Wednesday, April 21, 2010
Elaine and I
Last night, I met one of my all-time theatre idols, Elaine Stritch. Ok, I hate to use the word idol, because that makes me think of a Golden Calf in the desert, but let's just say I really, really like and admire her. Currently doing an encore performance of a cabaret show she did earlier this year, Elaine Stritch: Singin' Sondheim . . . One Song at a Time, I sat at the bar of the beautiful Cafe Carlyle, in awe, tears, and bliss. Located in the iconic Carlyle Hotel, an epitome of Upper East Side grandeur, its cabaret dining space holds nightly performances by icons of the American theatre, folk, and cabaret traditions (coming up at the Carlyle, Woody Allen, Judy Collins, and Sutton Foster). Coincidentally, this is also the hotel where Ms. Stritch lives, interestingly enough, in the same apartment she and her late husband once occupied. After a long day of work (more on that later), I snazzed myself up and gussied myself over to the Carlyle Hotel, hoping to get a seat for the night's performance. Finding a seat at the bar, I surrendered my credit card as a security, hoping that one of the reserved seats would bail. The Cafe is really a large dining room that only holds about 90 people; starting price to sit at a table $125 a person (depending on the show). I opted for the more economical bar seats, a mere $75 (or was it 85?) a pop, available on a first come, first served basis (unless you are a VIP of course). Oh boy, oh boy, did I feel out of place. Oh boy, oh boy am I glad I called ahead to see if they had a dress code. Outfitted in my best (only) suit, I attempted to fit in to this mix of the ultra rich, or at least, much richer than I. With the exception of one or two other stray 20-somethings, I had a good 10 - 20 years of youth on the rest of the room. And while I am sure everyone knew at least something of Ms. Stritch, I think I am the only one you could qualify as a "fan" (attempting to keep my cool, and not appear a "fanatic" - hard work after 1 or 3 martinis). Interestingly enough, one of the other stray youngsters actually knew me, identifying me from Locale fame. He was sitting at a table, with only a sense of the coming show, I was at the bar, cycling this woman's entire career in my head. I was just a little bitter. Patiently reading my book (currently Chelsea Handler's Are You There Vodka?), I sipped my martini and counted the minutes. Sighting my literary choice, the gentleman at the bar next to me and I struck up a conversation. Come to find out he is Elaine's press agent. Thank you Richie, I owe you everything. As the show approached, the room soon filled with UES luminaries, I settled into my staked out position, determined to Stritch or Bust. My bar pal Richie, busy with the evening's events and VIP audience, was replaced by another older gentleman, guzzling vodka martinis and looking disgruntled (he called out during the show and was almost escorted out; I about died, and would have - for Elaine). As the hour approached, my seat secure, the lights dimmed, and out she came, all bones and wrinkles and black. Her loose fitting skirt and blouse looked much the same as what she wore to the 1985 Follies concert, only with shorter heals and a little less leg (maybe it was the same outfit). She opened the show with a gruff "I Feel Pretty," all irony and camp, eyes rolling and arms waving. As soon as I saw her, I though wow she is really is old, but still kicking (in my mind I imagined a younger - ha, who is younger at 85? - Granny Boiles standing onstage in a room full of people). Though she doesn't have the fire and vim you hear on the Company soundtrack (or better yet, her rare 60's album Stritch, why did not I think to pack that??), a stage pro she is, and a master of song interpretation at that, milking every line for what's it worth. From there she went to praise her pal Stephen Sondheim, noting his genius and vast contributions to the musical theatre ("musical comedies are what they called them in my day, it's what we should call them now!"). After "Pretty," she surprised the audience with "Rose's Turn" the finale from Gypsy (my favorite musical). Being an intensely character/plot driven song, one would generally steer away from such heavy fare in a cabaret, or at least save it until the end. That is, unless you are Elaine Stritch. Claiming she unfortunately never got a chance to tackle what is arguably the musical theatre's greatest female role (a real pity), she launched into the number, doing a bit of the preceding dialogue. While she may no longer have the pipes for the song (typically demanding the big pipes of a Merman or Patti Lupone), she made the song her own, the look in her eyes revealing Rose's desperation and sorrow. Though she has aged, she still drips confidence and command of the stage like no other. From there, she went on to do numbers from Company, Anyone Can Whistle, Follies, A Little Night Music, and others. A truly touching moment was her rendition of "Send in the Clowns," spoke-sung (as it's meant to be, fuck you Barbra Streisand) and interlaced with a story about her husband John Bay. Funny, I had never really pictured Stritch as the wife type, but there singing that song, talking about her husband, one got the sense that she still loves him, considers herself his wife. The portrait she painted of Stritch the wife and widow was in sharp contrast to her usual Stritch the Ball Buster, the Drunk, the Invincible, the Bitch, etc, her acid tongue put aside for a sweeter sound. The whole show seemed to have a more sentimental and softer energy, Stritch no longer the reeling alcoholic, her old anger seemingly displaced, a soft candlelight instead of all fire and vim. Referencing a show currently in revival on Broadway, she performed an eery, truthful rendition of "Everyday a Little Death" as a monologue. Later on, she pulled out signatures "Broadway Baby" and "The Ladies Who Lunch," still claiming ownership of two of Sondheim's greatest songs. I was hoping for "I'm Still Here," but perhaps by show's end that choice seemed beside the point (or maybe she was tired, or decided we didn't deserve an encore number). By show's end (I ran out during one of last numbers because my bladder simply could not hold out), I was astounded and believe it or not, I got to meet her. She was tired and wanted to go upstairs to bed, but I wrangled an autograph and photo out of her, thanks to bar friend Richie and some Indiana charm (I told her she helped me move to New York: true). Leaving the Carlyle, I immediately burst into tears, a dream of mine realized. Now today, I am asking, was it all just a dream?