Love Elaine Stritch? Thank the Parts She Didn’t Get

The performer Elaine Stritch died in 2014 at 89 after over 70 years appearing in plays, musicals, film, television, cabaret and newspaper gossip columns, telegrams and Twitter, saloons and recovery meetings. Throughout a marathon career, she came to define herself — acerbically, sometimes world-wearily, always energetically — as much by the roles she didn’t get (or was fired from) as her successes.

I tallied these formative misses while writing a new biography on Stritch, titled “Still Here,” after the Stephen Sondheim song from “Follies” that became an anthem of her endurance. Here’s a chronological account of some of them.

‘Woman Bites Dog’ (1946)

THE PART: A reporter in the play by Bella and Samuel Spewack, opposite a young Kirk Douglas. Stritch was 21, just out of convent school and called upon to feign a sophistication she didn’t feel. One night at dinner during the tryout in Philadelphia, she asked Douglas about cohabitation outside marriage, featured casually in the plot but to her still an alien concept. “Oh my God, we’re in big trouble,” he groaned.

WHO GOT IT: The popular radio actress Mercedes McCambridge, but the show closed on Broadway in less than a week.

THE LESSON: Don’t like the news? Wait a day.

‘Anyone Can Whistle’ (1964)

THE PART: The Mayoress. According to a letter Stritch wrote to Noël Coward, an avuncular mentor since he had tried to make her a star in his “Sail Away” a few years earlier, she didn’t like the part Arthur Laurents and the composer “Stevie Sondheim,” as she called him, wanted her to do. “A lot of big boff songs, but no real wit in them.” Instead, enticed by Dior costumes and the prospect of playing opposite the movie star Laurence Harvey, she took a starring role in “The Time of the Barracudas,” a new play by Peter Barnes in California. Both shows flopped badly, but for years, Stritch, as she came to appreciate the full scope of Sondheim’s genius, agonized that she’d chosen the wrong flop — eventually making the rousing “Everyone Says Don’t” from “Anyone Can Whistle” one of her signature tunes.

WHO GOT IT: Lansbury.

THE LESSON: Pick substance over style.

1965 West End Production of ‘Hello, Dolly!’

THE PART: Dolly herself. The indefatigably with-it Stritch would perhaps have been hard to believe as a widowed matchmaker in turn-of-the-century period costume. But no matter, she auditioned for its London company before the choreographer Gower Champion and the notoriously demanding producer David Merrick, a.k.a the Abominable Showman — “only the rulers of the world,” she told the columnist Leonard Lyons in between now-habitual sips of champagne at the Plaza’s Oak Room. She added plaintively, “I don’t want diamond necklaces. I want that job.”

WHO GOT IT: Mary Martin, but even after star turns by Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters, the role would always be owned by Carol Channing.

THE LESSON: Know your limits.

‘Mame’ (1966)

THE PART: Mame Dennis. Stritch so identified with this glamorously epigrammatic character that she for a time lived on Beekman Place, where Mame was said to live. Like Mame, she was a dramatic, somewhat distant aunt, demanding to be called “Tante” when she swooped in to Detroit for visits with her nieces and nephews. The plot of “Mame” involves the protagonist writing her autobiography; so, too, had Stritch been trying to put together a memoir since the 1950s, titled variously “Poor Little Stritch Girl” or “Shut Up and Drink Your Champagne.” Eventually, after a stint as Vera, Mame’s tipsy sidekick — cursing the difficult dance steps all the way — she got a brief crack at the starring role, at the Cape Cod Melody Tent in Hyannis, Mass, in 1969. “The biggest mistake of my life,” Stritch realized. “Vera is better than Mame.” And she would reach full flower as another sozzled sidekick soon after as Joanne in Sondheim’s “Company.”

WHO GOT IT: After Lansbury, Mame was incarnated by Celeste Holm, Juliet Prowse, Janet Blair, Christine Ebersole, Christine Baranski and a host of others.

THE LESSON: Life may be a banquet with most poor suckers starving to death, as Mame suggested, but if you stick around, there might be some really nice leftovers.

1973 West End Revival of ‘Gypsy’

THE PART: Momma Rose, the mother of all stage mothers. Stritch saw the rehearsal of the original Broadway show and “started bawling right there,” she said. “I mean, the nuances in that goddamned thing. To really see that real, real feeling of mother and daughter like that — oh, terrifying, isn’t it? Terrifying.” She had been the standby and tour replacement for Ethel Merman, the original Rose, in Irving Berlin’s “Call Me Madam,” and with her brazen manner and powerful belt, she was often suggested as Merman’s heir apparent. Plus, Stritch related deeply to the “Gypsy” theme of show business as a Way Out.

Laurents, who had written the book, was all for her playing the part. “Elaine is a performer. She loves audiences,” he said, comparing her favorably with Merman, whom he accused of walking through shows. But though Stritch was attached to a West End production in the early 1970s, following her success as Joanne in “Company,” the producers couldn’t raise the necessary funding against her name (that she was then deeply in her cups probably didn’t help).

WHO GOT IT: Angela Lansbury, but Stritch would go on to perform numbers from the show to spine-tingling effect at her Carlyle cabaret.

THE LESSON: Ya either got it or ya ain’t.

1981 West End Production of ‘Cats’

THE PART: Stritch remembered the composer Andrew Lloyd Webber, a crucial architect of the new, spectacular mega-musicals, talking to her about a narration role. “If I’m involved in it the way you’re explaining it to me, Andrew, I would want to be a cat,” she said. “And the last I heard of it was that,” she recalled later, “and then you hear ‘Cats’ and everybody’s a cat.”

Prepared to be regretful, Stritch went to see a preview of the show. “I just hated every minute of it,” she said. “The first act, I was all dressed up, and the cats came out through the audience. They were mussing people’s hair and — You, now, touching me! One of them came near me — I remember looking at it and saying, ‘Don’t touch me.’ That’s how much I hated that show. I didn’t want anything to do with it.” She walked out at intermission.

WHO GOT IT: Jeff Shankley.

THE LESSON: Me-ouch, but … there but for the grace of God went she.

‘Annie,’ in the early 1980s

THE PART: Miss Hannigan. There were two major shifts in the American musical during the late 1970s. One was toward rock elements and technical effects; the other was toward (as ever) nostalgia. When Stritch returned to New York from London, where she’d lived with her husband, John Bay, at the Savoy hotel, this Depression-era comic weepie was, along with “42nd Street,” one of the sensible-seeming options on Broadway; the others might has well have been in a foreign language. And the cheerfully child-free and famously hooch-swilling Stritch would have been a great Miss Hannigan. But the timing was terrible, as she was coping with a diagnosis of diabetes, and then Bay’s own grave illness and untimely death. It would be years before she rebounded.

WHO GOT IT: Among others, June Havoc, the daughter of the real-life Momma Rose.

THE LESSON: Tomorrow, tomorrow.

‘The Golden Girls’ (1985-1992)

THE PART: Dorothy. Stritch’s doomed audition for the NBC blockbuster became a favorite story of hers to tell. The trouble began in the studio parking lot, where a pedestrian walked in front of the car and Stritch rolled down the window. “Get out of the way!” she hollered. Then to her friend Teri Ralston, a co-star from “Company” who’d accompanied her: “Isn’t it awful how I treat people?” Ralston sat in the lobby as Stritch entered a room of black suits. “I hope you all don’t mind that I’ve rewritten some of these lines to fit me,” she told them. “I’m Catholic, so I don’t want to say, ‘oh God.’ I can’t stand that.” She tried a curse instead. The suits stared back at her, aghast.

WHO GOT IT: Bea Arthur, one of Stritch’s classmates from theNew School’s Dramatic Workshop during the 1940s. The show would win all of its stars Emmys and national affection for foregrounding postmenopausal female friendship. “I’m just glad I got out of there alive,” Stritch said years later. “I hate that show. Who’d be crazy enough to live in Florida with two other women and their mother?”

THE LESSON: Be yourself. Stritch did get to play an old-school “golden girl,” after all, in the concert version of Sondheim’s “Follies,” and a little over a decade later she would come up with the critically acclaimed, autobiographical one-woman show “Elaine Stritch: At Liberty,” written with John Lahr and directed by George C. Wolfe. It was the one part, as of this writing, that no one else could play.

Alexandra Jacobs is a longtime features writer, editor and cultural critic. She has worked at The Times since 2010. @AlexandraJacobs

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