Elaine Stritch – American Stage – Film Actress and Vocalist

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“Elaine Stritch”

 

Elaine Bawson Stritch (born February 2, 1925) [1] is an American actress and vocalist. She has appeared in numerous stage plays and musicals, feature films, and many television programs. She is known for her performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 musical Company, her 2001 one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, and recently for her role as Jack Donaghy’s mother Colleen on NBC’s 30 Rock. She has been nominated for the Tony Award four times in various categories, and won for Elaine Stritch at Liberty.

 

Biography

Early years

Elaine Bawson Stritch was born in 1925[2] in Detroit, Michigan to Mildred (née Jobe), a homemaker, and George Joseph Stritch, an executive with B.F. Goodrich.[3] Her family was wealthy and devoutly Roman Catholic.[4][5] Stritch’s father was of Irish descent and her mother was of Welsh descent. Stritch was a niece of Samuel Cardinal Stritch, Archbishop of Chicago.[6]

Stritch trained at the Dramatic Workshop of The New School in New York City under Erwin Piscator;[7] other students at the Dramatic Workshop at this time included Marlon Brando and Bea Arthur.[8]

Beginning stage career

Stritch made her stage debut in 1944. However, her Broadway debut came in the revue Angel in the Wings in which she performed comedy sketches and the song “Civilization”. Stritch understudied Ethel Merman for Call Me Madam, and, at the same time, appeared in the 1952 revival of Pal Joey, singing “Zip”. Stritch later starred in the national tour of Call Me Madam and appeared in a supporting role in the original Broadway production of William Inge’s play Bus Stop. She was the lead in Goldilocks.

She starred in Noel Coward’s Sail Away on Broadway in 1961. Stritch started in the show in a “relatively minor role and was only promoted over the title and given virtually all the best songs when it was reckoned that the leading lady…although excellent, was rather too operatic for a musical comedy.”[9] During out-of-town tryouts in Boston, Coward was “unsure about the dramatic talents” of one of the leads, opera singer Jean Fenn.[10] “They were, after all, engaged for their voices and…it is madness to expect two singers to play subtle ‘Noel Coward’ love scenes with the right values and sing at the same time.”[10] Joe Layton suggested “What would happen if …we just eliminated [Fenn’s] role and gave everything to Stritch? … The show was very old-fashioned, and the thing that was working was Elaine Stritch… every time she went on stage [she]was a sensation. The reconstructed ‘Sail Away’…opened in New York on 3 October.”[10]

Stritch became known as a singer with a brassy, powerful voice, most notably originating on Broadway the role of Joanne in Company (1970). After over a decade of successful runs in shows in New York, Stritch moved in 1972 to London, where she starred in the West End production of Company.

Television

Her earliest television appearances were in The Growing Paynes (1949) and the Goodyear Television Playhouse (1953–55). She also appeared on episodes of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1954. She was the first and original Trixie Norton in the pilot for Honeymooners sketch with Jackie Gleason, Art Carney and Pert Kelton. Her character was a burlesque dancer, but the role was rewritten and Trixie became a regular housewife. Stritch was replaced by Joyce Randolph.[7] Other television credits, include a number of dramatic programs in the 1950s and 1960s, including Studio One.

In 1975, Stritch starred in the British LWT comedy series Two’s Company opposite Donald Sinden. She played Dorothy McNab, an American writer living in London who was famous for her lurid and sensationalist thriller novels. Sinden played Robert, her English butler, who disapproved of practically everything Dorothy did and the series derived its comedy from the inevitable culture clash between Robert’s very British stiff-upper-lip attitude and Dorothy’s devil-may-care New York view of life. Two’s Company was exceptionally well-received in Britain and ran for four seasons until 1979, despite being buried in the “graveyard slot” of Sundays at 10:30pm. Stritch and Sinden also sang the theme tune to the programme.

Her other British television appearances included Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. Although she appeared several times in different roles, perhaps her most memorable appearance was in the story “William and Mary,” in which she played the wife of a man who has cheated death by having his brain preserved. In his introduction to the episode, Dahl observed that humor should always be used in horror stories, in order to provide light to the shade, and that was why Stritch had been cast, as “an actress who knows a lot about humor”.

Stritch became a darling of the British chat show circuit, appearing with Michael Parkinson and Terry Wogan many times, usually ending the appearance with a song. She also appeared on BBC One’s children’s series, Jackanory, reading, among other stories, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

On returning to live in the United States, she was a regular on the short-lived The Ellen Burstyn Show in 1986, playing Burstyn’s character’s mother. She appeared as stern schoolteacher Mrs. McGee on three episodes of The Cosby Show (1989–1990). She followed later with appearances on Law & Order (1992, 1997) as Lainie Steiglitz; as Judge Grace Lema on Oz (1998); and as the character Martha Albright (mother of Jane Curtin’s character) on two episodes of 3rd Rock From the Sun (1997, 2001), alongside her Broadway co-star George Grizzard, who played George Albright (the names George and Martha were a play on the characters Stritch and Grizzard played in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf).

Stritch was reportedly considered for the role of Dorothy Zbornak on The Golden Girls but, as she related in her show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, she “blew her audition”.[11] The role was subsequently cast with Bea Arthur (who had appeared with Stritch in 1956 in the television series Washington Square).

More recently, she was seen on One Life to Live (1993) and recurring roles on Law & Order (1992, 1997) and 3rd Rock from the Sun (1997, 2001).[12]

On April 26, 2007, she began guest appearances on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock as Colleen, the fearsome mother of Alec Baldwin’s lead character, Jack Donaghy.[13]

In 2008, Stritch appeared as herself in an episode during the second season of The Big Gay Sketch Show. She was spoofed during the first season as well as the second season

BBC Radio

In 1982, Stritch appeared on an edition of the long running BBC Radio comedy series Just a Minute alongside Kenneth Williams, Clement Freud and Barry Cryer. The show has been described by long-time chairman Nicholas Parsons as being among the most memorable because of the way Stritch stretched the show’s rules. It was on this occasion that Stritch famously described Kenneth Williams as being able to make “one word into a three-act play”.[14] She also appeared as Martha in a radio adaptation of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (she understudied Uta Hagen in the same role during the show’s original Broadway run, performing during matinees before taking over the role entirely).

Later stage work

After John Bay’s death from brain cancer in 1982,[15] Stritch returned to America. After a lull in her career and struggles with alcoholism, Stritch began performing again in the 1990s. She appeared in a one-night only concert of Company in 1993, as Parthy in a Broadway revival of the musical Show Boat in 1994, and as Claire in a revival of Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance in 1996.

Her one-woman show, Elaine Stritch at Liberty, a summation of her life and career, premiered at New York’s Public Theater, running from November 7, 2001 to December 30, 2001,[16] and then ran on Broadway at the Neil Simon Theatre from February 21 to May 27, 2002. Newsweek noted:

Now we see how At Liberty, the amazing one-woman show Stritch is moving to Broadway from the Public Theater this week, acquired the credit, “Constructed by John Lahr. Reconstructed by Elaine Stritch”. “The reconstruction means I had the last say”, she says. “Damn right I did.”… In case you didn’t notice, Stritch is not the kind of woman who goes in for the sappy self-indulgence that pollutes most one-person shows. In fact, At Liberty is in a class by itself, a biting, hilarious and even touching tour-de-force tour of Stritch’s career and life. Almost every nook and cranny of “At Liberty” holds a surprise. Turns out she dated Marlon Brando, Gig Young and Ben Gazzara, though she dropped Ben when Rock Hudson showed an interest in her. “And we all know what a bum decision that turned out to be”, she says. And then there were the shows. A British writer recently called Stritch “Broadway’s last first lady”, and when you see her performing her signature numbers from Company and Pal Joey and hear her tell tales of working with Merman, Coward, Gloria Swanson and the rest, it’s hard to argue. Especially since she does it all dressed in a long white shirt and form-fitting black tights. It’s both a metaphor for her soul-baring musical and a sartorial kiss-my-rear gesture to anyone who thinks there isn’t some life left in the 76-year-old [sic] diva. “Somebody said to me the other day, ‘Is this the last thing you’re going to do?'”, says Stritch. “In your dreams! I can’t wait to get back into an Yves Saint Laurent costume that isn’t mine–but will be when the show is over.[17]

Elaine Stritch at Liberty played to British audiences in 2002-03. She reprised Elaine Stritch at Liberty at Hartford Stage in June 2008. She appeared in the Broadway revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, from July 2010 to January 2011, succeeding Angela Lansbury in the role of Madame Armfeldt,[18][19] the wheelchair-bound mother who remembers her life as a courtesan in the song “Liaisons”. The AP reviewer of the musical (with the two new leads) wrote “Devotees of Stritch, who earned her Sondheim stripes singing, memorably, “The Ladies Who Lunch” in “Company” 40 years ago, will revel in how the actress, who earned a huge ovation before her very first line at a recent preview, brings her famously salty, acerbic style to the role of Madame Armfeldt.”[20] The theatre critic for The Toronto Star wrote:

“Stritch offers a sophisticated gloss on her by now patented, plain-talking woman who reveals all the home truths everyone ever wanted (or didn’t) to hear about themselves. When Stritch tears into her big set-piece, “Liaisons”, about all the affairs in her life, it’s not just a witty catalogue of indiscretions but a deeply moving fast-forward through a life filled equally with love, loss, joy and regret.[21]

Cabaret

Stritch has been performing a cabaret act at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City since 2005 (she is a resident of the Carlyle Hotel). Her first show at the Carlyle was titled “At Home at the Carlyle”. The New York Times reviewer wrote

Amazingly, none of the 16 songs she performs have ever been in her repertory, and just as amazingly, you don’t miss signature numbers… [L]etting them go has allowed her to venture into more sensitive emotional territory. Interpreting stark, talk-sing versions of Rodgers and Hart’s “He Was Too Good to Me”, “Fifty Percent” from the musical Ballroom, and Kurt Weill and Ogden Nash’s “That’s Him”, she comes into her own as a dramatic ballad singer.[22]

Between musical numbers, Stritch told stories from the world of stage and screen, tales from her everyday life and personal glimpses of her private tragedies and triumphs. She most recently performed at the Cafe Carlyle in January and February 2010, and again in March 2010 in At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song at a Time.[23]

 


 

Personal life

Her late husband, John Bay, was part of the family that owns the Bay’s English Muffins company, and Stritch sends English muffins as gifts to friends. Said John Kenley: “Every Christmas, she still sends me English muffins.”[24][25] When she was based in London, instead of renting or buying a property Stritch and her husband lived at the Savoy Hotel.[7] She is good friends with gossip columnist Liz Smith, who shares the same birthday (February 2) as Stritch.[26]

Stritch has been candid about her struggles with alcohol. She took her first drink at 13, and began using it as a crutch prior to performances to vanquish her stage fright and insecurities. Her drinking worsened after Bay’s death, and she sought help after experiencing issues with effects of alcoholism, as well as the onset of diabetes. Elaine Stritch at Liberty discusses the topic at length.[5]

 

Awards

Stritch has been nominated for the Tony Award four times:

  • Best Featured Actress in a Play for Bus Stop, 1956
  • Best Actress in a Musical for Sail Away, 1962, as Mimi Paragon
  • Best Actress in a Musical for Company, 1971
  • Best Actress in a Play for A Delicate Balance, 1996

In 2002, her one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty won the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding One-Person Show. In Elaine Stritch at Liberty she shared stories and songs from her life in theatre and observations on her experiences with alcoholism. The D.A. Pennebaker documentary of Elaine Stritch at Liberty (2004) combined rehearsal elements and her stage performance to win several Emmy Awards, including Outstanding Achievement in a Variety or Music Program. She received an Emmy Award in September 2007 for Best Guest Actress in a Comedy Series for her appearance on 30 Rock.

 

Popular culture

Stritch’s voice and vocal delivery are spoofed in the Forbidden Broadway songs “The Ladies Who Screech” and “Stritch,” parodies of “The Ladies Who Lunch” and “Zip”, songs she performed in the musicals Company and Pal Joey. In 2009, a parody by Bats Langley entitled “How the Stritch Stole Christmas” (loosely based on “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”) appeared on YouTube.

On The Big Gay Sketch Show, she was spoofed as a Wal-Mart greeter who’s still a theater gal at heart. (“I’m heeere. I’m still heeeerrre.” “Here’s to the ladies who shop… at Wal-Mart!“) This draws inspiration from footage of D.A. Pennebaker’s documentary film, Company: Original Cast Album, in which she says “I’m just screaming”, self-critiquing during recording “The Ladies Who Lunch”. The sketch also spoofs Elaine Stritch Live at Liberty in which she refers to her feat, as a young stage actress and understudy for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam, where she had to check in with Merman at half hour to curtain in New York, then commute to Connecticut for the out of town tryout of Pal Joey, and on some days make the round trip twice when there was a matinee and evening performance of both shows.

In a subsequent episode of The Big Gay Sketch Show, Stritch is spoofed as an airport security guard, who’s still “on” and isn’t able to tone down her over-the-top antics. In yet another episode, “Stritch” (played by Nicol Paone) is promoting her self-titled perfume, “Stritchy” in dramatic fashion when she’s confronted by the real-life Elaine Stritch, who makes a cameo appearance.

Video Clip

 

 

 

Work

Stage

  • Loco (October 16 – November 16, 1946)
  • Angel in the Wings (December 11, 1947 – September 4, 1948)
  • Yes, M’Lord (October 4 – December 18, 1949)
  • Call Me Madam (October 12, 1950 – May 3, 1952) (understudy for Ethel Merman) (replaced by Nancy Andrews when on national tour)
  • Pal Joey (Revival) (January 3, 1952 – April 18, 1953) (replaced by Betty O’Neil)
  • On Your Toes (Revival) (October 11 – December 4, 1954)
  • Bus Stop (March 2, 1955 – April 21, 1956)
  • The Sin of Pat Muldoon (March 13–16, 1957)
  • Goldilocks (October 11, 1958 – February 28, 1959)
  • Sail Away (October 3, 1961 – February 24, 1962)
  • Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (October 13, 1962 – May 16, 1964) (replacement for Uta Hagen starting in 1963)
  • Company (April 26, 1970 – January 1, 1972) (replaced by Jane Russell in 1971)
  • Love Letters (October 31, 1989 – January 21, 1990) (replacement for Kate Nelligan)
  • Company (April 11 and April 12, 1993) (concert staging)
  • Show Boat (Revival) (October 2, 1994 – January 5, 1997) (replaced by Carole Shelley)
  • A Delicate Balance (Revival) (April 21 – September 29, 1996)
  • Angela Lansbury – A Celebration (November 17, 1996) (benefit concert)
  • Elaine Stritch at Liberty (February 21 – May 27, 2002)
  • Endgame, Brooklyn Academy of Music, (April 25 – May 17, 2008)
  • The Full Monty, Papermill Playhouse, (June 10 – July 12, 2009)
  • A Little Night Music (Broadway Revival), (July 13, 2010 – January 9, 2011) (replacement for Angela Lansbury)[27]

Filmography

Stritch performed in more than 30 feature films and television films, including A Farewell to Arms, Woody Allen’s September, Screwed, Out to Sea, Monster-In-Law, and Autumn in New York. She has been interviewed in documentaries such as Broadway: The Golden Years, by the Legends Who Were There (2003) and The Needs of Kim Stanley (2005).

 


Selected Filmography

  • Three Violent People (1957)
  • A Farewell to Arms (1957)
  • The Perfect Furlough (1958)
  • Too Many Thieves (1966)
  • The Spiral Staircase (1975)
  • Providence (1977)
  • September (1987)
  • Cocoon: The Return (1988)
  • Cadillac Man (1990)
  • One Life to Live (1994)
  • Out to Sea (1997)
  • 3rd Rock from the Sun as Martha Albright (2 episodes: 1997, 2001)
  • Krippendorf’s Tribe (1998)
  • Screwed (2000)
  • Autumn in New York (2000)
  • Broadway: The Golden Age, by the Legends Who Were There (2003) (documentary)
  • Monster-in-Law (2005)
  • Romance & Cigarettes (2005)
  • 30 Rock (6 episodes: 2007−present)
  • The Big Gay Sketch Show (2008)

 


References

 

  1. Interview with The Villager, NYC-based local newspaper
  2. Born in 1925 per 1930 United States census
  3. “Elaine Stritch Film Reference biography”. filmreference. 2008. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  4. Celia Wren (3 May 2002). “Elaine Stritch at Liberty”. Commonweal Monitor these results with a RSS Search Alert. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1252/is_9_129/ai_86140152. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  5. BBC Four Music. “Elaine Stritch at Liberty”. BBC Four. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  6. “People: The Way Things Are”Time Magazine, February 23, 1948
  7. “Elaine Stritch Biography” tcm.com, accessed August 31, 2009
  8. Porter, Darwin. (2005). Brando unzipped, pp. 5, 12, 18. Blood Moon Productions, Ltd.; ISBN 0-9748118-2-3
  9. Sheridan Morley “Chapter:Pomp and Circumstance”, Noël Coward, Haus Publishing, 2005, ISBN 1904341888, p. 126
  10. Hoare, Philip. “Sail Away” Noel Coward: A Biography, University of Chicago Press, 1998, ISBN 0226345122, p. 472
  11. Bloom, Ken; Vlastnik, Frank; Lithgow, John (2007). Sitcoms: The 101 Greatest TV Comedies of All Time. Black Dog Publishing. ISBN 1-57912-752-5, pp. 136-137
  12. http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0834626/
  13. http://www.buddytv.com/articles/30-rock/elaine-stritch-talks-about-her-25221.aspx
  14. Eyre, Hermione.“Kenneth Williams: Michael Sheen carries on his camping”The Independent (London), March 5, 2006
  15. York, Peter.“Elaine Stritch: Drama queen”, The Independent (London), 29 September 2002
  16. Sommers, Michael. “It’s curtains for ‘Kate’ and Elaine'”, The Star-Ledger (Newark, New Jersey), December 28, 2001, p. 4
  17. Marc Peyser (11 February 2002). “A Stritch in Time”. Newsweek. Retrieved 2009-01-08. 
  18. Gans, Andrew.“Starry, Starry Night: Peters and Stritch Return to Broadway in Sondheim Revival”. Playbill, July 13, 2010
  19. McBride, Walter.“Photo Coverage: Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch Open in ‘A Little Night Music'”. broadwayworld.com, July 14, 2010
  20. Noveck, Jocelyn.“Send in the Stars: Peters, Stritch in B’way Return” abcnews.go.com, AP National Writer, August 2, 2010
  21. Ouzounian, Richard. “Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch: Making beautiful music in Manhattan”, The Toronto Star, August 20, 2010
  22. Holden, Stephen. [1] “Elaine Stritch, at 80 [sic], Tries Something New”, The New York Times, September 15, 2005
  23. Hetrick, Adam. “‘Happy Birthday, Steve’: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim Returns to the Carlyle March 22” playbill.com, March 22, 2010
  24. Brown, Tony. “John Kenley turns 100 on February 20, 2006”, February 19, 2009
  25. Musto, Michael.“NY Mirror”, The Village Voice, January 3, 2006
  26. [2] Audio Podcast: Elaine Stritch and Liz Smith at The Center, January 26, 2009 (longtime friendship referred to at 16 min. 38 sec.)
  27. Gans, Andrew.“Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch Extend Run in Broadway’s A Little Night Music” Playbill.com, October 5, 2010

 

 


 

External links