UPDATED with more information throughout: The Broadway star who turned Stephen Sondheim’s song of survival “I’m Still Here” into a personal anthem of triumph over booze, diabetes, unfaithful lovers, indifferent producers, demanding directors, fawning fans and long stretches of unemployment before achieving the status of Living Legend in her later decades, died Thursday in Birmingham, MI, the Detroit suburb to which she decamped a year ago after living the fabulous life for years at Madison Avenue’s Hotel Carlyle. She was 89. Broadway dimmed its lights for one minute on Friday at 7:45 PM in tribute.
Stritch may have found the widest audience of her storied career playing Alec Baldwin’s sharp-tongued mother on the NBC comedy 30 Rock. She was also a sometime favorite of Woody Allen, having appeared in the films Small Time Crooks and September.
But Stritch was first and foremost a creature of the stage, playing large roles and small and always, essentially, Elaine Stritch. Slight and charismatic, she proffered a mezzo soprano that, in youth, had a hungering quality one can hear in “I Never Know When,” from 1958’s Goldilocks — an otherwise forgotten musical by Jean and Walter Kerr, with songs by Leroy Anderson, Joan Ford and the Kerrs — in which Stritch starred with Don Ameche and Russell Nype. Later, that voice would become as distinctive as Tom Waits’, invariably described as sandpaper soaked in whisky or some variation of the two. Still, it never lost that sense of urgency, and the two qualities combined to distinguished Stritch from the other Broadway divas of an era long enough to encompass Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters.
Stritch drew first attention in the 1952 revival of Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart’s Pal Joey — a musical, based on John O’Hara’s New Yorker short stories, whose 1940 debut had been dismissed by some critics as too unsavory for Broadway but was reborn and rediscovered in the revival. In it, Stritch played a savage-witted newspaper reporter who performs the satirical Zip, the most famous Broadway striptease before Gypsy‘s “Let Me Entertain You.” During that decade Stritch also performed in Rodgers and Hart’s On Your Toes.
Among the non-singing roles in which she won praise were parts in William Inge’s Bus Stop and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? In 1961 she played a brash cruise-ship hostess in Sail Away, Noel Coward’s last show as composer/lyricist, in which she got to sing the quintessentially snotty “Why Do The Wrong People Travel?” Stritch sang the scabrously bitter “Here’s To The Ladies Who Lunch” in Company, the 1970 musical that launched a decade of Broadway-transforming collaborations between composer/lyricist Sondheim and director Hal Prince. Later, she appropriated Sondheim’s paean to show-biz survival, “I’m Still Here,” from Follies, as her own personal cri de coeur, having conquered various addictions and bad behaviors and enjoying a stunning career resurgence in her last years.
The highlights of that period included appearing in a 1994 Broadway revival, staged by Prince, of Show Boat opposite Robert Morse; of Albee’s A Delicate Balance two year later, and of A Little Night Music in 2010. During that period she also performed Elaine Stritch At Liberty, a charming, funny, self-deprecating, sometimes caustic autobiography with music, “constructed” by critic John Lahr. She became nearly as well known for her elegantly sexy outfits — sometimes man-tailored suits, other times just a sheer white blouse over black tights — as for that voice, which, unlike her sometimes unsure memory, never failed her.