CULTURE MONSTER

Elaine Stritch: All the best lines at this memorial were hers

Via @CharlesMcNulty: Theater heavyweights celebrate Elaine Stritch, who had a gloriously unorthodox career

Broadway bade farewell to one of its favorites on Monday at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre in a tribute titled “Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch.”

The bill, which included reminiscences and musical numbers from Broadway heavyweights, was “constructed” by George C. Wolfe, who directed Stritch in her Tony-winning solo show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” one of the peaks of her gloriously unorthodox career.

Naturally, all the best lines in this memorial were borrowed from the legend herself and the most deafening ovations were after clips of her performances. Even from beyond the grave, Stritch can still upstage anyone.

“This event would have pleased her to no end because it’s all about her,” Nathan Lane observed in his by turns hilarious and touching account of the woman he dubbed “the First Broad of the American theater.”

He recalled bits of advice she gave him about shows he was doing. Of “Waiting for Godot,” she cautioned him, “If it’s not funny, it’s one long night in theater” (expletive deleted).

And after seeing him in “The Addams Family,” she said with her usual take-no-prisoners candor, “Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough.”

Bernadette Peters, who shared the stage with Stritch in “A Little Night Music” (Stritch’s last Broadway role) revealed some little known facts about the woman she called “my girlfriend.” Stritch’s favorite stripper name was Tequila Mockingbird, and when anyone died she’d say “they left the building.”

Stritch, who left the building in July at 89, did so “on her own terms,” Peters confided. As her memory problem worsened, she apparently refused food and drink, stage-managing an ending more in keeping with how she wanted to go out.

The glamorous Broadway memorial, packed with theatrical luminaries (Barbara Cook, John Lithgow, Rosemary Harris, F. Murray Abraham) and Broadway movers-and-shakers, sketched a portrait every bit as vivid as the Hirschfeld caricatures that decked the lobby.

Stritch was unapologetically a mass of contradictions, as irascible as she was soft, as frugal as she was generous. One minute she was stuffing fruit in her bag from a table display at a fancy dinner party (“I need fruit,” she shouted, as though strictly following doctor’s orders), the next she was ushering a homeless man into the back kitchen of a fancy Italian restaurant on Madison Avenue and telling the manager to send her the bill.

Hal Prince, who directed her in “Company,” wondered how originals like Stritch originate. She was, in his estimation, forever the naive convent girl and the sophisticated artist— qualities that made her an ideal interpreter of Broadway song.

And no one, Prince wanted to put down on the record, “has come close to matching” her version of “The Ladies Who Lunch,” the Sondheim number from “Company” that was her signature.

There were accounts of Stritch barging up to Broadway box offices and asking for a single ticket, somewhere in the back of the orchestra — gratis, of course. The only time she was denied was at “Mamma Mia!,” prompting her to add a middle word to the title.

Gossip columnist Liz Smith said her old pal Stritch left her some money with the request that she take Barbara Walters to dinner. Stritch’s attorney, Joseph Rosenthal, provided more details about Stritch’s charitable donations and generosity to friends and loved ones, hinting with a suppressed smile at what it must have been like to provide legal counsel to this one-of-a-kind diva.

Actress Holland Taylor talked about the way her “gallant” friend would coordinate her shopping bags (filled with diabetes medical paraphernalia and “deli”) with her outfits. Hermes went well with blue, Chanel always with black. Once she bought (or considered buying) anything from a store, Stritch felt entitled to a lifetime supply of shopping bags. No ripped Henri Bendel bag for her when a fresh supply was just down the road.

With Stritch’s longtime music director Rob Bowman on piano, Peters, Christine Ebersole and Michael Feinstein (first doing a dynamite version of “50 Percent,” then a duet with Laura Benanti), brought to life songs Stritch had interpreted as only she could.

Betty Buckley, who called Stritch her “guardian angel,” performed an incredibly moving rendition of “I Never Know When (To Say When),” the song Stritch introduced in “Goldilocks.” Lena Hall, who won a Tony this year for her featured performance in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” provided a sultry interpretation of “Broadway Baby.”

On video, Alec Baldwin spoke warmly about his TV mother from the NBC sitcom “30 Rock.” When she told him that he was made for Noël Coward comedy, Baldwin was thrilled because Stritch not only performed in Coward but knew him personally. Of course he’d have to lose 20 to 25 pounds first, she added with her usual stinging honesty — the very ingredient that made whatever she said onstage or off so unforgettable.

“Ferocity built on vulnerability” is the way Cherry Jones, also appearing on video, summed up Stritch’s character. It’s as good a description as any to describe a Broadway talent whose outrageousness was equaled only by her raw humanity.

Follow @CharlesMcNulty on Twitter

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