“I’d like a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.” That’s what the late, great Elaine Stritch told the bartender when she entered an unfamiliar drinking establishment. Well, that’s how Nathan Lane told it as he opened "Everybody Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch,” the star-studded, heartfelt memorial for the late Broadway legend, held on Monday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre (home of Kinky Boots.) Lane said he hoped the story was true because it was characteristic of the Tony-winning object of the tribute. “It showed the way she went through life,” he joked, “with determination, a belt of booze, and looking to find a path.”
Stritch, who passed away on July 17 at age 89 in her hometown of Birmingham, Michigan, had a legendary career spanning six decades. Her raspy voice, blunt manner, and razor-sharp wit graced everything from searing dramas (Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and A Delicate Balance, Samuel Beckett’s Endgame) to classic musicals (Rodgers and Hart’s Pal Joey, Noel Coward’s Sail Away, Jerome Kern’s Show Boat, Stephen Sondheim’s Company and A Little Night Music) to her own unforgettable one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty. She won her Tony Award for that last production, staged by George C. Wolfe who also directed the memorial, as well as an Emmy for the HBO TV version. She won two more Emmys for guest appearances on Law & Order and regaled a whole new generation of fans as Alec Baldwin’s acerbic mother Colleen Donaghy, on 30 Rock. In film she worked with such legendary directors as Charles Vidor (A Farewell to Arms), Blake Edwards (The Perfect Furlough), Alan Resnais (Providence) and Woody Allen (September, Small Time Crooks).
A host of colleagues, friends, admirers, and relatives spent the rainy afternoon sharing stories, singing songs and shedding a tear or two for this quintessential Broadway performer. “Helen Hayes may have been the First Lady of the American Theatre, but Elaine Stritch was its First Broad,” quipped Lane.
Bernadette Peters, her co-star in A Little Night Music, performed the comic specialty number “Civilization” with deadpan humor. She recounted that Stritch originated the song in the 1948 revue Angel in the Wings, but it was almost cut. “When it’s Elaine’s song, it’s not cut,” Peters observed. She recounted visiting Stritch in Birmingham when the lady’s health was failing. They joked about her favorite stripper name—Tequila Mockingbird—and Peters admired Stritch’s iron-willed choice to “leave the building” (her term for dying) on her own terms.
Additional musical performances and reminiscences were delivered by Lena Hall (Hedwig and the Angry Inch) warbling “Broadway Baby” from Follies attired in Stritch’s signature white shirt and black tights; Betty Buckley who called Stritch her guardian angel and sang a light, sweet version of “I Never Know When to Say When” from Goldilocks; Christine Ebersole who charmed with “That’s Him” from One Touch of Venus; and Michael Feinstein who offered an emotional rendition of “Fifty Percent” from Ballroom.
Feinstein brought the house down with a story about introducing Stritch to his father after the stars had done a joint concert at Carnegie Hall. “Your father’s a damned attractive man,” Stritch said to Feinstein. When Feinstein told her he was sorry his mother was not able to attend, the brutally honest Stritch’s response was “Damn, I was hoping she’d be dead.” He was then joined by Laura Benanti for a duet of “Just in Love,” the classic counterpoint hit from Call Me Madam in which Stritch understudied for the never-ill Ethel Merman. Benanti drew as many laughs as Feinstein with her story of her initial encounter with Stritch. They were both working in a reading for a new musical and Benanti was nervous at meeting the living legend. When the younger actress first encountered the diabetic Stritch in rehearsal, the latter was injecting herself to test her blood sugar. Benanti promptly fainted. When she came to, Stritch announced, “You certainly know how to make an entrance.”
Close friend Liz Smith gave the lowdown on Stritch’s love life including a brief flirtation with Marlon Brando, romance with Ben Gazzara, an unrequited crush on Rock Hudson, and her nine-year marriage to actor-playwright John Bay, ending in his death in 1982. Holland Taylor recalled their first meeting (at the unemployment office), Stritch’s penchant for carrying numerous shopping bags (all from top designer brands and matching her outfit) and their numerable memorable meals together. “But we never had lunch,” Taylor said, referring to Stritch’s iconic performance of “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Sondheim’s Company. Harold Prince, who directed that show, paid tribute to his former co-worker: “She was known as a musical comedy star. She was actually a brilliant actress who happened to star in musicals.”
Non-show business participants included her lawyer Joseph Rosenthal and her nephew Chris Bolton. Rosenthal related that contrary to her rough, irascible image, Stritch was always generous. He told of the time they were walking along Madison Avenue when a shabbily-dressed man approached them and asked for a few dollars for something to eat. After ascertaining that the gentleman was actually hungry and not just looking for booze money, Stritch dragged him into a nearby elegant restaurant, took him to the maître d’ and said, “Take him to the kitchen, give him a meal, and send the bill to me.”
Rosenthal also said Stritch’s will included substantial bequests to the Actors Fund and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation as well as a scholarship for the Stella Adler School for Acting where she had studied when she first came to New York at 17. Her nephew remembered asking his aunt where she got the courage to leave her home at such a young age. “I had to express myself. If I didn’t, I’d have exploded,” she replied. “Elaine, mission accomplished,” Bolton said in his tribute speech.
Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, a young co-star from A Little Night Music, and Julie Keyes, a member of Alcoholics Anonymous with Stritch, appeared together and told of her impact on their lives. Herdlicka had grown up idolizing Sondheim, Peters, and Stritch and making his Broadway debut with the two ladies in one of Sondheim’s classics was a dream come true. Keyes related that Stritch saved her life by giving her a substantial project—painting her living room floor in an elaborate pattern resembling an Oriental rug—as Keyes struggled to maintain her sobriety.
The event concluded with Stritch’s accompanist Rob Bowman emotionally telling the full house, “Her love affair was with you—the audience. She loved you.” And we loved her—Goodbye, Elaine: Everybody Rise!