Four months after the July 17 death of the great Broadway battleax Elaine Stritch, more than a thousand people packed the Al Hirschfeld Theatre at 4pm yesterday for Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch, directed by George C. Wolfe. The crowd in the theater seemed to include nearly everyone in The Theater. It was a royal procession of Broadway: Chita Rivera, Barbara Cook, Tommy Tune, Rosemary Harris, William Finn, Charles Busch and countless other boldface names filled the aisles alongside producers, critics, friends and fans of all ages.
Nathan Lane opened the ceremony with a perfect blend of humor and poignancy. “I have so many memories of her, and they all keep playing through my head like an awards-show montage,” he said, before listing a few, which ranged from inside-theater jokes (“Elaine after seeing The Addams Family: ‘Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough’”) to affectionate jabs (“Her birthday present to me was a beautiful baby picture of her”). Most affecting was his account of what Stritch said in one of her “surprisingly sweet and vulnerable” late-night phone calls to him. “’Don’t be afraid to call me up and ask me out for a burger and a movie sometime. I’d like that,’” Lane recalled, choking up. “’That doesn’t happen very often. Apparently I’m a little terrifying.’”
Such alternations between Stritch's two essential modes—larger-than-life and painfully life-size—were the afternoon’s running theme. “Elaine knew the stuff of legends and spend a good portion of her life creating one," said Hal Prince, who directed her in 1970’s Company. “She was as quick, smart, articulate as anyone I’ve ever known, and she was naïve—she was a convent girl, you know. She was just as clueless as she was sophisticated.”
Gossip queen Liz Smith dished about her friend’s romantic entanglements (“She was ever the sucker for every single guy she ever met”) and worked in some knowing one-liners (“Some people thought that Elaine was mean, they thought she was a toughie, because as she grew older she I guess grew less nice to idiots”). Of Stritch’s approach to acting, this: “Elaine once said, 'When I get lines from a brilliant playwright like Edward Albee, half the time I don’t know what the hell they mean. I just say them onstage and hope for the best.’”
There were songs, too. Bernadette Peters did a deadpan version of “Civilization” (“Bongo, bongo, bongo / I don’t want to leave the Congo…”), which Stritch performed in a 1947 revue. Betty Buckley sang “I Never Know When (To Say When),” from Goldilocks, and spoke of Stritch’s cabaret mentorship. (“She was very frustrated with me because she liked my singing and she liked my heartfelt nature but she said, “Betty! The martini needs to be dirty.”) Christine Ebersole bubbled elegantly through the Weill-Nash standard “That’s Him,” and Lena Hall, in Stritch drag, took care of “Broadway Baby.” Nightclub stalwart Michael Feinstein performed “Fifty Percent,” then stayed onstage for a duet, with Laura Benanti, of Call Me Madam’s “You’re Just in Love.” (The previously announced Patti LuPone, unable to attend, was missed.)
Toward the end of the event, the testimonials grew even more personal. Holland Taylor began her beautifully crafted speech with a story about the first time she saw Stritch—stylishly holding court at the Unemployment office—and offered a window into what it was like to spend time with such a powerful personality. “Not to say there weren’t memorable moments, certain of which for some people would have ended a friendship,” she noted. “There was always the element of danger with her and the possibility of actually dying from embarrassment. But she lifted everything to a level of hilarity that made any social discomfort well worth it. And of course someday the waiter would recover!”
“What stirred me most about her was not her need, her bravura trumpet, her astonishing wit, but rather her frequent acute awareness of others,” Taylor added. “It was her talent for affection that lingers in the air more than even her most triumphant performance.” These sentiments were echoed in remarks by her lawyer, her nephew, and others who knew her intimately: young actor Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, who costarred in her final show, A Little Night Music; Julie Keyes, whom she befriended and helped through Alcoholics Anonymous; and, finally, her heroic longtime (and at times long-suffering) musical director, Rob Bowman, who received a standing ovation from the adoring crowd.
The complementary, contradictory details of Stritch as offered throughout the afternoon—grandiosity and vulnerability, generosity and stinginess, imperiousness and self-sacrifice—coalesced to depict a Broadway broad of the first order. As Liz Smith put it: “Elaine, you were a real character. Like they used to make. They don’t make them anymore. You were a national treasure: the greatest comic, the most unique singer, a daring actress and a kind pain in the ass. All you really wanted in the end was stardom, and a little romantic kiss, and another drink.”
One last toast, then. The tribute ended with a video of Stritch singing “The Ladies Who Lunch,” her signature number from Company. “I directed that show and no one has ever come close to matching her,” said Prince, who ended his speech with a quote from the song: “Here’s to the girls on the go. Everybody tries. Look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know: Everybody dies.” And then he departed from Stephen Sondheim’s lyric to add: “I’m not so sure about Elaine.”
Here is that video, and here she is, immortal as she always seemed.