InDepth InterView: Elaine Stritch On New Doc, ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME, Plus Sondheim Stories, Broadway Memories & Much More
Today we are setting our sights on one of the most iconic Broadway leading ladies alive and looking back at her astonishingly rich and varied resume onstage and onscreen, having worked with many of the most important entertainment figures of the 20th and 21st century over her 60-year career and winning multiple awards and honors in the process - the one and only Elaine Stritch. Touching upon her time in many notable theatrical entities ranging from her early work at The New School under director Erwin Piscator to rubbing elbows with legends like Bertolt Brecht, William Inge, Noel Coward, Tennessee Williams and Marlon Brando, to her unforgettable turns in Stephen Sondheim's COMPANY and FOLLIES IN CONCERT, Stritch also shines a light on her indelible performances in the plays of Edward Albee and looks ahead to a staged reading of THREE TALL WOMEN she is pursuing later this year. Most importantly, Stritch opens up about the multi-year process in creating the stunning and awe-inspiring new all-access documentary ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME, directed by Chiemi Karasawa, and outlines how she dealt with cameras documenting her every move for more than two years. Additionally, Stritch comments on her memorable moments in the films of Woody Allen byway of SEPTEMBER and SMALL TIME CROOKS, as well as shares insights into some of her most famous and fabulous co-stars and collaborators - Ben Gazzara, Alec Baldwin, James Gandolfini, Steve Buscemi and many more included. Plus, Stritch details her recent move back to her hometown of Detroit, Michigan, and shares details about her recent recuperation from hip surgery and ongoing battles with alcoholism as well as learning to see with only eye. As if all of that were not enough, Stritch also imparts her thoughts on why she appeals to the younger generation and how her Emmy-winning 30 ROCK role has raised awareness for her in the last decade and whether she would consider pursuing a reality series or new solo cabaret act sometime soon. All of that, why she hates the word diva, drinking with President Obama and much, much more in this career-spanning conversation with the veritable reigning queen of Broadway herself.
ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME opens in NYC on February 21 and in select cities nationwide on March 7. More information on ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME is available at the official site here.
And One For Elaine
PC: How magnificent to hear that mellifluous voice!
ES: That'd be the day! [Laughs.]
PC: Could you recount for us how it came about that you would relinquish "The Ladies Who Lunch" to Patti LuPone at the SONDHEIM! Birthday Concert back in 2010? It was truly a theatrical moment for the ages if there ever were any, that's for sure!
ES: Well, first, I had no idea she was even going to be on the show! I had no idea about anything, because I was asked at the last minute and I had to change some stuff around - some commitments and things. So, I walked in to rehearsal and I didn't even know what I was going to wear - I had last-minute fittings - and I didn't know I was going to wear a hat at the time, but I thought it would be much cuter for me to wear a hat - not because of the song, but because it matched the designer that I was wearing. I forgot who the designer was now, but she's married to the gay guy who lives at the Carlyle - I forgot what his name is, too; isn't that awful?
PC: Given what you've said already, maybe that's for the best!
ES: I think you might be right about that, Pat! [Laughs.] But, when I finally got the hat, I thought I looked pretty cute wearing it and I surprised them all.
PC: You looked fantastic.
ES: Thank you for saying so! What I am really saying, though, is that it was my idea and it wasn't a bad idea of mine - to have the same material done in a hat.
PC: So, you actually found a haberdasher and had a hat made that night?
ES: Yes, I did! I got a hunk of the material - Donna Karen or whatever the designer was - and had a hat made overnight.
PC: Does anyone still make a hat?
ES: I guess so! I got one, at least. [Laughs.] But, anyway, I don't mind challenges like that, you know? They're fine. I remember I walked out as the last diva, as they called it - God, I could kill when I hear that word; the way it makes me feel...
PC: Why so?
ES: Ugh, I don't know what it makes me feel like when they call me that, but I don't like it! Not at all. It makes me feel 100-years-old, at least! But, never mind, I can get through those type of situations by now. I have to say, when I looked up and saw her - Patti LuPone - get up and say, "I'd like to propose a toast," I almost stood up and said, "What?!"
PC: That would have been so amusing to see!
ES: I know, I know - but, I didn't; I had to keep control. [Laughs.]
PC: Which isn't always easy in live situations like that.
ES: You're right - it isn't. But, she did a double-take when she saw me and I was actually wearing a hat - and, to be honest, I didn't even connect the two things at the time! I didn't know what the hell was going on. It was like, "Who am I? Where am I?"
PC: Did you see her in the recent production of COMPANY - onstage or onscreen?
ES: No, I didn't. I couldn't.
PC: Have you ever seen the show? Do you not go back to see shows you've done?
ES: I don't. Once I am out of a show - and it may seem egotistical to say this; I don't care - it's over. I do the show - I do the show to the best of my abilities and when I am out, I am out.
PC: In your performance that night, you brilliantly altered "I'm Still Here" to include Barbara Walters. Was that your addition?
ES: Yes, it was! [Laughs.]
PC: She was there that night, actually, I believe.
ES: "I've been through Barbara Walters, and I'm here..." the best! She's the best. I loved singing that - loved it. I thought it was just great. Who was in Steve's lyric?
PC: Brenda Frazier and Shirley Temple both have been used.
ES: Oh, really? Really? Shirley Temple, too? That's interesting - I didn't know that. Hmm. Well, clearly, it's funny on its own and it's his song. That song is one of the best things Steve [Sondheim] has ever done, I think.
PC: Would you be open to appearing in a full FOLLIES production?
ES: Oh, absolutely! But, you know, I think that it's too "Oh let's see her in her 'over and out'," with me doing it, you know? They'd be applauding me and not the score and not the book, really. I know why Steve didn't ask me to be in it, but they asked me to come and do his birthday celebration, though, so I got to sing it there. And, then, I got a chance to sing it a couple other places, too.
PC: You closed the show at the Fourth Of July White House concert for President Obama with it, as well - conducted by the late great Marvin Hamlisch, no less. How was that?
ES: Well, hey, that wasn't too bad either! [Laughs.]
PC: You are a big Obama supporter, I've heard, yes?
ES: Absolutely - yes, I am. Since you asked, I'll tell you what I said when I met him: I want to get drunk with him!
PC: What would you drink?
ES: I don't care what it is! You know, I don't drink anymore, as a rule, but I would love to drink with the president because then I would get kind of a relaxation out of him and we could really talk. I think he's just adorable - adorable.
PC: He's very down-to-earth, as well.
ES: Oh, very much so - very much so. And, I make him laugh, and, of course, anybody whose got any sense loves that! [Laughs.]
PC: Ain't that the truth! From the funniest woman alive.
ES: Funny, haha - and; funny, peculiar!
PC: I would be curious to know your impressions of master choreographer/director Michael Bennett, who you talked about so respectfully in ELAINE STRITCH: AT LIBERTY.
ES: The Michael Bennett? The Michael Bennett... [Sighs.] Oh, Jesus, I thought he was the most talented young guy in the theatre today, back then. And, the only person that has replaced him since, for me, is the guy who directed AT LIBERTY - George C. Wolfe.
PC: Another master.
ES: Oh, my God! My God! I think he's just brilliant - brilliant.
PC: His production of THE WILD PARTY is my favorite musical ever, as a matter of fact.
ES: I didn't see it myself, but I believe you - and I'd believe anything you told me about what he did. He's brilliant - and Michael Bennett, the Michael Bennett, was, too.
PC: Has there ever been a great lost project in your history, looking back?
ES: No - none. I don't think about that.
PC: Times Square and Broadway itself has changed so much - even in the last 10 years. How do you see Broadway today?
ES: Well, honey, I've changed a lot, too! I'm different, too. I have far more in some ways to offer and far less in other ways to offer, so I change places with other people. That's life. And, you know, life goes on! And, I think it's very interesting how life goes on - you know, I go on straight sometimes, crooked sometimes, but most of the time on the ball and doing OK.
PC: The scene in ELAINE STRITCH: SHOOT ME where you talk about looking ahead with a positive outlook is so refreshing and life-affirming.
ES: It's true! I'm not out to change anything or look back - I'm interested in doing work that appeals to me. Period. That's all there is to it.
PC: Do you find you connect with a whole new young audience through your many memorable appearances on 30 ROCK?
ES: Well, I think it's great that young people are attracted to me - whether they know me from that or whatever; you know, most women my age are treated like old ladies and they never treat me that way...
PC: Why do you think that is?
ES: Because I make them laugh! When I make them laugh and it's hip laughter, I am thrilled when that happens - I think it's just great.
PC: And let me tell you: many 20-somethings would kill for legs like yours!
ES: [Big Laugh.]
PC: Do you have any tips for procuring gams like that?
ES: My only advice would be to just keep walkin' - keep walkin'! But now, of course, the thing that is so sad about my condition is that I've had hip replacements and a fractured pelvis and I've hurt myself in so many different ways - because, you know, if you live long enough you get a little dizzy! And, let me tell you, it's not the drink that does it, either. As you get older, you just get dizzy sometimes. That's how it is.
PC: You fell a while back while you were still in New York, correct?
ES: Yes. I fell on Madison Avenue and I lost sight in my right eye.
PC: Can it be remedied, as far as you know?
ES: No, I'm not going to get my vision back.
PC: So, your depth perception is adversely affected, then.
ES: Yeah - that's right; exactly. And, the way I went down, I went right into my right eye when I fell.
PC: How painful.
ES: I know! I know. It was awful - awful. But, never mind, it's over and it's behind me and I've still got my sight, anyway. So, the good news is, I lost my sight in one eye, but I've got another one.
PC: The glass is definitely half full. You've got a back-up.
ES: It is. I've got a spare! So, what's to complain about?! [Laughs.]
PC: Since the documentary is titled SHOOT ME, you can now claim that they actually did shoot your eye out.
ES: [Big Laugh.] Yeah, right?! They did! They did. I told them to shoot me, and they did!
PC: You won an Emmy Award back in 2004 for your HBO documentary...
ES: Yes, yes.
PC: Did that act as the inspiration for this project and further justification to let cameras follow you around for an extended period of time?
ES: Oh, yes - yes, yes, yes. I'd say so.
PC: Would you be open to doing a reality series?
ES: Well, I basically already did for the last two and a half years with SHOOT ME! That's what they did - they followed me around. [Pause.] For years!
PC: Did you take breaks away from the camera for holidays?
ES: Oh, yeah - of course. Sure. We took it easy once in awhile. But, then, as things were progressing and I got work that was photographically secure and funny and good, then we'd shoot it - and, if bad things were happening in my life, I'd let Chiemi [Karasawa] shoot it. I told her when we started that there were no holds barred and she could shoot anything that she wanted - anything. So, I think that's a good thing to hear about any documentary - especially one like this.
PC: The Long Island diabetic incident is harrowing. Have you seen the final finished film yourself yet?
ES: Not in its final, final cut - but, I hear that it does nothing but improve itself.
PC: It moves so swiftly and covers so much ground.
ES: Oh, Pat, that's so good to hear - it's great to hear, actually. You make me feel so good - I'm so glad you're interviewing me today. I'm really enjoying this.
PC: Joan Rivers is a fellow octogenarian who has generously participated in this column multiple times. Any opinions on her, particularly as a fellow grand dame of comedy?
ES: Oh, I love her - I love her. I absolutely love her. She is one of the sweetest women I have ever known in my life - I really think so.
PC: So smart and sharp and generous.
ES: Oh, my God - yes! Yes. Oh, my God - yes.
PC: Her documentary, A PIECE OF WORK, is the closest comparison I can make to SHOOT ME - a masterpiece.
ES: I am glad to be considered in the same company. I am.
PC: There are so many laugh-out-loud moments in SHOOT ME - the Bay's English Muffins scene, for example.
ES: Oh, I know! Isn't that funny?! We had some laughs in the making of that scene, let me tell you!
PC: I hope we get to see even more material on the DVD.
ES: Oh, I'm sure she'll include more stuff - I'm sure she's done that. I'll make sure she has.
PC: Your commentary on the ORIGINAL CAST ALBUM: COMPANY documentary is so fascinating that I hope you do one for this, as well.
ES: Yeah - that's a brilliant DVD. But, yeah, I've been speaking after almost all of the premieres of it, so maybe they'll film one of those. I'll be doing one in New York after the screening, at least if I can make it on my walker.
PC: Touching upon a relatively recent movie musical you participated in, ROMANCE & CIGARETTES is a personal favorite - I think it's so unique and fascinating.
ES: Oh, yeah - I agree. That's a good one.
PC: Steve Buscemi spoke so favorably about working with you and James Gandolfini on that to me. Was that a relatively quick shoot?
ES: Yeah, it was. Actually, I started my falling period then - which is a huge pain in the ass, but I have lost a lot of my sense of balance with age. So, you know, I remember that I was having some problems then, too - a fractured pelvis and all of that business was around that time. I'm glad I did it, though - especially with those guys.
PC: What do you think of the modern movie musical movement in general? For instance, four major releases are coming out in 2014.
ES: I think it's an interesting trend, for sure - that's all I can really say about it, though, since I haven't seen the ones coming out yet. On ROMANCE & CIGARETTES, I loved the opportunity that I got to have five seconds to work with if not my favorite actor of all time, one of them: Mr. James Gandolfini.
PC: His comments on you in the documentary are priceless - especially his musing that, had timing been different, you two would have had a torrid love affair.
ES: Before we fell apart! [Laughs.] Right.
PC: Ben Gazzara is another recently deceased co-star of yours - did you attend his funeral?
ES: Oh, my God - Ben Gazzara; I loved that man. God.
PC: His John Cassavetes movies alone are such a legacy.
ES: Yeah, yeah - they are. You're right. He was something.
PC: What is your one memory of him that you hold closest?
ES: Only that I loved him to death - and, as it turns out, that's what happened! [Laughs.]
PC: Till death, in this case!
ES: And beyond!
PC: On that topic, did you ever contemplate playing Maggie The Cat in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF?
ES: No, I don't think I ever did - but, hey, you know what? Nobody else thought of it either!
PC: You would be ideal for the lead in THE MILK TRAIN DOESN'T STOP HERE ANYMORE, as well.
ES: Well, Tennessee [Williams] told me that the one I should play was the one with the movie star coming home with the young guy and staying in the hotel - SWEET BIRD OF YOUTH. He wanted me to do that and he told me so.
PC: Another theatre great advised you at The New School - Bertolt Brecht, yes?
ES: Yes, with Erwin Piscator at The New School. He directed us!
PC: What was Brecht like, one on one?
ES: Brecht? A bum!
PC: Brecht was a bum - we heard it here first!
ES: He was! He never had a clean shirt on, and, let me tell you, that can separate me from you right away. [Laughs.]
PC: Did you ever spend time with Lotte Lenya, as well?
ES: Oh, Lotte - I loved her! I loved her. [Pause.] She could wear all the dirty shirts that she wanted to! [Laughs.]
PC: That is so funny. If you like them, they can wear dirty clothes.
ES: That's right! That's right.
PC: Did you ever consider taking on MOTHER COURAGE? That's one of the great 20th century roles.
ES: Oh, I don't know - I'm too tired to do MOTHER COURAGE now, at least, I think.
PC: Meryl Streep was so amazing in the recent Shakespeare In The Park production.
ES: Oh, please - everybody saw Meryl Streep do everything!
PC: There's a line!
ES: So what?! So what! I am so tired of hearing everybody talk about Meryl Streep...
PC: They should be talking about you instead!
ES: Well, I don't know about that, but I am so sick of everything being, you know, "Starring Meryl Streep!" Who else?! You haven't hired anybody else in 20 years.
PC: And Sondheim himself has written her a new song for the INTO THE WOODS movie.
ES: Oh, really? For INTO THE WOODS? [Snores.]
PC: Have you two ever discussed him penning you a new song or specialty lyrics for something preexisting? A personalized "I'm Still Here"?
ES: Oh, no - I wouldn't dare! I wouldn't dare, Pat. [Laughs.]
PC: Sondheim to Albee, is it true that you may be pursuing a part in Albee's THREE TALL WOMEN in a production sometime soon?
ES: Well, I've been asked to do it at Ann Arbor, so we might do just a reading of it there to see if I want to do it - or can; or should; try to knock that off, at least as far as memory is concerned.
PC: It's an astonishingly frank and fascinating play - particularly on the theme of death.
ES: Yeah, I think it'd be much more interesting to do that than all the ones that have been done and done and done.
PC: It would be such a gift to us if you did it.
ES: Well, you're gonna have to wait a while because it's gonna take me a year to learn it - and it might kill me just doing that!
PC: Have you spoken to Edward himself about it yet?
ES: Oh, he wouldn't mind if I did it. He thinks I should. We're good pals.
PC: Have you been approached to do more Shakespeare over the years?
ES: Not really - they haven't really been hightailing it to get me to do Shakespeare or anything. And, to be honest, I don't really want to do it - it takes you a year to just learn to talk like him.
PC: You did Shakespeare very early on in your career, didn't you?
ES: Yes. TWELFTH NIGHT - I did that. You see, the thing is, I love Shakespeare - I love it to read and to study his philosophy and what he means by certain lines and all that. I love it. But, acting Shakespeare, the only part of his I really loved was playing Feste.
PC: Why is that?
ES: I just thought the clown was the greatest character. And, in life. Isn't it?
PC: You no doubt find a lot of personal connection to playing that.
ES: Oh, to a character like that - a clown; a Feste character? I sure do! I sure do.
PC: That surely informs your masterful performances with Woody Allen - both in SEPTEMBER, a drama, and SMALL TIME CROOKS, a comedy. He has written many of the greatest female roles onscreen in the last 50 years, if not ever, hasn't he?
ES: Oh, yeah - he has. You know, I love Woody. And, I especially love how he directs. Somebody once asked me what kind of director he was and I said to them, "Well, he shows up! That's all!" And, it's true! [Laughs.]
PC: Do you have any comment on his recent molestation charges and the essays about it all?
ES: No. I wouldn't touch that would a ten-foot pole, Pat! [Laughs.]
PC: Looking ahead to perhaps another cabaret show or concert appearance, is there a song you particularly would like to sing that you haven't gotten the chance to yet, particularly from Sondheim's catalogue?
ES: [Pause.] "Nothing's Gonna Harm You" aka "Not While I'm Around" from SWEENEY TODD.
PC: Mrs. Lovett is one of the great roles you seem perfect for that we unfortunately have not gotten to see you play.
ES: Oh, they wouldn't hire me! I don't think they trusted me.
PC: Did you audition?
ES: Well, no, but it was out in London and then they finally gave me an offer but it ended up not materializing because I had a conflict and they couldn't make the conflict work. Then, I just got tired of waiting around!
PC: You didn't wait for life to move you, you moved life along - and it's clear in every one of your performances.
ES: Oh, Pat, I think that's probably the nicest compliment I've ever gotten - and I mean that from the bottom of my heart.
PC: All I can say is: Wow!
ES: Let me tell you, there have been a lot of people in my life who didn't have the confidence in me that you have. People make their own rules and if there is a spark of jealousy in them, they will create things that will just blow your mind. If that's the way that they want to play, then, I say: start the game!
PC: You'll win any game you deign to play.
ES: I hope so, darling! The real game right now is my life and I have an extremely dangerous surgery coming up on the 24th. [Pause. Sighs.]
PC: What is the procedure?
ES: My throat fills up when I say this: it's a big operation and I hope I come through it. But, you know, I think if you can get through Sondheim then you can get through anything.
PC: What a way to look at it - as only you could.
ES: It's a stomach procedure and it's dangerous, but I'll give up when I give up - and I don't plan on that being for a long time. So, let's see how I do.
PC: It will be another homerun hit - no question. No doubt.
ES: Oh, boy, you're an angel for saying that. I'll tell you a story: I went over to the hospital earlier today to have some pre-tests done and I saw a man in the elevator that I had a short little conversation with - and, by the way, in the meantime, before the surgery, I am going to be going to New York to do the SHOOT ME premiere; that's going to be an exciting thing - but anyway: I said to him, too, "You're an angel," because he held the door for me. He looked at me after I said that - and, he was about 70 or so, I'd say - and he said, "I suppose I should know who you are because you've got dark glasses on." Then, I said, "I would hope that I would look like somebody you should know without my glasses on," because I very rarely wear them, and I called him an angel and he said, "That's a new one on me - I've never been called that before, but I'll take anything I can get these days." That's how I feel.
PC: That's hilarious - and poigniant.
ES: Oh, he was sorta cute, too - maybe I should've gone home with him! [Laughs.]
PC: Don't forget you have my phone number, too, Miss Stritch!
ES: That's great, that's great - and I'm gonna use it! You may be hearing from me about this now, Pat - I know how to track people down, you know! [Laughs.]
PC: Will you ever come back to New York for an extended stay?
ES: No, I don't want to do that - I don't want to live in New York anymore.
PC: You'd be open to doing a few cabaret dates though, no?
ES: Oh, sure - I'd love to do that. Sure. I've done a couple of appearances out here in Michigan, but not a new play or anything. That's what I really want to do - a play. I'd really like to do a straight part right now.
PC: What about a movie or a TV series sometime soon?
ES: Oh, of course - if they asked me; but they never do because I'm not good-looking enough.
PC: Lastly, do you ever check out the internet yourself? I hear you may be joining Twitter.
ES: Oh, I don't know how to do it myself, but I have people read stuff to me all the time. Yeah.
PC: This was such an incomparable thrill today, Miss Stritch - words cannot express how much I appreciate this.
ES: Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you, darling! Thank you so much for this, because I really enjoyed, Pat - I really, honestly did. Bye bye, honey.
Photo Credits: Walter McBride, Jennifer Broski, etc.
From This Author Pat Cerasaro