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Honest-to-god talent

Elaine Stritch holds forth about Stephen Sondheim ... and more

INTERVIEW BY JOHN BELL (The Sondhem Review, Fall 2008)

Elaine Stritch, the Tony- and Emmy Award-winning Broadway veteran who originated the role of Joanne in Company, has had an illustrious career that began in 1950 as the standby for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam. She's worked with such legendary dramatists as Noël Coward, Edward Albee, Irving Berlin, Jerome Robbins and Hal Prince in a career that includes theatre, television and film. Showing no sign of slowing down and on a break from a just-completed three-week run of her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty at the Carlyle Hotel where she resides, she sat down to talk about her long association with and affection for Stephen Sondheim.

The Sondheim Review: In your one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, you mention that "Stephen Sondheim's approval will keep you on the straight and narrow for two to three years." You obviously have a great deal of reverence for Stephen Sondheim.

Elaine Stritch: I wouldn't choose the word "reverence," and "admiration" is not strong enough ...

TSR: Appreciation?

Stritch: No.

TSR: Too weak?

Stritch: I'll say what it is. Don't you put words in my mouth. [Pause.] I don't know. I'm astounded by Steve Sondheim, astounded. There are so many things I can say, but the truth is I'm astounded by his talent. How I really feel about Steve Sondheim is that I love him. I just love Steve Sondheim. I identify with him; I think we have similar strengths and weaknesses.

TSR: Such as?

Stritch: Well, for one thing, I'm funny. I get away with murder with humor. I think Steve uses humor a lot, too. He's loaded with humor, but it's complicated humor. And you have to get up pretty early in the morning to know what the fuck he's talking about. But it's worth the trip.

TSR: Do you talk with him often?

Stritch: I don't keep in touch with him. I haven't worked for Steve in quite a long time. When [the film of] Sweeney Todd came out and it was a big success, I ran to the phone. I have no control over my emotions when something like that happens. And I know how much that must mean to him. I don't think that Steve is willing to admit that anything affects him in any way, shape or form, but I know that the fact that those "mucky-mucks" out in Hollywood kind of turned their heads and said, "Hey, this is good." I think the fact that Sweeney was made into a movie is just thrilling.

This is what I think is so exciting about Steve: Something's working out good for him. And whether he likes it or not or would admit it or not, he's headed for a terrific time in his life, reaping the rewards of all his hard work with all the revivals and new ideas, like the recent movie of Sweeney or the stage version of Company with the instruments. He deserves this. And I hope he's wise enough to enjoy it. I think he is.

TSR: Tell me about Company and Joanne.

Stritch: Ask me a specific question. To say, "Tell me about Company," I mean, it's just too much.

TSR: In the line in Joanne's final scene with Robert, "I just did someone a favor" ...

Stritch: I think it's "I just did someone a big favor."

TSR: Right you are. Do you think Joanne was really trying to seduce Robert, or was she just trying to goad him into the realization that he needed to commit to someone?

Stritch: Oh, I think she was trying to bring him down to earth and to face facts. She's a good friend, and she calls a spade a spade. She's not quite as giddy as the other wives. She is one of the ladies who lunches, and I identify with her. I think she's one of the ladies who watch ... with her scotch. But I think she'd have been very disappointed in him had he accepted the proposal. She wants to be respected for being a little bit different. That's a very interesting question.

But to be honest with you, I wasn't thinking too much about what the hell I was talking about, I was just trying to get through that bloody show in Boston. I was scared to death. It's a very difficult part. You don't justify every single line and every single note. You're just trying to get through it. Once you get out there and get it out of you, then you settle down and start to think about "What the hell am I talking about?" That's working on a part. That's terrific. That's the luxury of regional theatre: having more time. It used to be wonderful to go out of town with a show. The only thing that teaches you about what the hell kind of part you're playing - who you're trying to portray - is the audience. I need the performances.

The people who were in the driver's seat of Company, Hal Prince and Michael Bennett, were so busy trying to figure out what they were doing, you didn't want to bother them. It wasn't "Actors Studio" time. "What do I mean by this?" - that's all you'd have had to say to Hal Prince, and he'd a killed you. "Why do I cross to the table?" He'd say, "To earn your salary. Just move and shut up."

That show was so stimulating and invigorating. It was very well written by a guy who knows me well, George Furth. I think George wrote that part with me in mind, and it was a picture of me as others see me. But it has nothing to do with who I really am. It was my facade. "Have a drink! Have another drink," and all that doctoring up of your front so nobody really knows who you are. I think that I have a quality that makes playing a part like that attractive to an audience, which it must be because she's not an attractive woman. Who wants to be Joanne?

TSR: She calls a spade a spade. You do that.

Stritch: Yes, I do.

TSR: Are there other Sondheim roles that you wish you had or still wish you could play?

Stritch: I would have liked to have played Mrs. Lovett. I was asked in London, but it fell through.

TSR: What about Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music?

Stritch: Yes, I could do that role. I could do that role now. [Editor's Note: Stritch went on to play the part on Broadway in 2010-2011, taking over for Angela Lansbury in the 2009 revival.] What's that song she sings? "Liaisons." That's a good song. And of course, I would have loved to have played Mama Rose in Gypsy. That is a part that I should have played. I can do that better than anybody since Merman. And there isn't anybody I've seen play it who even comes close to it. It's a shame.

TSR: When I first contacted you about doing this interview, you said you'd be happy to talk about Steve, but you mentioned that he terrified you. Why is that?

Stritch: Because he frightens me - the enormity of his talent and how he handles that talent. I'm terrified of him, because while I get along with Steve as long as I'm working with him, he's almost impossible to sit back and relax with. I think a lot of people will understand what I'm talking about and would agree. When we're talking about work, I'm fine with him. But small talk? Forget about it. I don't want any part of that; it takes too much out of me. And God knows, neither does he. He probably has very few people in his life that he relaxes with, and I'm certainly not one of them. He's an extraordinary talent. And problems are part and parcel of that talent. But you don't expect to have an easygoing visit with him. It's impossible.

TSR: Do you think people feel that way about you?

Stritch: Yes, I think people are afraid of me. I think most people are. It seems silly to me, but I understand. I've got my guard up a lot of the time. I'm not the least bit afraid of talking about this, but I think people like Steve Sondheim are very attractive. I am attracted to Steve Sondheim, and that is very, very scary. He's scary-attractive.

TSR: Dangerous.

Stritch: Dangerously attractive.

TSR: It's the intelligence, isn't it?

Stritch: Yeah. I remember Steve taking me home from a party once. I had never met him before; he wasn't the big wheel that he is now. He took me home, and we stopped in Donohue's bar on Lexington Avenue. I say today that I'd be scared to talk to Steve about anything except A-flat. But that night we got out and had a drink and left that bar at a quarter till five. We were there for three hours. So we have got a lot to say to one another. But I have got to have 25 scotches in me in order to do it, and so does he. If I still drank, I would probably be able to get along with Steve, but I don't drink anymore - I'm just seeing things like they really are. I think I'd question too many things about him, and I think I'd overshoot my boundaries. I don't want that kind of relationship with Steve.

TSR: In your show Elaine Stritch at Liberty you speak frankly about your drinking. Did that play a role in your getting or not getting job offers?

Stritch: I wasn't a falling-down drunk. I never missed a performance in my life. But I never get credit for that because I was having too much fun. People get an idea of you, and they don't want to buy you as a serious actress because you're laughing a lot in your dressing room. They put things together in a very unfair way.

I think with Sondheim the fact that I was a drinker would get in the way of playing the "lead" in a show. "Too much responsibility," they'd say, which is bullshit. But that's the way the cookie crumbles. I'm not bitter or sore or angry.

TSR: Many Sondheim fans found the Pennebaker documentary about the original Broadway cast recording of Company riveting because of the struggle you had in recording "The Ladies Who Lunch."

Stritch: It made the documentary. You know my friend Celeste Holm told me she thought it was a put-up job, that I devised that whole thing.

TSR: Did you?

Stritch: Are you kidding? I'm not that smart.

TSR: You seem pretty smart.

Stritch: You're not listening. I'm not that smart. I was afraid.

TSR: Of what?

Stritch: I knew how hard it would be to capture that song on a recording. And I wanted to get it right. I asked to go last so people wouldn't be hanging around and anticipating "here comes Elaine and the big song." I didn't want all that to deal with. So I asked to go last. But I wasn't thinking. I had sung all day, all the "Bobby baby, Bobby bubi's," and I gave my all to every take. By the time we got to "The Ladies Who Lunch," I was tired and my voice was shot. And I was afraid I wasn't going to be able to get it. It was hell, and that's what you see in the documentary.

TSR: What's up next for Elaine Stritch?

Stritch: Well, I'm taking my show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, back to London and around the country. I've found the show plays beautifully in small, posh cabaret settings, so I'm enjoying playing it in smaller houses.

TSR: Have you seen anything in New York recently that you really liked?

Stritch: I loved August: Osage County, and I thought Christine Ebersole was terrific in Grey Gardens. That is real talent. And talent is a very hard thing to explain. It's a complicated mess, this talent thing. But when you see it, you know it. That's how it is with Steve. People listen to his songs, and they know they're hearing real, honest-to-God talent.

TSR: You do love him don't you?

Stritch: I do. He's humble. Most real artists are humble. I once heard someone define humility - and humility is a very, very hard thing to define - as high self-esteem. I think Steve has humility. He's very gentle and caring, and he has humility. That's the highest compliment I can pay him. And no matter what anybody says, including Steve Sondheim, he's crazy about me! |TSR|

JOHN BELL is the head of the division of performing arts at DeSales University in Pennsylvania. He is the co-author of Music Theory for Musical Theatre.

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