Happy 85th birthday, Elaine Stritch

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Elaine Stritch celebrates her 85th birthday Tuesday night at the Café Carlyle. It’s the final performance of her cabaret show, “At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim... One Song at a Time,” and Stephen Sondheim (or rather Mr. Sondheim, as Stritch demurely calls him) is slated to be in attendance.

Also expected are Harold Prince, Patti LuPone, Nathan Lane, Michael Feinstein, James Gandolfini and Christine Ebersole, who starts her gig at the Carlyle on Wednesday. Crammed with Broadway stars, the cozy room—normally chockablock with anonymous grandees, as it was when I attended Stritch’s show Friday while briefly in New York—will resemble a fantasy sequence on ‘Glee.’


Openly jittery under the best of theatrical circumstances (it’s part of her inimitable shtick), Stritch will no doubt be especially on edge in the presence of the songwriting genius whose lyrics she reveres yet has a harder time than ever remembering. Heaven knows, Sondheim won’t mind if she flubs the occasional line. This evening is a homage to his supreme gifts, and with the exception of Barbara Cook, I can’t think of anyone who “gets” the complicated underlying emotions of his songs better than Stritch does.

In a quote I haven’t been able to dig up in “In Search of Lost Time” but can roughly paraphrase, Marcel Proust commented on the metaphysical music that lies beneath the words of great writers. It’s this subterranean harmony, not the polished surface prose, that speaks directly to our souls.

Stritch’s voice, a craggy novelty even in its prime, has admittedly lost some of its range. The jazzy sound she wrung from it in her 2002 Tony-winning Broadway show “Elaine Stritch at Liberty” has somewhat diminished. What has grown, however, is the music of her manner, which magnifies lyrics by refracting them through her singular stage persona.

Everything she does seems heightened, distilled. Even her throwaway moments pack a punch. And if she momentarily stumbles, her musical director and pianist Rob Bowman is there to gently usher her back to safety. Not that the audience, enthralled by her relentless intensity, is likely to detect anything remotely amiss.

“I Feel Pretty,” her opener from “West Side Story,” turns mordant in her hands, the insistence of a woman who has at long last learned to override insecurity. “Rose’s Turn” from “Gypsy” captures the mix of narcissism and vulnerability, solitariness and exhibitionism that characterize the greatest of all stars and would-be stars. A literary reading (“Keats and Shelley time”) of “Every Day a Little Death” from “A Little Night Music” registers the intimations of mortality that comfortable domesticity is unable to deflect.

In every offering, smoothly arranged by Jonathan Tunick, was a rueful sense that even the greatest pleasures, the most vivid dreams and the happiest theatrical moments must come to an end. Equally palpable was the indomitable belief that it’s our job to keep reveling in their transitory bliss.

“Everybody Says Don’t” from “Anyone Can Whistle” became an anthem for living life to the last drop. Stritch, looking slightly frailer but still unmistakably herself, doesn’t just profess this Sondheimian wisdom—she glamorously demonstrates it in a spotlight that by rights should never leave her.

--Charles McNulty

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