Elaine Stritch and the Town Hall: They're still here
Veteran performer Elaine Stritch has performed in a lot of places, but until Saturday never in Manhattan's venerable Town Hall. Together, the two Broadway institutions are 176 years old and they suit each other: Both have given a lot over the decades and each remains quite capable of delivering a memorable evening.
Since age comes before beauty, a few words first about the Town Hall, 90 years old this season. Located half a block off Times Square on East 43rd Street, it is directly across the street from the even older Henry Miller's Theatre (lately renamed the Stephen Sondheim Theatre). These two architectural dowagers seem to face each other down, ignoring the passing parade, imperiously resolute hosts.
The Town Hall, which holds 1,500 seats, was conceived of by suffragettes as a public forum for lectures and discussions. Despite hosting various musical series and Broadway programs over the years, it has never functioned as a Broadway theater, but as a concert hall. Talk and song have co-existed, the range of events including Paul Robeson singing a program of "Negro music" in 1927, Sen. Joseph McCarthy stridently affirming the proposition "Should the Communist Party Be Outlawed in the United States?" in 1947 and Bob Dylan singing "his own compositions" in 1963.
Thus, hosting cabaret royalty like Stritch was no stretch. Wearing her trademark man's long-sleeved white dress shirt, black pantyhose and sensible heels, she ambled out and, fronting a six-piece combo, launched into "I Feel Pretty" from "West Side Story." She pretty much owned the joint from that entrance on.
It was an evening of Sondheim, whose catalogue Stritch has turned into a Quixote-like pilgrimage to notable success in the past few years. The 12-song set was made up of selections one would expect, such as "Send in the Clowns" and "The Ladies Who Lunch," and more obscure chestnuts like "A Parade in Town." Interestingly, and perhaps wisely, her almost predictable rendering of "I'm Still Here," which racks up views on You Tube from her performances at Sondheim salutes and at the White House for President Obama and his family, was not here.
Stritch was aided and abetted by patient band leader and pianist Rob Bowman, ever at the ready to feed her a phrase or shore her up when a brief moment of stage fright occurred.
If this sounds a bit sad or brave, that'd be getting it wrong since Stritch herself has no interest in any of that. Her upfront, ongoing declarations of the frailties of memory -- "let's push on to the next song and see if one of us can finish it" -- were served up in an idiosyncratic mix of old-fashioned patter and perfect timing.
And, above all else, honesty. Reminiscing about a bad case of the jitters that did her in on stage at the Cafe Carlyle -- she resides upstairs at the Carlyle Hotel -- after learning that Sondheim was in the house to catch her perform his songs, she told of the solace he offered backstage following what she perceived to have been a debacle: "Elaine, you can't lie about anything."
At this age, Stritch's singing style is equally of her own making. She can growl in a husky vibrato that makes the late Bea Arthur sound like Bernadette Peters in comparison and then, within a phrase, abruptly transition to a spoken-word caress of that phrase which makes it her own.
Afterward, it felt less like an evening of cabaret and more like a declaration of principles. A declaration appropriate for a town hall.
-- Christopher Smith in New York
Photo: Elaine Stritch. Credit: Nathalie Vande Walle
[For the record, Oct. 26, 1:24 p.m.: An earlier version of this post misspelled the photographer's name. It is Nathalie Vande Walle.]