and in this solo show, she remained fearlessly honest about the damage it caused.
It’s easy to binge on Stritch—whether it’s the Emmy Award-winning adaptation of At Liberty (co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker who also helmed the hard-to-get documentary about the Company cast recording), YouTube videos of her performances and interviews, her films, or for younger audiences, her Emmy Award-winning portrayal of Alec Baldwin’s overbearing mother on television’s 30 Rock. Her style was inimitable, and thanks to digital form, she’ll be remembered for generations to come.
Elaine Stritch at Liberty
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In Comes Company: Patti LuPone is the latest actress to take on the role of Joanne, originated by Stritch. Read her recent interview with Passport Magazine.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.