The lady who stayed | Chuck's World

By Chuck Sigars | Jul 23, 2014

Phil and Betsy, friends of ours, take a week nearly every summer and travel to Ashland, Ore., where they rent a cottage, spending their days hiking and their evenings submerged in the offerings of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

They are conspicuous consumers of downtime, in a truly obnoxious way: They go on vacation and come back healthier and culturally enriched.

I’ve been following them vicariously for a few years, envious. It’s not for everyone, but it would be for me, and it’s hard to figure out how I haven’t managed this yet. Something about planning, I guess.

In the old days, back when people wrote blogs, I’d usually get a short review of each of the plays they saw, along with flora and the occasional fauna, and maybe some commentary on local beer.

In 2014, though, I have to settle for the occasional Facebook update and photos. And on their last night in Ashland, after seeing “The Two Gentleman of Verona,” “The Sign In Sidney Brustein’s Window,” and “A Wrinkle In Time,” this is what Phil wrote: “For our last entertainment, ‘Into The Woods, a Sondheim musical.’”

I joked with him a little about this, told him that to me and my tribe, this was like saying, “Macbeth, a tragedy by William Shakespeare.” Or “The Glass Menagerie, a play by Tennessee Williams.”

In my circle, when it comes to Stephen Sondheim, no extra illumination is necessary. We know the canon.

My mother learned to appreciate musical theater from her father, who played the soundtrack albums over and over.

And even in that transition time that occurred just before I was born, when big bands and saloon singers had an equal, then uneasy, then irrelevant coexistence with rock ‘n’ roll (i.e., rock won), and I listened to music that had little to do with my parents’ taste, musical theater was a crossover genre.

It still is. Go to a high school production of “Oklahoma!” and ask yourself if the actors and singers looked bored by performing a show written at the time their grandparents were born.

Everything changes, particularly in culture, but show biz is show biz.

So maybe I was the only kid in the fifth grade to know the entire score of “The Music Man,” even if I didn’t advertise that. I’d find others, and in the meantime I was as familiar with popular music as most kids, and liked it.

But just as there are kids who grow up with affection for classical music, for Mozart and Bach, I was reared on Rogers and Hammerstein. And Lerner and Loewe. And Kander and Ebb. And Bock and Harnick. Jerome Kern. Abe Burrows. Meredith Willson, of course.

I never lost my love, either. Old ones, new ones, obscure ones, chestnuts dragged out every few years, dusted off and thrown on a stage: I’m familiar, I listen, I admire, I love.

And Stephen Sondheim stands alone. It’s my opinion, but not just mine.

And it’s hardly rare: This is a man who cut his teeth writing the lyrics for “West Side Story” and “Gypsy” before taking on the composing chores too for “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum” and the rest is musical theater history.

There are performers who specialize as Sondheim interpreters, who take songs from disparate shows and tie them together by virtue of their creator, with his love of math and wordplay, with his score that seems to mimic not convention but life.

There are lots of these performers, and I like a lot of them. Bernadette Peters, certainly. Mandy Patinkin. Lots, as I say.

But, if in retrospect, it turns out Stephen Sondheim wrote for one particular performer – and he certainly didn’t, of course – in my mind it was Elaine Stritch.

He cast her, at the age of 45, in “Company,” mostly to sing one song, “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

It would become her anthem, or signature song, and it would remind us that this sheltered teenager from Detroit came to New York to be an entertainer, and whether it was stress or fear or something else, a drink or three seemed to settle things down. Her alcoholism and subsequent recovery became legend, one she recounted herself.

We lost Elaine Stritch last week, at the age of 89, and after reading obit after obit I realized that I really didn’t like “The Ladies Who Lunch” all that much. It was “I’m Still Here,” from Sondheim’s “Follies,” that became her signature song to me.

I loved Elaine Stritch from the first. She had Sondheim’s meter, it seemed, and if you can sing Sondheim you can sing anyone, and she did.

Her one-woman show, “Elaine Stritch At Liberty,” premiered when she was 76, and she was still singing and telling stories in front of audiences until nearly her death, not a swan song or a summing up, but a peak of life.

Anyone’s life, really, complicated and messy and painful and joyful.

I don’t blame Phil for feeling he needed to explain what “Into The Woods” was. I certainly don’t blame anyone for being only vaguely aware of Elaine Stritch; tastes vary.

And we lose much-loved entertainers all the time, sadly. James Garner also died last week. A very nice man, by all accounts.

I just admired this one woman’s battles, from an amorous Marlon Brando to the bottle, to age. Well into her 80s, she would sing “I’m Still Here,” and she always was.

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