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'Gimme a vodka and a floorplan': Elaine Stritch remembered | reviews, news & interviews

'Gimme a vodka and a floorplan': Elaine Stritch remembered

'Gimme a vodka and a floorplan': Elaine Stritch remembered

Brief encounters with the legendary New York diva

Elaine Stritch records Sondheim's 'Company' in 1970

My (very) small haul of autographs collected as a schoolboy ran the gamut from Peter Pears to Linda McCartney but even back then I knew the classiest signature I bagged was that of Elaine Stritch. Years later, she was described as someone who went from being a sensation to a legend without ever being a star, but “starring” is the only word to describe her performance in the title role of the shortlived London premiere of a less than good Neil Simon play The Gingerbread Lady in 1974.

Her reviews were so explosive that my friend Michael and I ignored discussion of the play and booked tickets for a Saturday night. Her commanding presence and the extraordinary invincibility of her grandstanding performance as a recovering, then lapsing alcoholic was so exciting that as soon as the curtain came down, we raced around to the stage door of the Phoenix Theatre and stood and waited for her. And waited.

The rest of the cast exited and still we waited. Frankly, having stood there like lemons for nearly an hour we were on the brink of giving up but then we heard her trademark voice – a cross between an exultant yell and a prowling growl – and she came bowling out of the theatre, extravagantly gesturing and slightly fried. Correction: slaughtered. Thrilled, it seemed to us, to see two schoolboys anxious for her autograph, she threw herself upon us and to our amazement, we wound up walking her back to the Savoy where, in some splendour for about 14 years, she lived.

Comedy timing has to be instinctive: if it isn't, you're dead

Two decades later, I found myself back at the Savoy with her, now stone-cold sober, drinking caffeine-free Coca-Cola and still a handful. It was 1997 and I was interviewing her prior to her first London concert appearance in a decade when she was the special guest of Barbara Cook who was holding a 70th birthday concert at the Royal Albert Hall. To my undisguised delight, we got on well, the tape-recorder was turned off and stories poured forth, enough for me latterly to admit that we had “met” before. She, of course, had no recollection of the incident but was amused nonetheless.

But then those drinking years had long given her fodder, not least the year before in her triumphant return to Broadway and to Edward Albee. In 1963 she led the alternate cast of the original production of Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (You can hear her reprise of the entire role here). In the first major revival of his A Delicate Balance she was Claire, the hard-bitten, wisecracking alcoholic sister. Stritch’s personal history gave her performance a shocking emotional depth but the pain was all the more trenchant and heartbreaking because it was hidden beneath a brilliant comic surface. At one point, toying with a single, almost inconsequential line, she worked four separate laughs out of it, none of which were cheap, audience-pleasing gags. “Comedy timing,” she announced, “has to be instinctive: if it isn't, you're dead."

The morning the interview ran, she appeared on Radio Four and the interviewer alluded to the huge but seriously unflattering photo accompanying the article. She harrumphed and, embarrassed for her, I sent flowers by way of apology. She then left a message, telling me to find her after the concert.

Stritch sang only a couple of numbers since it was Cook’s night, but she still proceeded to slay the audience with her individual approach which was less singing, more no-holds-barred truth-telling in song. But when my pal Stevie and I went backstage, we were told she’d already left. We walked out of the stage door, turned the corner and saw her. Surrounded by literally hundreds of fans swarming about her, this 74-year-old woman suddenly looked small and not a little unnerved. Wheeling round, wild-eyed, she spotted me. “Oh!” she barked, “David!” Feeling rather sheepish, I grinned and she suddenly lit up because she saw what she wanted: her escape. “Get in the car!” she commanded. The crowd shifted in surprise, she strode forward and all three of us piled into the back of the waiting limousine and she grabbed my hand. Her unrelenting grip was so fierce that I stared down at her hand. It was white with tension. Her hold had nothing to do with friendship; it was pure fear. Filled with praise for Cook’s singing, she was desperate to know if she had been good enough not to have embarrassed her. This was nothing to do with false modesty, it was naked post-performance terror. It took most of the car journey to talk her out of it.

That career-long, self-lacerating self-appraisal gave her a bone-dry wit that Noël Coward loved. He elevated her from a smallish role to the lead of his musical Sail Away and if you want a masterclass in how to make a mountain out of a musical molelhill, listen to her spectacularly droll “Useful Phrases”.

The older she got, the more beloved she became. Not for nothing did she make a party piece out of “I’m Still Here”, Sondheim’s paean of praise to survival. But her fierce temperament that saw her demanding as much of other people as she did of herself, caused friction. Her 2002 tell-all solo show Elaine Stritch at LIberty was frankly mesmerising – she won raves on both sides of the Atlantic – but there was a lot of yelling between her and John Lahr when they created the piece which finally emerged with the billing: “Constructed by John Lahr, reconstructed by Elaine Stritch.”

But refreshingly fierce honesty, and whiplash timing, were at the heart of everything she did, most famously playing what became her signature role, sardonic, seen-it-all Joanne in Sondheim’s Company. He wrote the part, and specifically, her climactic number “The Ladies Who Lunch” (watch overleaf) with her in mind thanks to George Furth’s story of arriving with her at a nightclub at 2am and her saying to the waiter, “Gimme a bottle of vodka and a floorplan.”

In her late eighties, after years of sobriety, she decided that she could cope with a couple of drinks a day and proceeded to have just that. She was proud of the fact that she could handle it. Watching her, it never occured to you there was anything she couldn’t handle.

  • Elaine Stritch, 2 February 1925 – 17 July 2014

Overleaf: watch Elaine Stritch at Liberty and singing in Company

Elaine Strich in Company


Elaine Stritch at Liberty

Her individual approach was less singing, more no-holds-barred truth-telling in song

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Wonderful, wonderful memories, David - texturing the 'climate of anger and anxiety' which John Lahr described in working on Elaine Stritch at Liberty. Which I'm so glad I saw in London and which on CD - no doubt there's a DVD, but who needs it? -  is the best possible obit anyone could provide: funny, true, painful and consummately well done.

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