Diva Alert #12: Elaine Stritch

Written by Jackson Upperco

July 5, 2017

Welcome back to Diva Alert, Performer Stuff’s series on Great Dames from the Golden Age of Broadway. In these posts, we’re taking a look at some of the American Musical Theatre’s most legendary ladies, along with their seminal stage triumphs.

 One of the broadest broads ever on the Great White Way, this diva could choke down a whiskey sour or a magnum of champagne and still hit her mark when “places” were called. Personal struggles fed her artistic expression – and created a persona that was larger than life. Ill-tempered and foul-mouthed, but hilarious and real, she was… Elaine Stritch.

Michigan-born Elaine Stritch trained at the esteemed Dramatic Workshop before making her Broadway debut in 1946. Her first featured role came in the revue Angel In The Wings (1947), where she introduced “Civilization.” By 1952, she had been the standby for Ethel Merman in Call Me Madam (1950) and was cast in the acclaimed revival of Pal Joey.

Several big shows followed, including Bus Stop (1956), for which Stritch earned a Tony nomination, Goldilocks (1958), her first starring role, and Sail Away (1961), a Noël Coward musical that she played on both sides of the Atlantic. After years touring in stock, the diva’s crowning Broadway achievement came in 1970, when she introduced the iconic “The Ladies Who Lunch” in Stephen Sondheim’s Company.

Stritch followed Company to London. There her life took a turn: she got married, starred on an ITV sitcom, and resided in the U.K. until her husband’s passing. After his death, her problems with alcohol, which began as a teenager, came to a head. After achieving sobriety, she returned to the states and made a triumphant comeback with raved-about appearances in the 1994 and 1996 revivals of Show Boat and A Delicate Balance, respectively.

More Broadway acclaim found Stritch again in 2001 when she took on her most challenging role – playing herself in a one-woman show that netted her a Drama Desk Award and an Emmy – the latter being her second of three, the last of which she won for her recurring role on the NBC sitcom 30 Rock. During this time, she made her last Broadway appearance in the 2010 revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music.

By this time, Stritch was a legend. Her one-woman act inspired documentaries, while cabaret engagements and TV appearances further showcased her hard-as-nails-but-painfully-vulnerable persona, endearing her to several generations of fans. When she passed in 2014, Broadway mourned the loss of an iconic dame – with a voice, an attitude, and a story that won’t ever be forgotten.

DID YOU KNOW? Elaine Stritch claimed to be up for the part of Dorothy in The Golden Girls. She lost it by ad libbing during the audition.

Stritch Roles You Should Know

Melba Snyder in Pal Joey (1952 Revival)

Stritch played an ambitious reporter in Broadway’s first well-regarded revival of Pal Joey. Her character had one number – a showstopper performed as a mock striptease – “Zip.”

Maggie Harris in Goldilocks (1958)

The star of this show didn’t think highly of it by the time of Elaine Stritch At Liberty, but however silly the plot, the score offered some terrific, neglected songs, like this one.

Mimi Paragon in Sail Away (1961)

This Noël Coward musical actually had our diva as support until he decided to axe the leading lady, rewrite the part, and promote Stritch. Mild on Broadway, it was a hit in London.

Joanne in Company (1970)

Ah, for as long as theatre fans revere Stephen Sondheim and Company’s anthemic “Ladies Who Lunch,” Stritch will be immortal. Here’s a rare contemporaneous performance.

Jackson Upperco is a lover of retro television, forgotten Broadway musicals, and Pre-Code Hollywood. He boasts a Bachelors Degree in Film and Television from Boston University. You can keep up with all of his entertainment interests at jacksonupperco.com.
Thumbnail image Public Domain.