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Saturday, July 17, 2010

Elaine Stritch

First off, I've seen actors flub lines before--it's both the charm and the tension of live theatre to know the people running around on stage in front of you are human beings, and no matter how professional and rehearsed they may be, accidents happen. To bungle Fitzgerald: in live theatre, there are no second takes.

A few years back, during a revival of La Cage aux Folles, the great Robert Goulet was brought in as a replacement for Daniel Davis (Davis was rumored to have left the show because of a severe case of assholitis). Goulet, well past his prime and six months from death, performed his part as best he could even as the audience held its collective breath, fearing that he'd break his hip during the light dance numbers, and the cast were clearly on edge as they prompted him and assisted with the lines he was forgetting--they kinda seemed to play pin-ball with him, batting him this way and that til he managed to deliver the correct cue to continue the scene.

Also a few years back, I attended a performance of Doubt, with Cherry Jones tearing up the boards in her Tony-winning, near-legendary performance as a nun with, yes, doubts. Midway thru the first act, Ms. Jones broke off in the middle of a particularly fiery speech, stared at the audience a moment, then said in her flat, hard-edged voice, "Ladies and gentlemen, I apologize. I've gone up on my lines. There's nothing to be said about it except that I have a fever and feel, frankly, like shit. Let's go back a bit, because I've lost my place in the scene."

She then conferred quietly with the actor sharing the scene, trying to work out the best place to begin again, until from the wings the stage manager shouted out, "Go back to the beginning!"

"Do you think we ought to go back that far?" Ms. Jones asked, turning toward the voice.

"Do you have a choice?!" the stage manager replied.

So, back to the beginning, and a new level of tension to an already tense show was added: would she go up on her lines again? (She didn't.)

During a production of Much Ado About Nothing at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, Jimmy Smits got the giggles. Can't remember why, but for a full five minutes, the performance came to a halt so that Jimmy Smits could regain his composure (he only half-managed, and tittered his way through most of the second act).

None of these examples--and I have a few more, but these are the most amusing--come close to the performance Elaine Stritch gives in A Little Night Music, currently running at the Walter Kerr. (A quick side-note about the Walter Kerr: if you sit in the mezzanine, please secure the services of a Sherpa, or at least bring some climbing rope; the stairs are lonely, dark and steep, and you have miles to go before you seat.)

I don't want to sound like I'm savaging Ms. Stritch's performance. The woman is a legend. She could stumble through a reading of the phone book and it would still sound better than anything anyone else could do. I love her version of 'Zip,' I've watched the dvd of "Live at Liberty" at least a dozen times, I'm thrilled whenever she appears on "30 Rock," and she made Woody Allen's September watchable. For "The Ladies Who Lunch" alone, she has my undying respect and admiration.

So. Not savaging. Just observing: Either Ms. Stritch has lost her ability to retain a few lines of dialogue and perform a song--her only song--in a show, or she hasn't been adequately rehearsed.

As Madame Armfeldt, it is Elaine's task to set up the entire show. Sitting center stage in a wheelchair, her granddaughter at her feet, Madame Armfeldt speaks wistfully of the three smiles of a summer night: the first for the young who know nothing, the second for the fools who know too little, and the third for the old who know too much. With this short speech, Madame Armfeldt charges both her granddaughter Frederika and the audience with the task of seeking out these three smiles. Only Elaine screwed up the lines. She eventually got them out, but there were so many pauses and stretchings of memory ("Er, ah... ahhh" accompanied by uncharacteristically wild hand gestures) that unless you knew what she was supposed to say, she was impossible to follow.

Without a proper set-up, the show fails. A Little Night Music is a delicate work, and if one piece of it falls flat, the rest follows. It's very much like a real summer night in this respect: the moon might be fat and lovely, but if the air is dense and still, who wants to sit outside staring up at it?

During Madame Armfeldt's big--and only!--song in the show, a person off-stage screamed out prompts for Elaine. "VILLA!" the guy would scream when Elaine faltered, prompting Elaine to effortlessly launch into a verse about her time at the villa of the Baron de Signac. "GOWN!" the guy would scream, and Elaine would continue on about what was once a gown with a train was now a simple frock.

To be fair, she worked her lapses of memory into the character of Madame Armfeldt, but Armfeldt already has those lapses written in--there are scripted stumbles and digressions, so Elaine's additional failures compound to make the role almost incomprehensible. Which is bad, because, as I said, Madame Armfeldt is the glue that keeps the show's delicacy together.

Elaine Stritch has only had three weeks of rehearsals and four performances. It's possible she'll be fine in a week. But right now, her performance is painful to watch. It ruined the show for Greg, who'd been excited to see both Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch in a Sondheim show.

What I hope, tho, is that Elaine not only improves her performance, but takes it in stride. The character of Madame Armfeldt is written to be a plumb part for actresses of a certain age, a sort of victory lap for the female work-horses of the industry, wheelchair be damned. It's meant to be a delight.

Over three decades ago, cameras caught Ms. Stritch freaking out over the pressure of recording 'Ladies who Lunch' for the cast album of Company, and I'd hate to think that level of anxiety is still tormenting her. She's done it all, and then done it again, and deserves her trip around the stage via wheelchair, delivering bon mots and singing one of Sondheim's best songs.

The rest of the show, btw, is perfect. A bit under-lit for my weak eyes, but Bernadette Peters nails her role to the wall, and the rest of the cast are equally wonderful (my favorite song, 'The Miller's Son,' made me smile; the most famous song, 'Send in the Clowns,' made me tear up).

But when I asked Greg why he didn't enjoy the show despite being excited about seeing it, he said, "I hate to say it, but Elaine Stritch ruined it for me." He added, in his inimitable histrionic-to-the-point way, "I'd rather rip out my heart than say this, but she was awful, and every time she came onstage I was terrified for her."


Mike said...

Friends and I saw the show on 7/17, all for the first time. We debated on the ride home whether feeding her lines during "Liaisons" was part of the show. They should have had the servant who rolled her out on stage stay there and feed the could have been mistaken as part of the character's senility.

Raphael said...

I was in NYC on Sat night (visiting from London) and treated myself to the show. I agree completely with your blog. In fact, you've nailed it head-on. As much as I loved the show (Trevor Nunn is a genius) and I much as I love Elaine Strich- I was deeply uncomfortable every time she came on stage. And there can be no theatre when one is literally worried. By the way- did the prompt come from a stage manager? I could have sworn that some one from the stalls shouted out the lines?
Another point: Yes Bernadette Peters delivered a great performance and yes, she is a bona fide Broadway star, the last of her kind. But, no, she is not the best casting for the role of Desiree Armfeldt. Her sassy, "tell it like it is" persona is a perfect fit for the great "American" parts (Mamma Rose, Annie, most of the other Sondheim roles) but here it seemed ...well I dunno, the tone wasn't quite right for me...
and yet, just like you, I found myself laughing and crying at various parts in the show.
Perhaps this is the perfect testament to how strong and robust and well written show can be.

MM said...

Sorry I didn't respond to your post, but I didn't realize I had to 'approve' comments.

Both of you might be relieved to know that Elaine Stritch finally got her lines down, and is doing much better. The show will be closing very soon, so I might try to grab another matinee or something, to compare.

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