September 20, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
I have just finished reading the latest edition of the Everything Sondheim magazine, a noble effort that debuted in January of this year, dedicated to you-know-who. I was also a subscriber to its precursor, The Sondheim Review, which I always looked forward to in my mailbox. When the Review closed shop a few years ago, it regrouped and attempted another go at forging a new readership base for those who care about the musical theatre, especially as it relates to the history of Sondheim and his contemporaries. Sadly, times being what they are, a niche magazine is a long shot at best, especially one with such a narrow, if ardent clientele. Thus Everything Sondheim has met an untimely end, ceasing publication with this third and final issue.
If you were fortunate enough to have subscribed as I did, all three issues boasted terrific features and interviews. But what I enjoyed most, was a serialized article by John Bell, a writer-director who was a friend to Elaine Stritch, the powerhouse singer and actress, whose Broadway career spanned eight decades. It’s a warts and all portrayal of her final years, both sad and uplifting at the same time. Bell effortlessly brings the one-of-a-kind Stritch back to life with a sober approach that surely would have pleased her, if only she had lived to read it. Bell titles the articles “Elaine Stritch: The End of Pretend,” which struck me the moment I saw it. What did that mean? It wasn’t until the third installment Bell reveals why he chose to name it that.
He writes of a day spent with Stritch in 2014 after she had made the hard choice to return to her home state of Michigan in order to be closer to relatives. Her increasing ill health had forced her to recognize that her once treasured life in New York City (and her home in the Carlyle Hotel) was no longer feasible or livable. She settled into a condo in Birmingham, but a year after her arrival, was diagnosed with stomach cancer. At eighty-nine, she stoically took the news and refused treatment. Bell went to visit her for what he knew would be the last time, and took her for a walk, commandeering her wheelchair, strolling through the neighborhood “on a sunny spring day,” as he describes it below in full detail:
“She raised her face up to the sky and let the warm air and sunshine bathe her eyelids and then opened her eyes wide to soak in the experience of the sky. We walked mostly in silence. Elaine and I were both surprised to find Holy Name Catholic Church in her neighborhood. A pretty church, we found it open and made our way in. Elaine looked around but we didn’t talk. We just enjoyed the silence.
Then, out of the blue, Elaine said, ‘I think I’m coming to the end.’
‘The end of what?’ I asked.
‘The end of pretend. Isn’t that the best word ever — pretend. All my life I’ve been living in that world, trying to get to something or away from something. I don’t know which. But the curtain’s coming down.’
She paused again and then said, ‘You know one of my favorite parts of living a life in the musical theatre?’ she asked.
‘After the curtain call and we all walk back to our dressing room, flying high because the show was good, I loved listening to the orchestra play the exit music … helping everybody, actors and audience make their way back to reality — the end of pretend for the night. Well, now I’m in the end of pretend for my life.’
‘Does it scare you?’ I asked.
‘A little bit. But I’m not fighting it. I’m making friends with it.’
‘That’s a good way to put it,’ I said.
‘Yep, I’m making friends with this end of pretend. God, I love that word.’”
And though it hardly rates as anything close to the time Bell spent with her, I would be remiss if I didn’t report that I once had the opportunity to spend a day and evening with Ms. Stritch, at her one-time home in South Nyack on Voorhis Point. This was in 1985 when I was twenty-eight years old, and I had gotten myself invited by a couple who were friends of Stritch’s, hell bent on getting her interested in a play they had optioned to produce. They brought me along with another actress, and the five of us sat in the living room and read the play aloud. When it was over, the first thing Stritch said was, “I like it, but you’ve got to be kidding! I’m all wrong to play a Jewish mother.” And she was right about that.
I could say that what made the day special was my getting to act with Elaine Stritch, but it was really when, to my great surprise, she announced after we finished the reading, that she was going to cook us dinner! While she and her friends went into the kitchen, it left the actress and myself to investigate every nook and cranny of the living room, strewn with memorabilia. One item in particular has never left my memory bank. It was a photo in a silver frame of a very young and dashing Noël Coward, who had adored working with Stritch on the musical Sail Away, a 1960s musical he wrote that was done both in New York and London. The inscription read, “To my darling Stritchie, Noël.”
From that day forth, I could never look at Stritch, live or on film, without hearing the voice of Sir Noël, in his sonorous tones, purring “Stritchie.”
Though Everything Sondheim has ceased publication in print, there is hope that it will continue on line, according to Rick Pender, its editor. If it does, then a promised fourth and final installment of John Bell’s “The End of Pretend” is due be posted at some later date, possibly as soon as the end of the month. Do yourself a favor and check in at everythingsondheim.org. If this last part is anything like the first three, you’ll be in for a treat.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to subscribe to them at Medium.com. My book, Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.