Elaine Stritch – the original Joanne in Company, and star of Follies and A Little Night Music – passed away in her sleep on 17 July, aged 89. Stritch was well known on both sides of the Atlantic for her numerous appearances on stage, television and film and had a larger-than-life reputation for speaking her mind, a biting sarcasm and exquisite timing. Stritch’s one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty transferred from Broadway to the West End and played a season at the Old Vic in 2002. Dressed in a white shirt and black tights, performing on a bare stage with just a chair, Stritch gave anecdotes of the highs and lows of both her professional and personal life.
Born in Michigan in 1925, Stritch had attended convent school, and on moving to New York to study acting, found herself attending the same class as Marlon Brando. Early roles identified the young Stritch’s talent for comedy, with Stritch undertaking the comedy sketches in the musical revue Angel in the Wings. Stritch joined the company of Call Me Madam on Broadway as standby for Ethel Merman, who naturally never missed a performance. On being offered the role of Melba in the Broadway revival of Pal Joey in 1952, Stritch recalled how she juggled the two commitments, even commuting to New Haven for one week’s out-of-town run of Pal Joey, checking in with Merman every night before travelling to New Haven in time to sing ‘Zip!’ – including one night during a blizzard! Stritch left Pal Joey to play Merman’s role for herself in the national tour of Call Me Madam. Later appearing in the play Buster back in New York, Stritch met Ben Gazzara and they were romantically involved for two years until she met and fell in love with Rock Hudson while filming the In Rome movie.
Back on Broadway, Stritch received a Tony nomination for her role in the 1955 play Bus Stop and played the musical lead in Goldilocks, which Noel Coward (who referred to her as ‘Stritchy’) saw when they played out-of-town in Philadelphia. Some months later, Stritch recalled how she was appearing in a TV sit-com being filmed in LA, and waiting to hear if it would be further commissioned, when Coward offered her a supporting role in his new musical Sail Away. Coward told Stritch in no uncertain terms that he had seen the sit-com and that it would not be taken up so she would be available, and her role in Sail Away was later enlarged by combining it with the lead role. By this time, Stritch had started to drink every day which helped her fear of going on stage – she quipped that she had different drinks for different shows (champagne for Noel Coward, bourbon for Edward Albee) and that on a night out with Judy Garland after the latter’s closing night at the Palace, Garland turned to Stritch at 8am in the morning and said, “Elaine, I never thought I’d say this, but good night!”
Stritch was cast as Joanne in the original cast of Company which opened in Boston prior to New York (where it opened 26 April 1970). Stritch recalled how scared she was on the opening night and how the lyrics to Sondheim’s “three-act play” ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ wouldn’t come out so she had put her hands in her mouth during part of the song. Hal Prince called her to a meeting at 10am the following day and asked her why she had done this and she replied, “I was looking for the lyrics!” Stritch praised Prince’s trust in her and she played the role of Joanne for two and a half years (some 782 performances), transferring for the London run at Her Majesty’s Theatre in the West End. In Finishing the Hat (page 193), Sondheim recalls:
The character of Joanne was not only written for Elaine Stritch, it was based on her, or at least on her acerbic delivery of self-assessment, as exemplified by a moment George Furth had shared with her: they had entered a bar at two in the morning and Elaine, well-oiled, had murmured to the bartender in passing, “Just give me a bottle of vodka and a floor plan.” It was my third attempt to write for a specific personality playing a specific character… The song fit her perfectly.
Stritch remained in London and lived at the Savoy Hotel for many years “at an excellent rate!” During this time she met and married the writer John Bay, and the two were together for 10 years until Bay’s death. During her time in London, Stritch appeared in various American plays and gained television fame, appearing in the sit-com Two’s Company opposite Donald Sinden. Stritch also appeared alongside John Gielgud in the film Providence, which was shot in Paris. However, Stritch recounted how she “blew her audition” for a new TV comedy series which turned out to be the Bea Arthur role in The Golden Girls.
Stritch’s later stage appearances include the 1994 revival of Show Boat, playing Parthy, the captain’s wife, and the 1996 revival of Edward Albee’s play A Delicate Balance. Guest appearances on television included The Cosby Show, Law and Order and playing Alec Baldwin’s mother in the NBC comedy ‘30 Rock’ during her early 80s.
Stritch’s At Liberty show was, in her words, “reclaiming a lot of my life that I wasn’t honestly and truly there for”. After four previous nominations for a Tony award (including for Company), At Liberty was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Special Theatrical Event in 2002 and Stritch finally brought a Tony home. She later quipped that she had waited 45 years for a Tony and when she finally won her speech was cut as the live TV show went into a commercial break! In her At Liberty show, which Stritch claimed was “Constructed by John Lahr, reconstructed by Elaine Stritch”, she sang four Sondheim numbers. ‘Broadway Baby’ was sung early on in the show as Stritch recalled her young hopeful days, and ‘The Little Things You Do Together’ and ‘Ladies Who Lunch’ were featured in her recollections of working on Company. Stritch also sang ‘I’m Still Here’ from Follies with her customary directness. Then in her late seventies, Stritch complained that she had heard women in their 60s, 50s and 40s sing that song – but “where have they been?” (at that age). Stritch recalled that she had told Sondheim that she wouldn’t touch that song until she felt old enough to justify doing it. Then with customary Stritch humour, she turned to the audience and said that it’s such a good song she wasn’t going to wait 20 years until she was old enough to sing it!
Stritch had played Hattie Walker in the concert version of Follies that played the Lincoln Center in 1985 and she returned to Sondheim for her last Broadway role of Madame Armfeldt in A Little Night Music at the Walter Kerr Theater in 2010. That same year, Stritch sang ‘I’m Still Here’ at the 80th birthday concert for Sondheim at the Lincoln Center, and at the White House for President Obama.
In the years after her At Liberty success, Stritch had created a series of solo cabaret shows for Café Carlyle, including Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim…One Song At A Time in 2010 for Sondheim’s 80th birthday year. Stritch had moved back to Michigan last year to live near her family, having suffered from diabetes and generally declining health for some years. Her farewell cabaret evening at the Carlyle Hotel in New York where she had lived for many years was entitled Elaine Stritch at the Carlyle: Movin’ Over and Out. A documentary film about her life, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me was also released in US cinemas earlier this year, featuring candid reflections on her life and her trademark feisty persistence.
The lights of Broadway were dimmed to mark Stritch’s passing, and Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, said in a statement, “Elaine Stritch’s big personality was matched by her big talent. Collaborating with some of Broadway’s greatest playwrights and composers throughout her lengthy career, her signature numbers and singular style created a memorable legacy. Elaine Stritch will always be remembered as an important part of Broadway’s rich history, and she will be missed by her many fans.”
Mary Rodgers, who died on 26 June of heart failure aged 83, was well known as a composer of American musicals and had collaborated with Stephen Sondheim on several occasions. Born in Manhattan on 11 January 1931, her father was the legendary musical theatre composer Richard Rodgers, and her son Adam Guettel (of Floyd Collins and The Light in the Piazza fame) continues the family tradition. Rodgers was a director of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and a board member of ASCAP. She also served as chairwoman of the Juilliard School board between 1994 and 2001.
Rodgers wrote music from an early age, studying music at Wellesley College and started writing songs for children’s albums – a dozen of her songs, ‘Some of my best friends are children’, were published in 1952. Rodgers and Sondheim had met as teenagers during a summer at Westport Country Playhouse in Connecticut and became lifelong friends. Rodgers subsequently met Leonard Bernstein through Sondheim, who hired her to write and produce the television shows of Bernstein’s New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts, which she did for more than a decade.
Once Upon A Mattress – Rodgers’ first full-length musical – opened Off Broadway in 1959 and moved to Broadway the same year. An adaptation of the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale The Princess and the Pea, it was Rodgers’ first collaboration with lyricist Marshall Barer. Once Upon A Mattress – which contained one of Rodgers’ best known songs ‘Happily Ever After’ – played for 244 performances on Broadway (with Carol Burnett making her Broadway debut) and transferred to the West End in 1960. It was subsequently recorded for television in 1964, 1972 and 2005 and was revived on Broadway in 1996.
Following Once Upon A Mattress, Rodgers wrote the television musical Feathertop, based loosely on a Nathaniel Hawthorne short story. Rodgers’ next two stage musicals, From A to Z (1960) and Hot Spot (1963), both had shorter runs. The latter was a political satire starring Judy Holliday which opened in Philadelphia. Sondheim was one of several “play doctors” invited to advise on the project. Sondheim, Mary Rodgers and Martin Charnin wrote a new opening number, “intended to establish character, situation and star” called ‘Don’t Laugh’ (Look, I Made a Hat, page 299).
The Mad Show, a musical revue containing songs and sketches inspired by Mad Magazine was more successful, opening Off Broadway in 1966 for 871 performances. Originally working with Marshall Barer, he left the project early in rehearsals and Larry Siegel, Steven Vinaver and Stephen Sondheim wrote the remaining songs. Sondheim recalls that Rodgers called on him to help out and that he was happy to do so, writing ‘The Boy From’: “Since much of the show dealt with topical satire and spoofs, I thought of writing a parody of ‘The Girl from Ipanema’, the big hit of the day and the song which made bossa nova popular in this country.” (Look, I Made a Hat, page 301).
Rodgers was also well known as an author of children’s books, including Freaky Friday (1972), about a teenage girl who switches bodies with her mother, and she wrote the screenplay for the subsequent feature film of 1976. Other children’s books include A Billion for Boris (1974), Summer Switch (1982), and The Rotten Book (1985).
Rodgers continued to compose, contributing songs to the children’s album Free to Be… You and Me, and scores for productions by the Bil Baird Marionettes. Rodgers worked with lyricist and book writer John Forster on an adaptation of Freaky Friday for Theatreworks/USA in 1991 and another show, The Griffin and the Minor Canon, was produced by Music Theatre Group. A revue containing 18 of Rodgers’ songs, Hey, Love, played at Eighty-Eight’s cabaret in Greenwich Village in June 1993, conceived and directed by Richard Maltby Jr and starring Donna Murphy.
Rodgers’ first husband was Julian Beaty, Jr, whom she married in December 1951: they had three children, Tod, Nina and Kim. Her second husband was Henry Guettel, to whom she bore a further three sons, Matthew (who died of asthma during infancy), musical theatre composer Adam and Alec. At the time Sondheim was writing Company, which opened in 1970, he talked to Rodgers about her experience of marriage: “She had recently begun her second attempt at it and she knew enough to know what she didn’t know, which made her comments fresh, personal discoveries rather than predigested truisms. I took notes—literally—as we talked.” (Finishing the Hat, page 167).
Sondheim has said that the only autobiographical song he ever wrote was ‘Opening Doors’ from Merrily We Roll Along, which was based on him, Hal Prince and Mary Rodgers, among others. In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim mentions Rodgers as “a close friend of mine” who had encouraged him to collaborate with her father, Richard Rodgers, following the death of Oscar Hammerstein, on Do I Hear a Waltz? (page 141). Rodgers is also referred to in Look, I Made a Hat, in the section on songs Sondheim wrote for special occasions. Sondheim wrote ‘Mommy on the Telephone’, as a birthday song for Rodgers in 1961. Sondheim states: “By the time she was thirty, Mary was an exceptionally busy woman: she was raising three children… as well as writing children’s books and songs and composing the score for a musical. She was never too busy, however, to talk to her best phone crony, Anne Adler.” In the song, which Sondheim performed at Rodgers’ birthday party, he refers to her frequently ringing Anne Adler and how the line was engaged when he tried to contact her. (page 410). Sondheim also refers to Rodgers in the section of early songs he wrote, as she had written the music for the song ‘Christmas Island at Christmas Time’ in 1951. Sondheim comments, “Neither of us can remember why we wrote it, but at the time we were both hustling to get our work heard, and the song was probably aimed at a television program or a record company. It has a calypso beat.” (page 421). Sondheim also mentions (page 298) that he and Mary Rodgers had tried to musicalize Frank Stockton’s story “The Lady or the Tiger?” for a proposed television show in the early 1950s but the project didn’t happen.
In a 2003 interview with the New York Times at the time of Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza opening, Rodgers had revealed that she had first mooted musicalizing that idea to her father Richard Rodgers, with whom she had a difficult relationship, before giving it to her son years later. She had not done it herself, modestly saying, “I had a pleasant talent but not an incredible talent….I was not my father or my son. And you have to abandon all kinds of things.” Following her death in June, Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, commented: “Mary Rodgers Guettel was a gifted author and composer; adding to her family’s achievements of musical theatre greatness. The lights of Broadway are being dimmed in honor of someone who was a muse and inspiration to so many, and she will be missed.”