Stritch on Stritch: The Actress Looks Back on Her Most Famous Performance

Slate's Culture Blog
July 17 2014 4:10 PM

Stritch on Stritch: The Actress Looks Back on Her Most Famous Performance

Elaine Stritch in Company: Original Cast Album
Elaine Stritch in Company: Original Cast Album.

Still from the video

The actress Elaine Stritch, who died this morning, was a brilliant talker. In talk show appearances, she could always be relied upon to say something shocking, perceptive, and brilliant—sometimes in every single sentence. She was also a brilliant critic of her own performances, a talent that is on display in her 2001 DVD commentary track for D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary, Company: Original Cast Album. The film, which chronicles the album’s marathon recording session, climaxes with Stritch’s epic struggle with her big number “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

It was the end of a long day in the studio, and despite throwing herself into the song, Stritch just can’t find the right tone. She screams the lyrics in frustration, and record producer Thomas Z. Shepard really doesn’t help when he tells her, “It’s just flaccid” and offers the less-than-helpful instruction “Sung, please. Sung.” Stephen Sondheim, who wrote the show’s music and lyrics, hides his head in horror. What comes next is a lovely demonstration of how performers deal with the sting of criticism. “That really hurt my feelings,” Stritch says of the producer’s mumbled insults. Stritch seeks advice from Shepard and Sondheim, but dealing with her emotions—and exhaustion—seems to be the biggest impediment to a performance that will please the producer. Watching herself 30 years after the studio session, she can see the fear, anger, and self-loathing that she was going through. “After doing all that, and then having it not good, was devastating,” she says.

Advertisement

After a couple more unsatisfactory takes, Shepard sent Stritch home and told her to come back another day. “I may have gone and lifted a few” after leaving the session, Stritch, an alcoholic, says. When she returned to the studio two days later, after a matinee performance of Company, the recording went smoothly.

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

TODAY IN SLATE

Frame Game

Hard Knocks

I was hit by a teacher in an East Texas public school. It taught me nothing.

Chief Justice John Roberts Says $1,000 Can’t Buy Influence in Congress. Looks Like He’s Wrong.

After This Merger, One Company Could Control One-Third of the Planet's Beer Sales

Hidden Messages in Corporate Logos

If You’re Outraged by the NFL, Follow This Satirical Blowhard on Twitter

Sports Nut

Giving Up on Goodell

How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.

How Can We Investigate Potential Dangers of Fracking Without Being Alarmist?

My Year as an Abortion Doula       

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 15 2014 8:56 PM The Benghazi Whistleblower Who Might Have Revealed a Massive Scandal on his Poetry Blog
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 15 2014 7:27 PM Could IUDs Be the Next Great Weapon in the Battle Against Poverty?
  Life
Atlas Obscura
Sept. 16 2014 8:00 AM The Wall Street Bombing: Low-Tech Terrorism in Prohibition-era New York
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 15 2014 3:31 PM My Year As an Abortion Doula
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 15 2014 11:38 AM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 4  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Listen."
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 15 2014 8:58 PM Lorde Does an Excellent Cover of Kanye West’s “Flashing Lights”
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 16 2014 7:36 AM The Inspiration Drought Why our science fiction needs new dreams.
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 16 2014 7:30 AM A Galaxy of Tatooines
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 15 2014 9:05 PM Giving Up on Goodell How the NFL lost the trust of its most loyal reporters.