Elaine Stritch At Liberty is available to stream just in time for Women’s History Month. A true dame in all the best connotations of that word, Stritch adds song-and-dance sparkle to deeply personal storytelling in her one-woman show. This performance was captured at London’s Old Vic, where it played after development at New York’s Public Theater and a Tony-winning run on Broadway. It received two Emmys when it ran in prime time nearly 20 years ago and is a gift to her fans and anyone else with a love of show business.
The intro is so stuffed with detail, it’s hard to believe there’s more to tell. Costumed in a man’s dress shirt, dark tights, and dance shoes selected by designer Paul Tazewell, Ms. Stritch shares life stories from her sheltered Catholic upbringing in Michigan through her early acting classes in New York to her professional experiences on stage and in film and television. New Yorker Magazine staff writer and theater critic John Lahr developed the script under Stritch’s watchful eye. (The credits describe their collaboration as “Constructed by” and “Reconstructed by” respectively.) Monologues are arranged to provide a constant shift in mood. There’s a farcical account of a time she had a significant role in an out of town production concurrent with serving as understudy to the great Ethel Merman on the Great White Way. But she is also brutally honest about her history with alcohol and less-than-wise choices of lovers. Over her 50 years in the industry, she had brushes with many stars including Marlon Brando, Judy Garland, and Rock Hudson. Though she is a clever mimic, many she mentions are not as well known to today’s audiences and those not immersed in theatrical lore might need to keep their IBDB page open.
Singing in more of a patter style, Stritch could still strut her stuff well into her 70s. Jonathan Tunick mixes solo piano numbers reminiscent of Stritch’s sessions at the famed Carlyle Room with full orchestral pieces designed to bring down the house. The expected songs from Ladies Who Lunch to Zip are all here, along with ones that played a role in her development into an unusual leading lady. Some of the lyrics would not make the cut today and should be appreciated in context.
Seasoned vet George C. Wolfe directed for the stage and gives life to the work even when Stritch is sitting still in a chair against a brick wall. In an unusual agreement, five people have screen directing credit (documentary filmmaker Rick McKay along with Nick Doob, Chris Hegedus, D.A. Pennebaker, and Andy Picheta). Certainly the visuals captured by a full complement of 11 cameras are varied given the intimate setting. The differentiation of surroundings is further defined by the lighting design of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
At nearly 2 ½ hours long, Elaine Stritch At Liberty is a lot to take in, but so was the lady herself. By turns funny, bitter, and vulnerable, she never wavers in her devotion to the path she chose. The On Demand special is available beginning March 1, 2023 on BroadwayHD (https://www.broadwayhd.com/).