Over the eleven months it took to bring Elaine Stritch At Liberty to its final draft, Elaine and I wrote together in many different places: on the phone; knee to knee at the desk of her suite at The Regency in New York; over cappuccinos (“Gary, could you warm this up for me!”) at The Library, the hotel’s plush mahogany-and leather watering hole; and, after each of the several drafts was completed, at Orso’s-“the Orso polish” we called it-where the proximity of a noisy theatrical crowd made Elaine feel funny and free. But, to my mind, the best place we wrote was the first place: the bright kitchen of her house in Sag Harbor, Long Island, where my portable computer was perched at the far end of the cooking island, and where, standing at the other end beside the stove in a long T-shirt and very little else, Elaine reminisced, sang, paced, and carried on in her bow-wow fashion. There, micro-waving cups of coffee, chopping fruit for her diabetic meals, testing her blood sugar, squawking for her factotum and secretary Rick Borutta to fulfill yet another task (“Rick! Rick!! Didn’t you hear me calling?!”), we began to push and pull her memories into a theatrical shape. Out of our freewheeling gab fest, I would snatch phrases, events, motifs-like Elaine’s habit of quoting song lyrics as she talked-and to incorporate them into a document. (On a good five-hour day, we might get half a page of monologue.) It was heady, hard, meticulous work-variously (and sometimes simultaneously) a conversation, a mind-meld, a shouting match, a pep talk, a laugh riot. “Take care of yourself,” Elaine would say, each time I’d take leave off our occasional bouts of collaboration to return home to London. “I don’t want anything to happen to the script.”
Ladies Who Lunch
Why Do The Wrong People..?
The best way to explain our way of working is with a sports metaphor. To my mind, Elaine was the pitcher; I was the catcher. She had the heat and the delivery; I had the view of the field. My job was to call Elaine out, to keep her brave and on the mark. The process was not unlike writing a profile for The New Yorker –to get good answers you had to ask good questions. Sometimes, in order to get her best stuff, I had to provoke her. “He makes me so mad,” Elaine told Time Out just before the show opened at New York’s Public Theater. “I almost feel like I’m married to him.” And, I guess, in a way, we were married-wedded to the idea of creating a show we’d both want to see.
Elaine had known for some time that she wanted to do a one-woman show; she just hadn’t known what form it should take or what to make of her vivid gallimaufry of anecdotes. For about a year before we met, she had been talking her story into a tape recorder with her Sag Harbor neighbor, the composer Larry Grossman. There were twenty-eight transcribed tapes and, to get Elaine’s measure prior to beginning the job, I sifted through that rambling saga of her career’s trajectory. I also went to a concert performance of Noel Coward’s Sail Away at Carnegie Hall, where Elaine got hilariously discombobulated with her script. On stage, at least, Elaine was at her best when she was seething and sour; she held nothing back, and she could be breathtakingly forthright. (On the Carnegie Hall eight, I brought my sister Jane backstage to meet her. As Elaine embraced me, she turned to Jane and said, “I love your brother-for now!” It seemed to me that the only way to release the gorgeous fuss Elaine was capable of making was to avoid the politeness and the self congratulation of most one-person shows and to go against the conventions of niceness. By revealing conflict, failure, and the emotional price of Broadway survival, the show could generate that ozone of anger and anxiety which is, finally, the Stritch climate.
When I arrived at her house that first day, in July of 2000, I had cobbled together ten pages of dialogue from her prose transcripts plus a list of favourite songs, an outline, and a title No Secrets: Elaine Stritch At Liberty, which made clear my sense of her brazen spirit and of the show’s potential attack. (It’s amazing to me now how much of that original impulse remained.) Elaine didn’t read the outline; in fact, although she required–and got–a newly minted copy of the script after each day’s work, she didn’t read the script-any part of it in any form-until about six months into our work together. She did, however, read the title. “That’s it!” she croaked, slapping the page with her hand “That’s the title! Elaine Stritch At Liberty.” At each meeting, I would read her the story so far; at each meeting she would massage the words and the incidents like a brass rubbing, until, over the months, they emerged in a fabulous fine filigree that fit her tongue exactly. Elaine, who has her own distinctive way of delivering song (so nuanced and ironic that for two masters of the musical-NoeI Coward and Stephen Sondheim-she is one of the definitive performers of their work), also has her own loosey-goosey way with words. In speech and in song, she is compelled to be sensational; that is, she wants the idea of herself to be felt. She always carried with her a small tan notebook in which she jotted piquant phrases to spice up the narrative-“according to this critic,” “a looker of note,” “overshoot the runway.”
Sometimes, when I would correct her grammar or say, “that’s not the idiom,” Elaine would turn on me, “Well, that’s how I say it!” For a prose writer, it was a humbling education in the difference between words on the page and words on the stage. A reader has time to revisit a sentence and linger over a well-chosen word, a member of the audience does not. Elaine’s grammatical mistakes, her apparent irrelevant asides and colloquial interjections, her cursing, her mispronunciations-all of which seemed at first the sludge of speech-were in fact the mortar that bound the audience both to the story and to her, establishing an immediate, visceral connection across the footlights.
On stage, for a joke to land properly, the picture has to be painted with an almost mathematical clarity. Elaine’s ability to manipulate every integer of speech until the equation of a story factors out into the proper emotion is, well, masterful. After half a century of presenting herself in public, she has a bone-deep knowledge of both how to tell and how to sell a story. Her secret is rhythm. Here, for instance, is a tale about her blind date with Frank Sinatra, which we tweaked for months as part of a pay-off to “Why Him?” a song that summed up her habit of choosing Mr. Wrong (It was cut from the show):
Tony Curtis set this up – a blind date with Frank Sinatra. A dinner party at Tony and Janet’s. After changing my outfit four or five times at the Beverly Hills Hotel over three or four Gibsons. Or was it changing my outfit three or four times over four or five Gibsons? I don’t know, I was a nervous wreck. 7:30. Sinatra’s car and driver swept me off to Summit Drive. I was ushered into the library, made my way to the bar, and very quietly asked for a drink. Tony Curtis is sitting on the floor next to Frank along with thirty or forty other guests watching “my blind date’ singing on his very own TV special as only he could:
(DOWNBEAT FROM ORCHESTRA, STRITCH SINGS SINATRA’S NELSON RIDDLE ARRANGEMENT)
I GET A KICK!
YOU GIVE ME THE BOOT..!
I GET A KICK OUT OF YOU-OU-OU-OU-OU-OU-OU!
ORCHESTRA: (COUNT BASIE ENDING) VOP VOP VOP VOP MOP!
In that silent moment of silence that happens in response to that kind of talent, Elaine raising her glass within that moment of silence, comin’ over loud and clear: “You can say what you want, but that son-of-a-bitch can sing.” Tony Curtis turns to Sinatra. “Frank” (pause) “That’s your date.” Actually, Mr. Sinatra had raised a glass or two that evening. He opened the conversation at dinner: “You’re in the theatre, right?” “Yes, I am Mr. Sinatra, that’s right.” ”Yeah, well, people in the theatre ain’t goin no place.” “Well, you know what? (pause) Mr. Sinatra (and I stood up) for years now I’ve been wondering just where the hell you think you’re going.” And then Mr. Sinatra stood up. “Get her outta here!” Poor Janet, in the nicest possible way, followed orders. “Chairman of the Board”-whaddya gonna do?
Fifteen years later, on my way out of “21” after supper one night. I stopped at table Number One. Bennett Cerf of Random House fame and–guess who?-were sitting at it. “Hi, Mr. Sinatra? Remember me?” “Sure, I do. You’re the girl who aint goin’ no place.”
Well, he remembered me, (pause) didn’t he?
As Elaine’s faith in the project grew, so inevitably did her control over it. At some point, around the sixth month, she started to write instead of improvise her memories. This made it harder-it seemed to me-for her to depart from ideas; for a little while, the collaborative water got choppy. Soon, I learned not to argue with every scribbled sentence but to trust in Elaine’s almost-unerring theatrical good taste, which sooner or later eliminated transparent vulgarities. Elaine may stew, she may scream, she may get the wrong end of the stick some of the time, but on stage, she knows her craft, and she always delivers. As an actress and as a civilian, she had a combination of ferocity and freedom that reminded me of my father, Bert Lahr, who had a certain prowess with audiences too. Both brought their panic-struck solitude with them on stage; both wanted the stage like a hot dinner; both stopped shows for a living. And, for both, talent was at once a blessing and a burden. The goal was excellence; to achieve it they were as unsparing with themselves as they were with others. “I know I’m not easy,” Elaine sometimes said to me, usually in the middle of not being easy. She also said, after I’d presented her with an autographed copy of one of my books, “John, you gotta stop givin’ me these books with your signature. I can’t give ‘em away.” Yes, it felt strangely like home.
Over the box office window at the Public Theater, for almost all of the show’s extended run, there was sign that read: “There Are Absolutely No Tickets for Elaine Stritch At Liberty-Not Even One.” As theatricals know, a smash hit of this kind does not happen very often; but then a talent like Elaine’s doesn’t happen that often, either. From the first dress rehearsal, the show has performed as I dreamed it would: standing ovations, rave reviews, sold-out downtown run, the move uptown to Broadway. However, I hadn’t–couldn’t have-dreamed up the subtle direction of George C. Wolfe, who allowed Elaine and me to have our process before making the show his own; or the sympathetic musical direction of Rob Bowman; or the splendid arrangements of Jonathan Tunick; or the elegant lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer or the shrewd producing of John Schreiber. Although Elaine Stritch At Liberty is a star turn; it is also a team effort. The show’s victory, such as it is, belongs to everyone. Elaine, who is used to being a renegade and an outsider, claims to be a little disconcerted by the sudden hoopla; she shouldn’t be. After September 11th, especially, we need stories of survival; we need to come together in community. Courage, after all, wants to laugh.
One night, on the way back from a preview, Elaine turned to me and said, “I always wanted to do big work, I never wanted to be a big person.” The rest of the ride was spent fussing about her voice, her feet, her cereal, her problem learning so many lines. When the car rolled up to The Regency, I got out to help Elaine with her bags. “You were gallant out there tonight” I said and pecked her cheek. “Gallant” she said, hurrying away. “I like that word.”
John Lahr, London, January 11, 2002
John Lahr and Elaine Stritch won the 2002 Drama Desk Award for the Best Book of a Musical; they also won Tony Awards. Mr. Lahr is the first critic ever to win a Tony Award in the over fifty year history of the prize.