Elaine Stritch, one of the twentieth century’s finest musical-comedy singers and most difficult human beings, has died at the improbable age of eighty-nine. While Stritchie (as Noël Coward dared to call her) is now best remembered for having been in the original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Company, in which she sang “The Ladies Who Lunch,” she had a remarkable career before and after that landmark show, though her alcoholism too often kept her from making the best possible use of her extraordinary talents.
Stritch was past her prime when I became the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, but I still had occasion to review her on a few noteworthy occasions, including a revival of Samuel Beckett’s Endgame in which she acquitted herself quite wonderfully well.
My fondest memory of her, though, is of Elaine Stritch at Liberty, her 2002 one-woman Broadway show, in which she was brassily frank and scabrously funny about her long, erratic career (thanks in large part to John Lahr of The New Yorker, who undertook the thankless task of collaborating with her on the script). I wrote about the show in my New York column for the Washington Post:
Elaine Stritch can’t sing, but it doesn’t matter. “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” her one-woman show currently playing at the Neil Simon Theater, is an engrossing evening of alarmingly candid reminiscence by an actress who has seen everything and lived, and when she croaks her way through Stephen Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here,” the only acceptable response is to cheer and cheer again. “She can’t carry a tune in a bag,” I muttered to the woman sitting next to me, who muttered back, “I wish I couldn’t carry a tune like that.” Me, too.
I also remember how fabulous she looked in black tights—the very model of a sexy older woman.
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From the 1970 documentary Company: Original Cast Album, directed by D.A. Pennebaker, Elaine Stritch sings “The Ladies Who Lunch” at the recording sessions for the show’s original-cast album: