Sharing the triumphs, trials of a life on stage

When Elaine Stritch steps onto the bare stage at Broadway's Neil Simon Theatre next Wednesday night to launch her one-woman show "At Liberty," she'll appear to be all alone.

But standing invisibly behind her will be hundreds of actors, thousands of performances, and millions of people who have shared her career over the past 56 years. In "At Liberty," which she co-wrote with John Lahr, Ms. Stritch sings songs and relives stories from her vast career - from her start as an actress living in a New York convent to her signature rendition of "The Ladies Who Lunch."

In the words of director Hal Prince, she is "one of the theater's few real stars."

"I'll tell you," she admits, preparing for one of her final sold-out, off-Broadway performances at the Public Theatre before moving uptown, "I've had the worst and the best. Good times and bum times."

While the bad times have been linked to a roller coaster personal life, the highs as a performer have been legendary, starting with her teenage debut in a New York acting school production, playing the back end of a cow.

Her partner in that 1944 endeavor was Marlon Brando. "I was so mad at him," she says, laughing, "because I was scared of the dark, and he could lead."

She later took the lead.

Following the breakthrough feature number "Bongo Bongo Bongo, I Don't Want to Leave the Congo" in a Broadway musical revue in 1948, people began to take notice.

She understudied Ethel Merman in "Call Me, Madam," brought new interpretations to the role of Martha in Edward Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" captivated audiences as the waitress in William Inge's "Bus Stop," and created the lead in "Sail Away," a role Noel Coward wrote just for her.

Recalling her days as Merman's understudy, she said that during the show "I was 20, but I looked 40."

The roles she became identified with in those years shared a common characteristic. Young or old, the women were tough-talking, brittle, sophisticated, and independent. She reveals that, offstage, she was the opposite of those women.

The product of a Roman Catholic home in suburban Detroit, she spent her first years in New York living with nuns at a convent.

"I was from the Midwest, and I really had no idea what was going on," she recalls. "I thought the word 'heterosexual' meant people who liked people of the same gender. It never occurred to me to go to the dictionary. And if I didn't understand something, I still didn't ask because I was afraid of getting fired."

She gained a reputation as a performer who'd tackle anything.

"In 'Sail Away,' Noel [Coward] combined two characters when we were in Philadelphia, and I had to get ... into that part in 48 hours. It was just determination."

She refuses to call it fearlessness, however, because "I was always fear-ridden, but it does come over like that. It's a facade. I've never 'looked' afraid in my life. And you know what? I don't think there is any such thing as a 'rough-and-tumble broad.' They turn out to be all the more sensitive because they have to have this facade all the time."

The pressures of keeping up that facade took their toll.

"My kick used to come from kicking up my heels, cigarettes, and whiskey ... wild, wild, wild," she says. Stritch was known for needing a drink before the curtain went up, requiring a second at intermission, and partying well into the wee hours. A serious illness years ago changed all that. Her drinking habit has been kicked, and her health has improved.

"It's interesting to see how, over a long period of time, how everything turns around, and you suddenly get your kick out of discipline," she says. "Boy, is it thrilling when that happens!"

Her career moved beyond the Broadway stage, encompassing roles in such films as the 1957 "A Farewell to Arms," Woody Allen's "September," and the 1977 Alain Resnais film "Providence," of which she is especially proud. TV roles also pepper her résumé - from an Emmy-award winning turn as a teacher on "The Cosby Show" to a recurring role on "Law & Order."

Broadway audiences and critics praised her work as Joanne in Stephen Sondheim's "Company," and in revivals of "Showboat" and "A Delicate Balance." She has received four Tony nominations. Broadway insiders say this will be her year to win.

Her offstage activities now include a new role - benefactor to teenagers interested in theater. She recalls visiting an inner-city school in Brooklyn to see the play "A Memory of Two Mondays."

"Now, here were these kids doing Arthur Miller, not knowing what in the world they were talking about, and some of them were so good!" she says.

She joined forces with Dr. John Mastrobattista and the school's arts director, Isaiah Cazares, to help spearhead a new nonprofit program, the Youth Theatre Project, to create a summer acting program for teens.

"When you think about it," she says, "the idea of doing plays is all about escaping to a place of make believe. And isn't that why so many kids turn to drugs and alcohol?

"When a young person [sees] 'At Liberty' and says 'I dug this!' you don't know how that feels! It maybe means you're timeless, which is a wonderful thing to be."

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