Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014) (Photo credit: Joyce Culver)
“I’m happy to be here. That’s what I want you all to know,” Elaine Stritch wistfully told the crowd at the 92nd Street Y. She was resplendent in a Margo Channing/Tallulah Bankhead “What becomes a legend most?” mink coat, with her trademark coif, makeup, earrings and jewelry. She made her entrance by being pushed out from the wings in a wheelchair to a standing ovation.
“I’ve only got two legs. I’ve been living on them for 68 years in New York. I keep falling down. I fell on Madison Avenue and I evened it out by falling in Michigan. I’ve got some problems. We’ll make believe I’m fine. I’m good at that.” The occasion was an event to promote the new biographical documentary, Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
“Merman was terrific!” She replied when asked about Broadway legend Ethel Merman whom she understudied in the hit musical Call Me Madam in 1950, when she was 25 years old, and later played that lead role in the national touring company. Fans of her Tony Award winning one-woman biographical show, Elaine Stritch: At Liberty will recall her raucous story about Merman coping with a drunken audience heckler during a performance of Call Me Madam. “Ethel Merman plowed on…”
Plowing on as well was the evening’s host, the loquacious longtime former Village Voice nightlife columnist Michael Musto. At age 89 and with serious health issues, Ms. Stritch’s hearing and focus were at times problematic. This inspired Mr. Musto to deftly keep things moving during her idiosyncratically entertaining stream of consciousness responses.
“It’s a universal story about aging,” said panelist and the film’s debut director Chiemi Karasawa. Dryly witty and articulate, she and Ms. Stritch had obviously developed an affectionate relationship, bantering throughout the event.
Ms. Karasawa had noticed Stritch at a hair salon. “You should make a movie about her!” said their mutual stylist who arranged overlapping appointments for them to meet, and a great bond was forged. “I was scared shitless!” she said after conferring with Stritch before filming began. Editing took a long time because there was so much that was interesting that had to be left out of the theatrical version, some of which is intended for the DVD release. “Absolutely great! But I didn’t want to be in it,” was Stritch’s reaction on seeing the finished footage for the first time.
Throughout, clips from the film were shown. These included her commenting on posters and photographs from her career, “A Delicate Balance, one of the best things I ever did.” “At Liberty, my favorite poster from a of show of mine.” She was shown at an eye doctor’s visit comically undergoing an exam. Performing her nightclub act at The Cafe Carlyle, with her singing “The Road You Didn’t Take” from Follies, and forgetting lyrics. “Fuck it!” There were affectionate interviews with Cherry Jones, Nathan Lane, George C. Wolfe and Tina Fey.
From the front row, it was fascinating watching. Stritch watch herself in the clips. Her facial expressions ranged from stern, to grinning to intense.
The final portion of the 75-minute presentation was audience questions and answers.
Her longtime musical director, collaborator and close friend Rob Bowman who is prominently featured in the film, was in the audience and received a huge ovation. Musto also noted the presence of the drag queen Vodka Stinger whose stage name is a tribute to Stritch, as it’s a lyric from “The Ladies Who Lunch.”
“They can’t touch it!” was her tribute to herself regarding her take on her signature song from Company, though she had warm praise for two colleagues Bernadette Peters and Patti Lu Pone’s renditions of it.
“I’d rather be dead then fat,” were among the conversational highlights. On why she won’t use a TelePrompTer to aid her performances, “And lose all those laughs when I forget things?” On Cherry Jones, “I feel like laughing and jumping up and down. I’m going to see her in The Glass Menagerie!” She’d come back to New York if there were “a good part in a really good play that I understand.” On director Hal Prince, “Always a joy but a bit scary.”
“I’m less sentimental as I get older.” She reminisced about the happiest part of life, her marriage to the deceased actor John Bay. The most emotional moment was when she cried after being asked about one time co-star and friend James Gandolfini who appears in the documentary and who died last year: “I wish it hadn’t happened. I loved that man.”
With great fanfare last year, this New York fixture moved out of her suite at The Carlyle Hotel and retired to her home state of Michigan. This appearance was a memorable opportunity for many longtime fans to see Elaine Stritch once again live on stage, and for many to have that experience for the first and only time. “I’ve had a difficult life because of ME. I did it all to myself.”
“It’s nice to be alive. Isn’t it?”
Elaine Stritch and Chiemi Karasawa with Michael Musto: Conversation and Clips (February 17th, 2014)
Kaufmann Concert Hall, 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission
Originally published by Theaterscene.net on February 28, 2014.