The billowy white blouse. The black stockings. The oversize sunglasses. The hat. And that famous croak of a voice.
When people say there was no one like Elaine Stritch — and everyone does, in the industry and along the aisles — it’s not a hyberbolic banality; it’s a statement of fact. What other legit-world legend flipped the bird to pants years ago? She had established such a concrete public persona that audiences knew exactly what they were getting when they came to see Stritch. That she remained surprising and unpredictable anyway was part of the magic.
Indomitable, irascible and electrifying, Stritch could cut you down, crack you up and break your heart, all in one go. She was best known for her way with a mordant zinger, but that brittle surface masked an unexpectedly fragile heart.
That must be why she was one of Stephen Sondheim’s premiere interpreters, one who could sling the composer-lyricist’s brainy, cutting witticisms without losing hold of the vulnerability and desperation that hide behind them. With her signature tune from “Company,” “The Ladies Who Lunch,” and with “I’m Still Here,” the “Follies” tune she memorably belted out in her solo show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” Stritch came to own that recurring Sondheim creation, the woman of a certain age whose jaded humor doesn’t mean she’s not hurting.
Her galvanic rendition of “Ladies Who Lunch” was forever tied to her reputation as a tough-as-nails and often downright difficult collaborator. D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary about the making of the cast recording of “Company” is best known for the volatile sequence in which Stritch repeatedly tries, and fails, to record a version of “Ladies” that satisfies everyone in the studio, including herself. The force of personality on display in her volcanic frustration is the stuff that Broadway legends are made of.
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Sure, she was a tough old bird, as she herself would freely acknowledge. In Chiemi Karasawa’s 2013 documentary “Elaine Stritch: Just Shoot Me,” Tina Fey tells the camera that Stritch, who memorably recurred as Jack’s mother in Fey’s NBC sitcom “30 Rock,” was such a hurricane that every time she was expected on set, the cast and crew battened down the hatches. But, Fey adds, she was always worth the trouble.
Given her distinctive identity, it seems fitting that toward the end of her life Stritch achieved her greatest renown for being her own inimitable self. In “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” the actress delved into her own backstory with the same mercilessness she showed everyone else. Kurasawa’s documentary proved another highwire act of self-exposure in which the ailing but unbowed Stritch is brilliant, impossible and magnetic all at once.
Both underscored what made Stritch so compelling to her admirers. She was a legend, but one who shared an uncommonly gritty intimacy with the audience that was, each night, her closest friend.
Her 2010 appearance in the revival of “A Little Night Music” became her Broadway victory lap, when theater fans could turn out for one last communion with Stritch and Sondheim. The night I saw the show, she lost her lines during the very first scene and found herself forced to rely on her young co-star for cues. It didn’t matter. She did what she always did. She soldiered on.