It's important for me to keep things in perspective when writing about Tammy Grimes, who's just finishing up a week-long engagement at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room. (She does one more or less annually.) After all, she's 76 now (born January 30, 1934) and not the performer she was when she first came to New York and, thanks to friend Roddy McDowell's Noel Coward introduction, was picked by the master for his upcoming Look After Lulu production and subsequently was tapped for the star-making title role in Meredith Willson's Unsinkable Molly Brown.
That was then. This is now, 2010. Grimes's once irresistibly plummy voice is frayed like a not particularly well-cared-for Aubusson rug. The sustained notes wobble. The high notes are frequently bleats. She reads her patter from a script, apparently put together with director Joel Vig, and even then she gets confused and either skips paragraphs and pages or repeats them. She forgets lyrics more often than makes audience members comfortable and has to have them supplied her by accompanist Christopher Denny. (Denny, always at the ready, often provides the same prompting service for Julie Wilson). Grimes wears glasses she sometimes takes off and sometimes doesn't. From time to time it looks as if her right hand trembles.
And yet, and yet: She's still enchanting -- or, at least, she enchants me. I can't speak for anyone who's never seen her before, but perhaps I can. She still musters spell-binding capacities when she sings and when she speaks. To begin with, the quality of the singing voice remains -- the tremolo that conjures thoughts and images of an exotic bird just alighted on a high, delicate branch. She's still got the attention-getting look, the sloping nose shared only by Bob Hope, the overbite, the sly-shy thin-lipped smile.
"I love a song that tells a story," she says and proceeds to back up her contention by recalling some of her signature ditties. But she also explores entries from unexpected candidates like Tom Waits and Jimmy Buffett. She enjoys romping through the John Kander and Fred Ebb "Ring Dem Bells," which you'd think only Liza Minnelli deserves to sing. Grimes makes it her own jubilant anthem. She eases along a stretch of "Mood River" and tells how old pal Truman Capote said she was his Holly Golightly before turning around and approving Audrey Hepburn for the Breakfast at Tiffany's film adaptation. Yes, Hepburn was good in her Givenchy outfits, but, admit it, Grimes is closer to the part as written.
The stories Grimes tell are choice. She was championed by Noel Coward, who directed her in High Spirits (and also wrote uncredited lyrics for the show-stopping "Home, Sweet Heaven"), but she also dined once with Cole Porter. She gets laughs -- and she laughs, too -- when noting that Porter was shy and she was shy, and so they both ate in silence. She doesn't say what they ate, but she segues from the Waldorf-Astoria Towers culinary incident to Porter's sophisticatedly hilarious "Tale of the Oyster." With much glee, she recounts the saga of the "lucky little oyster" harvested from Oyster Bay for the delectation of Mrs. Hoggenheimer. Her enunciation of the name "Hoggenheimer" is worth the boite's cover and minimum.
Shifting from stool to piano bend, Grimes's does some of her best singing on the ballads. No surprise that she leans toward Coward and lends notable reminiscing sheen to both "Somewhere I'll Find You" and "I'll See You Again," the latter which she sang as Amanda in a Private Lives revival. Something about the melancholy in both songs suits her voice like a bow fits a cello. She closes with Coward's "Credo" from Bittersweet -- or "If Love Were All," as it's sometimes known. When Coward sang the lyric "Since my life began, the most I've had is just a talent to amuse," it registered as autobiographical. When Grimes sings it, she gives the impression of insisting on a dedication to artistry she refuses to abandon.
Although Grimes made the occasional movie (if not Breakfast at Tiffany's), her reputation is built on the Broadway work. For the fans she reprises "About a Quarter to Nine," the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song incorporated in Gower Champion's 42nd Street. She also sings "You Better Love Me While You May" from High Spirits and does both "My Own Brass Bed" and "I'll Never Say No to You" from The Unsinkable Molly Brown (although it was Harve Presnell who sang the latter). Of course, she sings the rousing "I Ain't Down Yet," and when she does, magic occurs. Fifty years evaporate, and it's November 3, 1960, opening night at the Winter Garden. Before ringsiders' eyes, Grimes is recreating her Tony-winning performances.
No, Tammy Grimes ain't down yet. She may be seated, but she ain't down.