UPDATE Tuesday morning with a few more details and photos.
The roster of stars and other bold-face names who took the stage at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Monday afternoon to remember Elaine Stritch was almost as brilliant as the audience that negotiated a chilly November rain to bid farewell to the stage legend, who died in July at age 89.
Johnnie Planco escorted Rosemary Harris. Barbara Barrie, Stritch’s colleague from the original cast of Company, was with her children. Ellen Burstyn, Chita Rivera, John Lithgow, Blythe Danner, Barbara Cook, Tommy Tune, Jim Dale and many others had turned out for the celebration of a woman known as much for the impeccable stems she flaunted for decades—with a signature outfit consisting of a cream silk blouse over black pantyhose—as for her equally impeccable timing, her unmatchable interpretations of songs by, among many others, Cole Porter and Stephen Sondheim; her battery of chic shopping bags and her ability to cadge free tickets to sold-out shows.
“Is there anyone not here?” I asked Jordan Roth, president of Jujamcyn Theatres, which owns the Hirschfeld, who was sitting with his mother, Hirschfeld tenant and Kinky Boots producer Darryl Roth. Hardly pausing for a beat, he responded, “No.”
The gathering, called Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch, was directed—or, rather, “constructed,” per the program—by George C. Wolfe, who’d staged Stritch’s Tony-winning show Elaine Stritch At Liberty.
“Elaine Stritch walks into a bar,” said Nathan Lane, the first speaker. He could have stopped right there, given the knowing laughter elicited by the line, though he added that she demanded of the barkeep, “Give me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.”
“How do you solve a problem like Elaine Stritch?” he wondered affectionately, conjuring The Sound Of Music. “How do you hold a f**king moonbeam in your hand?”
“Elaine was definitely proud of her gams,” Lane understated, “often treating pants as an overrated accessory.” He added that she always had a precise comment for whatever he was doing. After seeing him in the fairly dreadful musical The Addams Family, he recalled, she’d said, “Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough.” He’d carried the show well beyond its sell-by date.
Interspersed among the spoken tributes were performances by killer divas Bernadette Peters (singing, deadpan, the supremely dopey “Civilization (Bongo, Bongo, Bongo),” from a revue called Angel In The Wings, which was where Stritch had introduced it), Christine Ebersole, Betty Buckley (singing a knockout arrangement of “I Never Know When To Say When,” a gem Stritch introduced in the 1958 Broadway flop Goldilocks). Lena Hall, Tony winner for her featured role in Hedwig And The Angry Inch, outfitted sexily a la Stritch, did a sultry version of Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby,” while Michael Feinstein and Laura Benanti dueted on Irving Berlin’s Call Me Madam counterpointing “You’re Not Sick You’re Just In Love”.
Especially poignant memories were offered up by Alec Baldwin (Stritch played Baldwin’s character’s mom on 30 Rock) and Cherry Jones, via film, along with Hal Prince, Holland Taylor and especially the unstoppable columnist Liz Smith.
“She was a convent girl, you know,” said Prince, who directed her in Company in 1970. “She was as naive as she was sophisticated.” He added, “Thank God the Pennebakers captured her performance in Company.“
As for Smith, she recalled meeting Stritch in 1953 (“before any of you in the audience were born,” she noted drily). “We never had a cross word,” Smith said, adding “we never had a serious word, either.” Stritch had told her that “When I get brilliant lines in a play like Edward Albee’s, half the time I don’t know what they mean. I just go on stage and say them—and hope for the best.”
Smith also announced that Stritch, an er, sometime drinker who battled diabetes most of her life, bequeathed sums in excess of $500,000 to both the Actors Fund and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.