Nathan Lane, Bernadette Peters, Laura Benanti and Holland Taylor and writer Liz Smith lead a tearful and raucous tribute Monday to Elaine Stritch, the funny and irascible theater star who put the broad in Broadway.
“This event would have pleased her to no end because, for one, it’s all about her,” deadpanned Lane, who called her “a brilliant force of nature” and hoped she was in “God’s house seats.”
The show, Everybody, Rise! A Celebration of Elaine Stritch, was directed by George C. Wolfe at The Al Hirschfeld Theatre. Stritch died July 17 at her home in Birmingham, Michigan, at age 89.
From the stage, Stritch’s friends and colleagues told stories of her dogged refusal to pay for theater tickets, her generosity with her time and her knack for accessorizing her outfits with high-end department store bags. Director and producer Hal Prince said: “I don’t know how originals originate but I expect she was born one.”
Peters, Benanti, Christine Ebersole, Betty Buckley, Michael Feinstein and Lena Hall, who wore black tights, a floppy hat and a white shirt in honor of Stritch’s best-known outfit, all performed songs from the icon’s catalog, including Stephen Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” and Irving Berlin’s “You’re Just in Love.”
Benanti told the story of first meeting Stritch when she was 18 and Stritch, a diabetic, was testing her blood sugar level, making Benanti faint. “Well, you know how to make an entrance,” Stritch told her when she awoke.
Buckley credited Stritch with teaching her to show “just the right amount of naughty.” Smith, a friend since 1953, called her a “national treasure” and joked about her girlish naivete when it came to men, including a crush on Rock Hudson. “Elaine, you were a real character, like they used to make. They don’t make them anymore,” Smith said.
Taylor called her friend of three decades “the windmill that was Elaine” and praised the element of danger whenever she was around. Hunter Ryan Herdlicka, a co-star in A Little Night Music, told of Stritch’s uncanny ability to upstage performers just by being in the theater. And Lane said that after she saw him in The Addams Family on Broadway, she commented, “Whatever they’re paying you, it’s not enough.”
Tony and Emmy Award-winning Stritch found new fans as Alec Baldwin’s mother on television’s 30 Rock, but she was best known for her stage work – especially her candid one-woman show At Liberty and in the Sondheim musical Company.
Those in the audience included David Hyde Pierce, John Lithgow, Chita Rivera, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Christine Baranski, Ellen Burstyn and Michael Urie. Rob Berman, her longtime accompanist and arranger, played piano and told stories of sharing hours-long talks over the phone about their lives and music. “How best to tell the story – that was Elaine’s joy and passion,” he said.
The tribute ended with Stritch having the last word: A video of her singing her famous rendition of Stephen Sondheim’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” from Company.