Elaine Stritch, the brassy, tart-tongued Broadway actress and singer who became a living emblem of show business durability and perhaps the leading interpreter of Stephen Sondheim’s wryly acrid musings on aging, died Thursday at her home in Birmingham, Michigan. She was 89.
Her death was confirmed by a friend, Julie Keyes. Before Stritch moved to Birmingham last year, she lived, famously, for many years at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City.
Stritch’s career began in the 1940s and included her fair share of appearances in movies, including Woody Allen’s “September’’ (1987) and “Small Time Crooks’’ (2000), and on television; well into her 80s, she played a recurring role on the NBC comedy “30 Rock’’ as the domineering mother of the television executive played by Alec Baldwin. But the stage was her true professional home, where, whether in musicals, nonmusical dramas or solo cabaret shows, she drew audiences to her with her whiskey voice, her seen-it-all manner and the blunt charisma of a star.
Plain-spoken, egalitarian, impatient with fools and foolishness, and admittedly fond of cigarettes, alcohol and late nights — she finally gave up smoking and drinking in her 60s, although she took it up again — Stritch might be the only actor to work as a bartender after starring on Broadway, and she was completely unabashed about her good-time-girl attitude.
“I’m not a bit opposed to your mentioning in this article that Frieda Fun here has had a reputation in the theater, for the past five or six years, for drinking,’’ she said to a reporter for The New York Times in 1968. “I drink and I love to drink, and it’s part of my life.’’
Most of the time, she was equally unabashed onstage, rarely if ever leaving the sensually astringent elements of her personality behind when she performed. A highlight of her early stage career was the 1952 revival of “Pal Joey,’’ the Rodgers and Hart/John O’Hara musical, in which she played a shrewd, ambitious reporter recalling, in song, an interview with Gypsy Rose Lee; she drew bravas for her rendition of the striptease parody “Zip.’’
In a nonsinging role in William Inge’s 1955 drama, “Bus Stop,’’ she received a Tony nomination as the lonely but tough-talking owner of a Kansas roadside diner where travelers take refuge during a snowstorm. Three years later, in her first starring role on Broadway, “Goldilocks,’’ a musical comedy by Jean and Walter Kerr and the composer Leroy Anderson that also starred Don Ameche, she played a silent-film star and impressed The Times’ critic Brooks Atkinson with the acid capability of her delivery:
“Miss Stritch can destroy life throughout the country with the twist she gives to the dialogue,’’ Atkinson wrote. “She takes a wicked stance, purses her mouth thoughtfully and waits long enough to devastate the landscape.’’
Noël Coward, one of Stritch’s devoted fans, built the 1961 musical “Sail Away’’ around her role as Mimi Paragon, the relentlessly effervescent hostess of a cruise ship. She repaid his trust not only by giving what Howard Taubman of The Times said “must be the performance of her career’’ (including a delicious rendition of Coward’s hilariously snooty “Why Do the Wrong People Travel?’’) but also by successfully ad-libbing, on opening night, when a poodle in the cast betrayed its training onstage. The show was not a hit, but Stritch came away with her third Tony nomination. Her next Broadway role was in the replacement cast of Edward Albee’s scabrous portrait of a marriage, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?,’’ as Martha, the bitter, boozy wife.
One of Stritch’s most memorable appearances was in the Sondheim musical “Company’’ (1970), in which, as a cynical society woman, she saluted her peers with the vodka-soaked anthem “The Ladies Who Lunch.’’ It not only brought her another Tony nomination but became her signature tune — at least until, in her 70s, she became equally known for Sondheim’s paean to showbiz longevity and survival, “I’m Still Here.’’ It was the centerpiece of her 2001 one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,’’ and she sang it in 2010 at Sondheim’s 80th-birthday concert at Lincoln Center (Patti LuPone took on “The Ladies Who Lunch’’), and at the White House for President Barack Obama.
Essentially a spoken-and-sung theater memoir, “Elaine Stritch at Liberty,’’ created with the critic John Lahr of The New Yorker, began performances at the Public Theater in Manhattan (when Stritch was 76) and then moved to Broadway, where it was a smash.
Alone onstage except for a single chair, clad only in tights and a white silk shirt, Stritch wove together music (including “Zip,’’ “The Ladies Who Lunch,’’ “I’m Still Here’’ and two additional Sondheim songs: “The Little Things You Do Together,’’ a mordant salute to marriage from “Company,’’ and the aging showgirl’s lament, “Broadway Baby,’’ from “Follies’’) and showbiz memories into a nightly tour de force that won a Tony Award for the year’s best special theatrical event.