Volume 79, Number 30 | December 30 - January 5, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933


January 5 - 30
At Café Carlyle in the Hotel Carlyle
Madison Avenue at 76th Street
Call 212-744-1600 or visit www.thecarlyle.com

Photo by Nathalie Vande Walle

Elaine Stritch: Contemplating Sondheim?At home, the singular Stritch sings Sondheim

Early tribute trumps upcoming March birthday fetes

By Jerry Tallmer

Elaine Stritch wasn’t being coy. She is not the coy type. She’s the Take-No-Prisoners type. Take no prisoners and leave ’em laughing.

Would “The Ladies Who Lunch,” that most caustic of songs, launched scarifyingly by her on Broadway in “Company,” be somewhere in her new gig at the Hotel Carlyle?

“I think it’ll pop up somewhere in one form or another,” Stritch says. “Who knows? It’s nice for an audience to be surprised. I think they’ll be surprised at the first number, a very unlikely song for Stritch to sing.” She’s keeping it secret until opening night: Tuesday, January 5, 2010.

How many numbers in the show altogether?

She puts her hands over her eyes and silently counts. “Just give me a minute,” she says. Then: “Eleven or twelve.”

All by Stephen Sondheim. That, as it happens, is the whole idea. “I’m in the process,” she says, “of working out this cabaret in honor of Sondheim,” who on March 22 will be heralded everywhere in recognition of his 80th birthday.

The title of the four-week engagement had come to her in the middle of a night. “At Home At The Carlyle”…which in fact is where she lives, upstairs over this intimate little just-off-the-dining-room Lower Gallery, as the hotel calls it, where she likes to be interviewed. “At Home At The Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin’ Sondheim...One Song at a Time.’ ” Did you see the poster outside, at the door?”

She tells a waiter to be sure to put cinnamon atop her cappuccino.

“Everything of Sondheim’s asks a lot of me emotionally,” she says. “My message to you is: This is a tough assignment. His stuff is not uncomplicated, you know. It’s not [she hums with scorn] ‘I like New York in June, how about you?’ It’s very hard to learn, it’s a workout, but once you.ve got it…!”

She takes a breath, and then the ageless long-legged Michigan bombshell — who has spilled her guts, her romances, her blunders, her triumphs, her laughter, her self-disparagement, but most of all her uncrushable vitality, alone on stage in “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,” and had walked off with a Tony Award for the sheer nerve of it — now says of the formidable Sondheim commitment: “It’s the way I always like to work; a big, big handful.”

She had been, she says, “halfway into doing another show” — a standard potpourri of this and that from here and there — “but then when I was walking down Park Avenue, I realized I didn’t want to do that. So I called my music director, the brilliant Rob Bowman, and we went to work on this whole different idea.

“Anything I do,” she says with intensity, “I want it to be demanding. To be a challenge. I don’t want to be good. I want to be great …better…best! Any of those words you can use.”

Then, more somberly, though no less fiercely: “It’s the only thing we’ve got — isn’t it? — as we go into what? We’re way past autumn, aren’t we?” Two beats. “Why the hell do they call it autumn anyway?”

In a profile by this writer a few years ago of Stritch tensely yet resolutely facing up to autumn, the onetime hard-drinking actress and singer — a drinker no longer, but long a diabetic — spoke of how she shoots herself “in my backside” with insulin every morning. Now she spoke of how she always keeps a glass of orange juice at bedside in case her blood sugar gets too dangerously low.

Topnotch documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennybaker in 1970 shot a fascinating no-holds-barred look into the making of the cast album of “Company” — the hard-bitten, ironic Sondheim (music and lyrics), George Furth (book), Hal Prince (direction) offbeat musical that had opened that spring and would run two years on Broadway at the Alvin (now the Neil Simon).

Central to that show, as noted, was “The Ladies Who Lunch” — the deeply sarcastic Sondheimism sung by Ms. Elaine Stritch — who later, during the making of this cast album, was having a lot of trouble getting it right, much to the unvoiced but plainly visible distress of Sondheim, Hal Prince, and Stritch herself (although this layman, watching the documentary upon its subsequent release, thought she was doing just fine).

Now, here in the pristine Carlyle, almost 40 years after that cast-album experience, Ms. Stritch says: “I worked my ass off on ‘The Ladies Who Lunch,’ so that they” — the matinee ladies, among others — “could understand what it means.

“Everybody tries to doll everything up. Well, I’ve got news for you. It’s hard work, coal miner’s stuff. I was working too hard. I was tired. Nothing worse for a performer. Sondheim, God bless him, could see it. When I had some rest and felt good, I sang the hell out of it. ”

So what does that song mean?

Looking at the questioner as though he were a somewhat backward child, she waits a moment, then explodes with: “The Upper East Side…”

We’re sitting here in the Upper East Side…

“That’s right. The Upper East Side. Rich. Chic. Bergdorf Goodman. Money. Rich. And booze, and booze, and booze.” Breaks off with: “I don’t do lunch, just for openers.”

Indeed, she usually doesn’t become available to the world until four o’clock in the afternoon.

Stephen Sondheim, like another person she greatly admires, Edward Albee, for whom she starred in “A Delicate Balance,” has had a lifelong mother problem, or, more precisely, the problem of having felt nothing in childhood but coldness from that mother.

“Yes,” Stritch says, “I’m very sorry Stephen never got over that. But I wouldn’t touch it,” she says, closing that avenue of conversation.

So what does Elaine Stritch, the Welsh-French-Irish daughter of B.F. Goodrich executive George Joseph Stritch and Mildred Jobe Smith of Birmingham, Michigan, do that has nothing to do with her career?

“As long as I’m working, I find it easier to join the human race. I go home to Birmingham to spend time with my sisters and their children. I don’t stay with them; I think staying as a houseguest is worse than a prison term. So I stay at the Detroit Athletic Club, right smack in downtown Detroit.

“I’ve never gone on a vacation in my whole life,” she says, vehemently. “That’s the absolute truth. So now I think I really want to see Poland, and Vienna, and St. Petersburg.

“I think I’m getting smarter. I read a lot. I listen a lot. I’m turning into one of the best listeners in the world.”

It goes without saying that she also knows — has always known — how to talk. And sing. And make it bite you where it counts, lunch or no lunch.

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