If Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch are on my mind these days, it’s
because I’ve seen them twice and thought about them often. Their one-person
Broadway shows keep getting extended, but I still advise you to get there fast.
Acid drips from their shapely mouths when these two flamboyant legends go at
their memoirs with an ice pick, and you don’t want to miss a word.
In Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends , at the Booth, the
popular harridan from Golden Girls
stomps about in her bare feet and shares her recipe for leg of lamb. Her
friends are everybody in the audience. In Elaine
Stritch at Liberty , at the Neil Simon, the veteran actress and
musical-comedy second banana with Yellow Cab hair and matchstick legs wears
Judy Garland’s old rehearsal costumes and shares candid revelations about her
alcoholism. She’s “at liberty” at last to be a real star-not a sexy, glamorous
kill-for star, but a “Look at me, I’m still here” star-for its own sake.
Two members of an endangered species better known in impolite
circles as “great old broads,” as different as satin pumps and Reeboks, yet
both working toward the same goals: acceptance, approval and love. On a
cost-benefit analysis, they hit their marks and deliver a lot of themselves for
your money. Ms. Stritch delivers quite a bit more than that-two and a half
hours of it, to be exact. You won’t go away from the intermissionless Ms. Bea
scratching your head and asking, “Huh?”-although a few people do leave the
exhausting Ms. Stritch asking, “Why?”
For Bea Arthur fans, there is plenty of Maude to go around.
Establishing squatters’ rights on a stage that looks like the set from the old
Johnny Carson show, she warbles ribald songs like “What Can You Get a Nudist
for Her Birthday,” and the old Sophie Tucker chestnut “You’ve Got to Be Loved
to Be Healthy,” accompanied by the brilliant
composer-pianist Billy Goldenberg. She tells a few jokes that are so old
they’re hairy and still manages to bring down the house with her Rolex eyes and
dead-on comic timing, and aims poison darts at Jerome Robbins, Pia Zadora and
Tallulah Bankhead. Getting serious, she tackles Kurt Weill’s dark and difficult
“Pirate Jenny” with that voice of molten lava that sounds like a cross between
T.C. Jones and a pit bull, but one wonders if her TV fans have ever heard of The Threepenny Opera . They have
certainly heard of Angela Lansbury, with whom she sang the show-stopping “Bosom
Buddies” number in Mame . The
blue-haired grannies bussed in from Jersey applaud when they hear the name,
then gasp in collective horror, sucking the oxygen out of the orchestra, when
she gratuitously reveals that the beloved star of Murder, She Wrote can also cuss like a drunken stevedore.
Oh, well, Bea is Bea. She’s been around long enough to say what’s
on her raunchy and delectable mind, and surprisingly, none of it seems shocking
or mean-spirited. That’s entertainment.
A close friend of Elaine
Stritch-who remains anonymous for obvious reasons-thinks the difference between
this duo of divas is simple: “Bea sets out to entertain the audience; Elaine
comes out slugging, determined to get
the audience.” Well, maybe not so simple. While years of canny experience
commanding prosceniums and manipulating adoring audiences pay off for them
both, Ms. Arthur never gets personal, while Ms. Stritch saves herself the time
and sweat of writing a potentially best-selling autobiography by talking it
instead, warts and all. Bea’s show is frothy and fun; Elaine goes for all the
jugulars, including her own. Bea is doing what is essentially a galvanized
cabaret act; Elaine is performing a structured piece of theatrical
Brainy and brittle and looking like her own Al Hirschfeld
caricature, Ms. Stritch has constructed a systematic self-examination fueled by
insecurity and egotism that is sometimes up the wall and over the fence, other
times moving and funny and informed by a mortgaged
heart, and always endlessly introspective and fascinating. A great,
unique, uncontrollable, exasperating and often undervalued perfectionist-with
no Tony, Oscar, Emmy or Grammy to show for it-she has had more chances at
superstardom than just about anyone in the performing arts, and she has missed
the carousel ring each time by inches. Fortunately, she has also become one of
the great raconteurs in an industry with a short memory and an even shorter
attention span, remembering everything that ever happened in her career with a
querulous candor that is as awesome as it is long-winded. (She even remembers
the brand of booze that got her through each disaster.)
Elaine Stritch at Liberty
is a guided tour through her hits and flops; the years she wasted in a drunken
stupor as an observer of her own life (“My dressing room was like Toots
Shor’s”); her failed love affairs with the
doomed and famous; her rise
from a starchy Catholic family in Detroit to the bars of Greenwich Village and
the haystacks of summer stock, where she was often upstaged by barn swallows;
her only marriage, to a man who died; and
the resolve to win battles with alcohol and diabetes that finally led
her to rise from the flames like a phoenix. She tells it all, with the
persistence and timing of machine-gun bullets, on a bare and lonely stage, her
only prop a folding chair that she shakes before the audience like a red toreador’s
cape in the face of a charging bull. She may be a control freak-one accused by
friends and colleagues of being her own worst enemy-but I lapped up her courage
and panache, as well as the musical numbers she inserts to illustrate those
qualities, like a gallon of Poland Spring in the middle of the Sahara.
What a treat to finally see and hear her do “Civilization,” the
song that launched her, and “Why Oh Why Do the Wrong People Travel” and “The
Ladies Who Lunch,” her signature songs from Sail
Away and Company that constitute
an unforgettable master class in how to stop Broadway shows dead in their
tracks. There’s real intelligence at work here. Who else would think of using
“This Is All Very New to Me,” the lovely ballad from Plain and Fancy , to illustrate the first time she got drunk on
whiskey sours? Who else would open Noël Coward’s heartbreaking “If Love Were
All” with the verse to “But Not for Me”? She knows the landscape. Hell, she
owns the whole goddamn territory.
So one thing troubles me.
Every story enthralls, but at someone else’s expense. One of them, about
getting canned from a summer-stock production of The Women , makes amusing goats out of the beloved Marge Champion
and the legendary Gloria Swanson, but doesn’t even begin to tell the whole
truth about the reasons she was fired by a unanimous cast vote. According to at
least two of the cast members, the Stritch version of the story is downright
delusional. She’s kind of a genius, but Ms. Stritch has shot herself in the
foot more times than anyone else in show business-and according to her side of
the story, it’s always somebody else’s fault.
Naïve is not a word that applies when you think of Ms. Stritch.
So her confession that she was emotionally shredded when the crush of her life,
Rock Hudson, didn’t return her passion says more about her own stupidity than
it does about his sexuality. Why knock Rock (“We all know how that turned out,
don’t we?”) for the sake of a cheap laugh? Surely this goes against the grain
of all the rules in the A.A. manifesto.
The one thing you come away asking is why, after all these years,
is she still so unsure of the proper positioning of that distinguished rung on
the theatrical ladder already engraved with her name on it? “My name is Elaine,
and I’m (fill in the blank yourself).” “Hello, Elaine.” Time to chill-you got
the job, and we love you.
But, as she once sang in a flop by Walter and Jean Kerr called Goldilocks (she blames them, too),
“Heigh-ho, a-lackaday.” If she has flaws, nobody cares. She’s so clever and
special that it’s no wonder the world forgives her every sin. She’s smart and
tough and hip, and this is a rare chance to see her vulnerable, too. All those
bits and pieces we’ve been getting all these years were great, but this is the
whole package in one sitting. No discounts here. You get the entire Neiman
Bea Arthur and Elaine Stritch. They’re like glamour girls
standing on the quarter-deck of the sinking Titanic .
Excelsior! Not a question in my mind that they will survive. Nothing futuristic
here; they’re both as retro as a whiff of White Shoulders. And aren’t we lucky
they’re both still here, landing in our laps at the same time?