UPDATED with more information throughout: The Broadway star who turned Stephen Sondheim’s song of survival “I’m Still Here” into a personal anthem of triumph over booze, diabetes, unfaithful lovers, indifferent producers, demanding directors, fawning fans and long stretches of unemployment before achieving the status of Living Legend in her later decades, died Thursday in Birmingham, MI, the Detroit suburb to which she decamped a year ago after living the fabulous life for years at Madison Avenue’s Hotel Carlyle. She was 89. Broadway dimmed its lights for one minute on Friday at 7:45 PM in tribute.
Stritch may have found the widest audience of her storied career playing Alec Baldwin’s sharp-tongued mother on the NBC comedy 30 Rock. She was also a sometime favorite of Woody Allen, having appeared in the films Small Time Crooks and September.
But Stritch was first and foremost a creature of the stage, playing large roles and small and always, essentially, Elaine Stritch. Slight and charismatic, she proffered a mezzo soprano that, in youth, had a hungering quality one can hear in “I Never Know When,” from 1958′s Goldilocks – an otherwise forgotten musical by Jean and Walter Kerr, with songs by Leroy Anderson, Joan Ford and the Kerrs — in which Stritch starred with Don Ameche and Russell Nype. Later, that voice would become as distinctive as Tom Waits’, invariably described as sandpaper soaked in whisky or some variation of the two. Still, it never lost that sense of urgency, and the two qualities combined to distinguished Stritch from the other Broadway divas of an era long enough to encompass Ethel Merman, Mary Martin, Carol Channing, Angela Lansbury and Bernadette Peters.