LONDON — If you were to compile a list of theater greats, somewhere toward the top of that list you would have to include Elaine Stritch. She has been a part of so many Broadway productions, and some of those were very iconic and noteworthy. She was Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam, was a featured actress in the Broadway revival of Pal Joey, and most famously, originated the role of Joanne in Stephen Sondheim’s Company. She has over 16 Broadway credits, over 30 movie credits and numerous TV appearances, most notably as Colleen Donaghy on 30 Rock. Her one Tony Award performance and one-woman show, Elaine Stritch At Liberty is now streaming on BroadwayHD, and it is phenomenal trip down memory lane.
This production, filmed onstage at the Old Vic Theatre in London, was directed by Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, Rick McKay, D.A. Pennebaker, and Andy Picheta, and written by John Lahr and Elaine Stritch. With a bare stage, a high stool as a set piece, and dressed in a silk blouse and black tights, Elaine Stritch spends over two hours recounting sketches of her life and career, interspersed with showtunes and standards that fit the narrative of her theatrical career and loves. She tells the tale of how she got her parents to agree to her moving from Detroit, Michigan, to New York so she could pursue her dream of becoming an actress, and how she started in acting school with such future greats as Marlon Brando. In one of the greatest sections of the show she relates the struggles she had while contracted as Ethel Merman’s understudy in Call Me Madam while being cast in Pal Joey and having to shuttle between New York City and New Haven, Connecticut for a week of out-of-town tryouts.
Interspersed throughout her monologue of her career as several songs that she either originated or performed onstage. These include “Zip” from Pal Joey, “Civilization” from Angel in the Wings, “Broadway Baby” from Follies, and “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company. If you have never heard Elaine Stritch sing “The Ladies Who Lunch,” you are really missing out on a unique and powerful experience. Other performers may sing with better technique, and may be stylistically superior, but for overall raw emotion and intensity, you can’t beat Stritch. Her singing is not the most melodious, silky voice you will ever hear. She has always been known for her comedic talents over leading lady prowess. But regardless of this, she is a powerhouse. At the time of filming, she was in her late 70s, and is still able to command a stage.
In addition to her successes, she does delve into some of the darker passages of her life. She discusses her short time married to John Bay prior to his passing due to cancer. She also goes in depth about her alcoholism and show she used it as a crutch for her stage fright and personal insecurities. Her drinking got increasingly worse until she developed diabetes and finally gave up drinking completely. She also relates some stories of her failures and missed opportunities such as the time she was fired form a production of The Women when almost the entire cast signed a letter to have her fired, or when she blew her audition for The Golden Girls.
This show is not perfect. There are times where the pacing dips, or the delivery of a song is not up to the level of other songs. But it is compelling. And it is hard to take your eyes of the screen. Elaine Stritch captivates with her behind the scenes look at a life in the theater, and with her particular journey through the ups and downs of her career. And BroadwayHD keeps delivering on the promise of a definitive performing streaming service. The productions they offer provide not only some of the greatest shows available, but a wonderful historical overview of filmed theatrical works all in one service. If you are looking for a selection of great theater, in particular pro shots of some of the best Broadway has to offer, you can’t beat the selection and convenience of BroadwayHD. And adding Elaine Stritch At Liberty to their catalog allows you to enjoy a front row seat to one the of Broadway’s iconic superstars, and a entertaining evening of anecdotes and songs from a great performer.