Fresh Air Remembers Actress And Singer Elaine Stritch

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The Broadway star used to describe herself as a Catholic, diabetic alcoholic. She died last week at the age of 89. In 1999, she talked with Terry Gross when she was starring in a revival of Sail Away.


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an excerpt of my interview with Elaine Stritch, a performer lucky enough to have debuted songs by Noel Coward and Stephen Sondheim and to have been coached by each of them. She died last Thursday at the age of 89. Stritch used to describe herself as a Catholic, diabetic, alcoholic pain in the ass. Her Broadway career began in 1946. She was Ethel Merman's understudy in the Irving Berlin musical "Call Me Madam" in the early 50s and starred in Noel Coward's 1961 Broadway musical "Sail away," in a role that he expanded to suit her large talent. In 1970, she costarred in the Sondheim musical "Company," where she sang what became one of her signature songs - "The Ladies Who Lunch." In 2002, she was on Broadway in her autobiographical one-woman show "Elaine Stritch At Liberty." In 2010, she replaced Angela Lansbury in a revival of Sondheim's "Follies." [POST BROADCAST CORRECTION: The audio of this story incorrectly states that Stritch replaced Angela Lansbury in a revival of Follies; in fact, she replaced Lansbury in a revival of A Little Night Music.] TV audiences knew her from "30 Rock," playing Alec Baldwin's mother. I spoke with Stritch in 1999 when she was starring in a revival of "Sail Away" in honor of Noel Coward's centennial. She re-created her role as Mimi Paragon, the director of a cruise ship who has to deal with needy and often irritating passengers. Here she is singing Coward's song about insufferable tourists "Why Do The Wrong People Travel" from the 1961 original cast recording of "Sail Away."


ELAINE STRITCH: (As Mimi Paragon) (Singing) Why do the wrong people travel, travel, travel, when the right people stay back home? What compulsion compels them and who the hell tells them to drag their clans to Zanzibar instead of staying quietly in Omaha? The Taj Mahal and the Grand Canal and the sunny French Riviera would be less oppressed if the Middle West would settle for somewhere rather nearer. Please do not think that I criticize or cavel at a genuine urge to roam. But why, oh, why do the wrong people travel, when the right people stay back home - and mind their business? When the right people stay back home - with Cinerama? When the right people stay back home - I'm merely asking why the right people stay back home.


GROSS: Elaine Stritch, welcome to FRESH AIR. I'm wondering what personal meaning the story of "Sail Away" had for Noel Coward. For instance, Graham Payn and Sheridan Morley edited the diaries of Noel Coward. And in their introduction, they wrote that "Sail Away" reflected his passion for travel, his loathing of tourists, his horror of old age and his love of the sun. Did he talk with you at all about traveling and how his ideas about traveling figured into the story of "Sail Away"?

STRITCH: No. He had a young woman on his hands who had a lot of responsibility ahead of her. And he loved me, that was the best part. And I loved him. And when you've got that, you don't have many problems, Terry. You really don't. It's what I miss when I go into rehearsal for a show and I don't get that - I don't get any chemical connection with the director. You might as well go home. It's not worth going to rehearsal. And he did not go into depths about how he felt. He explained to me how he wanted me to play this part, and I was very right for the part, according to Noel. I had Mimi Paragon - his idea of humor and her - he must've seen some depth in me or he would never have turned this part over to me.

GROSS: Did Noel Coward write any of the songs in "Sail Away" especially for you?

STRITCH: I don't know. I would imagine he had some kind of idea in mind, yes. You know, because of my particular brand of humor, what he thought I could do, absolutely. And there was one song he wrote in Philadelphia that was not in the original score for Johnny. It was a terrific song.

GROSS: Which song was that?

STRITCH: Said Johnny was too serious and he wanted to give him a later vein - "Go Slow, Johnny." I just love it. Don't you like that?

GROSS: Sure.

STRITCH: From the score? Oh, I think it's wonderful. And he wrote a lyric in that song that is memorable to me. It's so brilliant and it's so talented with a capital T. You're no Brando, Rallentando - meaning go slow musically. I think it's such a great lyric.

GROSS: You actually knew Brando. Didn't you go to acting school with him?

STRITCH: Yes I did. He was in - I hasten to add that he's six - seven years older than I am. So I want that made very clear. But we did go to dramatic school together.

GROSS: And you dated?

STRITCH: Yes we did, very, very briefly.

GROSS: Right.

STRITCH: Yeah, I was too much of a convent girl for Marlon, if you follow my meaning.

GROSS: I get it.

STRITCH: (Laughing) You get it? Good for you, Terry. All right, next question.

GROSS: I want to read a couple of things that have been said about your relationship with Noel Coward. Graham Payn, who was a good friend of Noel Coward wrote this about you. He said, Coward cherished Elaine Stritch's similarities with Gertrude Lawrence - her verve, her irreverence, her infectious vulgarity. Cole Lesley, who I think was Noel Coward's secretary and wrote a book about him, said Elaine Stritch's devout Catholicism perhaps fascinated Noel the most. Noel Coward wrote himself in his diary, Stritch was wildly enthusiastic and very funny, but I foresee leetle clouds in the azure sky. She's an ardent Catholic and has been in analysis for five years. Oh, dear.


STRITCH: I think it's a great combination, and it certainly figures - if you're an ardent Catholic, that you'd end up on a couch.

GROSS: Right?

STRITCH: So I knew exactly where he was coming from. Not then, but I do now.

GROSS: Why do you think he was so fascinated by your Catholicism?

STRITCH: Well, because I was very serious about it. And I, you know, said my prayers and went to Mass and Communion and stuff like that. And then I would say four letter words occasionally, and that combination made him laugh and fascinated him. I smoked, I drank, I did all the kicking my heels up type things, but I went to Mass on Sunday. So they say that he's an honest man - you know, that kind of thing.

GROSS: Elaine Stritch recorded in 1999. She died last Thursday at the age of 89. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. I'm Terry Gross.

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Correction July 23, 2014

The audio of this story incorrectly states that Elaine Stritch replaced Angela Lansbury in a revival of Follies; in fact, she replaced Lansbury in a revival of A Little Night Music.



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