The American theatre lost a legend yesterday in Elaine Stritch. She was the quintessential American actor, showing huge personal courage throughout her life and in her artistry.
I had the privilege of working with Ms. Stritch only once but she had a huge impact on me. I stage managed a show in which she performed “Broadway Baby” at the Hollywood Bowl to 17,000 audience members and one very famous birthday celebrant at Stephen Sondheim’s 75th Birthday Concert. The evening featured the L.A. Philharmonic, and was directed by Paul Lazarus, and musical directed by longtime Sondheim collaborator, Paul Gemignani.
And believe me when I say that it truly was a privilege to work on this show.
We had been rehearsing for about two weeks at a small rehearsal studio on the border of North Hollywood and Burbank, and I was giddy with the daily rehearsals. An hour here with Jason Alexander and Adam Wylie doing a number from “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” a half hour there listening to Barbara Cook singing “I Think About You” from “Follies.” You get the picture.
Check out the other amazing performers who wished Sondheim happy birthday:
The most memorable moments for me happened during the last run through of the concert in the rehearsal room. The actors faced the rehearsal tables, with the mirrors behind them. I was sitting at the center edge of the stage management table, and right across a short gap (maybe 2 feet) began the table at which sat Stephen Sondheim and Paul, the director.
I could watch Sondheim’s face as these amazing performers, Barbara Cook, Marin Mazzie, Jason Daniely, Anne Hathaway, Jubilant Sykes, et al. paraded through, singing his songs to him, their backs to the mirrors, and the mirrors reflecting back at me the impact of his work on himself and all the other artists in the room. It was one of those pinch-me moments in the theatre that we have all the time, but not often to this extent.
Anyway, cut to the Orchestra Rehearsal at the Bowl, and Elaine Stritch, who had just arrived from New York – I don’t think she was with us in the rehearsal room is getting ready to run her number. The LA Philharmonic Orchestra is in place, and out from stage right comes Elaine, wearing her microphone, and carrying her very pointy-toed black shoes that she will wear that night in her left hand.
She walks to the center of the stage and taking Paul Gemignani’s arm at the conductor’s podium to balance herself, she extracts two crumpled pieces of tissue from the each of the toes of her shoes, then puts them on, one by one.
She then crossed to down right from where she was going to be entering, and stepped into the wings, her mic now live because we were about to run her number. Echoing through the empty Bowl bouncing off the 17,000 seats and benches we all hear her hock a loogie.
I’m sorry – I know this story is in extremely poor taste and I am breaking every rule of stage manager discretion, but I have to say, I kind of loved her for it.
Later that night, she was amazing – she completely leveled the house with “Broadway Baby” – the standing ovation she got when she came out was 35 seconds. She filled that entire bowl with her talent, her passion, her committment, and only hours before, her loogie.
I don’t know to this day if she did it to crack us all up, but she did. Yesterday, when I heard the sad news of our loss, I smiled because I remembered that moment when I got to see Elaine Stritch up close and personal.