Note to the Caption: Elaine Stritch's new one-woman show at the Carlyle Hotel provides, among other things, an enlightening example of phrasing and timing.
(Richard Termine for The New York Times)
January 7, 2006
During her cabaret act, "At Home at the Carlyle," which returned to the Carlyle Hotel's swanky cafe on Tuesday night after a six-week run in the fall, the indomitable actress and singer Elaine Stritch tells a revealing story about the intensely private conductor James Levine. As Ms. Stritch found out to her great surprise, Mr. Levine is one of her biggest fans.
Two years ago, after she presented her acclaimed one-woman show "Elaine Stritch at Liberty" at the Neil Simon Theater, the show played a limited run in Boston. One night after a performance there, Ms. Stritch was told that a man who said he had attended her show 12 times in New York and now twice in Boston dearly wanted to meet her.
At first she thought this guy must be "some kind of nut," Ms. Stritch said, recounting the tale on Tuesday. But she consented to see him. When Mr. Levine appeared, Ms. Stritch did not recognize him. Still, she was touched by his sincerity. He explained that he worked part-time in Boston and lived in New York and that he wanted to take her to dinner at the Carlyle Hotel, where, it happens, Ms. Stritch lives. He told her that seeing an artist perform with such intensity at this stage in a career (Ms. Stritch was nearing 80 at the time) "inspired him to go forward, to keep going," she recalled.
When Mr. Levine gave her his business card and she realized who he was, Ms. Stritch was terribly embarrassed, she said: "I told him, 'I really should work on getting out more.' "
Later in New York, Mr. Levine took Ms. Stritch for that dinner date at the Cafe Carlyle, where Barbara Cook was then appearing. During the show, when Ms. Cook sang a meltingly romantic rendition of "It Might as Well Be Spring," as Ms. Stritch recounted proudly, "James Levine held my hand." She was flattered by Mr. Levine's devotion. "Talent is seductive," she explained.
While this story gives a poignant glimpse into Mr. Levine's private life, it also suggests how highly this astute expert on singing regards Ms. Stritch's artistry.
During her tireless performance on Tuesday, with 16 songs woven into an engagingly rambling monologue about her bittersweet life in the theater and her midcareer struggle for sobriety, I, too, found her gritty vocal artistry an object lesson. Opera singers in particular could learn something from "At Home at the Carlyle," which runs through Feb. 4, two days after Ms. Stritch's 81st birthday.
To point to the gravelly-voiced Ms. Stritch as a vocal role model might seem a stretch. She is no Barbara Cook, a rich-toned singer with consummate technique who gives regular master classes in the interpretation of musical theater songs to voice majors at the Juilliard School. As Ms. Cook approaches her 80th birthday in October 2007, she continues to sing with miraculous elegance and, if anything, even greater depth. She will perform at the Metropolitan Opera House on Jan. 20.
Ms. Stritch, even in her youth, was a brassy belter who was tapped as the understudy to Ethel Merman in "Call Me Madam" in 1950. By 1970, when she appeared in the original production of Stephen Sondheim's "Company," Ms. Stritch had secured her place in Broadway history with a raspy account of "The Ladies Who Lunch." In this song, her character, Joanne, bitterly toasts the bored, bitchy and moneyed New York ladies, herself included, who swap histories of husbands over too many martinis.
What is remarkable about Ms. Stritch's singing these days has little to do with the quality of her vocalism. Her sound may be raw and patchy, her pitch may be approximate, but her cabaret show is a vivid reminder that, in essence, song is musicalized speech. Words come first in her artistry. She knows how to put lyrics across, how to deliver a song. In the ruminative "I Think I Like You" (music and lyrics by Leslie Bricusse), you sense Ms. Stritch pondering her feelings with each new phrase, as if searching for the words to express them at that moment.
Her silences between phrases - when she holds a thought and hardly moves - are riveting. They reminded me of the way Maria Callas used to sing stretches of dramatic recitative as Bellini's Norma, making the silences as gripping as the arrestingly sung phrases. Of course, Ms. Stritch could not have taken such interpretive liberties were it not for the attentive playing of her excellent six-piece band, directed by the stylish pianist Rob Bowman.
Opera singers, who can become obsessed with technique, should read the letters of Mozart, who was always directing singers in his operas to "think carefully of the meaning and force of the words." For a demonstration of what Mozart was talking about, go hear Ms. Stritch sing "Why Him?" (music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner). In this wistfully amusing song, the singer wonders why she fell for the man she loves, who on the surface would seem to be nothing special. "Where he should be he isn't thin. Why him?" she sings in one sweet lyric. Ms. Stritch performed the song in memory of her husband, the actor John Bay, and naturally her emotion infused her singing. But only a savvy actress and vocal artist could make "Why Him?" seem so spontaneous and true.
If Ms. Stritch does not have much voice left, she certainly has a whole range of expressively weathered vocal inflections. Sometimes, capping a song with a sustained high note, as in Rodgers and Hart's "He Was Too Good to Me," she sort of shouted the top note and defiantly thrust a hand in the air, as if to say, "You get the idea." It was easy for the audience to fill in what was missing.
The Cafe Carlyle is a dining room that accommodates about 90 (and dinner is required along with the $125 ticket). It was so wonderful to experience Ms. Stritch up close that I wished she and her band had taken a chance and simply turned off the amplification, which, though very subtle, was perceptible.
Still, if a little electronic assistance is what it takes to keep Elaine Stritch singing, even in this intimate cafe, then so be it. Classical singers looking for insights into the art of putting songs across should try to attend this show. Besides, they might just bump into James Levine.
link to the photo journal
link to the original posting