Because I was seated at one end of the cluttered aisle through which Elaine Stritch was going to make her way to the Café Carlyle's miniscule stage, my right shoulder was handy as she entered from a back hall. Saying nothing, she leaned on me as she prepared to propel herself into action. This put me in a unique position to understand how concentrated she was on what she was about to do and how raring she was to do it. It was as if she were a track star hunkering in the starting-block.
What she was about to do -- in a show weirdly and tongue-twisting titled At Home at the Carlyle: Elaine Stritch Singin' Sondheim...One Song at a Time -- was kick off the best hunk of entertainment currently available in New York City. How could it not be when the performer has learned everything about her craft and has forgotten nothing in more than six decades of trouping? (She turns 85 in a matter of days.) How could it not be when she was about to deliver a smart, sassy and sophisticated series of songs by the man acknowledged as the foremost musical songwriter of the conflicted age? How could it not be with Rob Bowman playing-conducting Jonathan Tunick's economic arrangements?
In the past, Stritch has said -- although she doesn't repeat it here -- that for her, singing a Sondheim song is like appearing in a three-act play. That's precisely how she approaches each of the selections in the vibrant act. Still tall and angular and kinetic as a woozy heron, still in possession of that gravelly mezzo, still smart as a whip and just as ready to crack down, still edgy as a scimitar, still so in touch with her emotions that she can go from a sardonic smile to abashed tears in a twinkling, she doesn't merely sing her songs -- she takes on a role with each of them.
And remember this is the woman who has skated along a show-biz spectrum from introducing the dizzy "Bongo Bongo Bongo" in 1947's Angel in the Wings revue to stealing Edward Albee's A Delicate Balance revival in 1996. This is the two-time Emmy Award winner who rarely fails to mention she studied with Erwin Piscator.
The lengthy curriculum vitae explains how she can begin this latest outing of hers with a wry and sly "I Feel Pretty" (Leonard Bernstein's melody, of course) and follow it immediately with "Rose's Turn" (Jule Styne's melody, of course). All that's needed to understand the depth of her art is to watch how her Mama Rose is a frightening combination of indomitable confidence and abject fear. In this one, the singing is forceful, but the eyes have it.
Compulsively telling stories behind the songs and her relationship to them, Stritch includes numbers she's done in Sondheim shows and concerts with songs she might have done but didn't -- like "A Parade in Town" from Anyone Can Whistle, the ill-fated tuner she nixed to enroll in a straight play on the West coast. She also sings "Everybody Says Don't" from that score, claiming she lives by its encouraging message and advising audience members to do the same.
She revisits "The Little Things You Do Together" and a piece of "Company" from 1970's Company and tells her experiences importuning Sondheim to hand her "Broadway Baby" for the Lincoln Center version. (He initially demurred; she persisted.) Interrupting a subdued "Send in the Clowns," she reports that Sondheim once gave her late husband, the British actor John Bay, the right to fit it into a one-man Groucho Marx presentation. She also suggested that great lyrics almost "could be" rendered without their tune -- not that they "should be." Then she recited the words to Sondheim's devastating "Every Day a Little Death," almost but not quite bringing it off.
Early in the set, Stritch mentions that Sondheim is "tough," and it isn't entirely clear whether she means the man himself or the songs he writes, which are famous for presenting unprecedented challenges to singers. She refers to him a few other times in ways that imply she's somehow ambivalent -- as in her comment that "maybe he's unanalyzable."
She isn't ambivalent about his importance to her career, though. He wrote "The Ladies Who Lunch" for her to knock 'em dead with Company, and it could very well be the song mentioned in the first line of her obituary. When she sings it now -- and of course, she sings it -- she drives it with the same commitment and mastery she mustered 40 years ago. Her umpteenth-time reprise undeniably confirms what she has been making clear throughout the high-wire tribute: She and Sondheim are inextricably linked psychically. She's one of his best interpreters -- may even be, as a result of this demonstration, the foremost interpreter.