Saturday, July 19, 2014

she's still here

She wasn't one of those performers who slipped off into the world of decreasing fame after her career ended in her 40s.

That was not Elaine Stritch's style.  She burst onto the Broadway stage in her early 20s and kept right on going almost up to her death on Thursday.

People who want to read her biography can head on over to Wikipedia.  You will find a lot of facts there.  I want to indulge in some personal reminiscences. 

Obituary writers often say that a performer's work lives on long after they are dead.  That may be true for painters and film actors.  But it is not true for the theater.  And that is where Elaine Stritch shone.

I saw her on stage twice.  The first time was in New York in 1971.  The show was Company.  Everything about the production was new to me.  I knew nothing of Stephen Sondheim, and I was taken off-guard by a musical that may (or may not) take place entirely in the leading character's head.

The show was filled with multi-faceted characters and music that challenged the audience to delve into its layers.  But, the most memorable moment in the show that evening was Elaine Stritch's "The Ladies Who Lunch."  A song that became her standard.

The character she played, Joanne, seemed to slip right into Elaine Stritch's skin.  For good reason.  The character was charismatic, gin-soaked, and world-weary.  She had seen it all.  And so had Elaine Stritch. 

There was something primordial in her style.  She shared the same magic as Bea Arthur, Ethel Merman, Maureen Stapleton, and Collen Dewhurst.  And she was the last to go.

The second time I saw her was in London.  She had moved there in 1972, setting up camp in the Savoy Hotel.  This time it was not a musical.  It was Neil Simon's The Gingerbread Lady

The play is something of a shambles.  But Elaine Stritch breathed her life into the character of Evy, the cabaret singer whose life was turning into a mess because of her alcoholism.  She artfully allowed us into the pain of her life.  I can still remember that husky voice of hers doing its best to guide us through the shadows of death. 

And, in the case of The Gingerbread Lady, much of it was her life.  She was one of the champions who managed to get her alcoholism under control.

From 1974 to 1976, I would see her now and then in a restaurant or walking along one of London's streets.  Even in her daily life, she was the same woman she played on stage.

When I was cleaning out the Salem house, I found the Playbills for the performances I had seen.  And I reminisced. 

It is too bad when those of us who saw her on stage are gone, her performances will also disappear.  At least, the memory of them.

But I have another memory.  I recently watched a recording of a concert celebrating Stephen Sondheim's 80 the birthday.  All of the big stars from the Sondheim shows were there to share their performances.  Bernadette Peters.  Mandy Patinkin.  Audra McDonald.  Chip Zien.  Joanna Gleason.

And, of course, Elaine Stritch.  Instead of singing "The Ladies Who Lunch" (that was left to Patti LuPone), she chose to sing the anthem from Follies: "I'm Still Here."  And just as she had done when I saw her live, she made the part her own.  Because the song is her life.

For those of you who never were privileged to see her live, you truly missed one of life's pleasures.

I tried to find a Youtube video to share with you.  All I could find was a rather embarrassing version sung at the Obama White House.  It is not the way I want to remember her.

Instead, I will live with the memories I have.  And that is where she shall live.

Note -- By the time a lot of you read this I will be on my way back to Melaque.  Our show will resume from there.


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