Broadway lost one of its strongest, saltiest and most enduring voices Thursday when Elaine Stritch – actress, singer, long-legged and sharp-tongued force of nature – shook off her mortal coil, at 89.
Stritch's career on Broadway stretched back to 1946, when she appeared in a comedy called Loco. For many decades after that, she delivered memorable performances in works by masters ranging from Rodgers and Hart to Edward Albee. She was a particularly perceptive purveyor of the wit of Stephen Sondheim; appearing in the original cast of his Company in 1970, she introduced The Ladies Who Lunch, an acid-and-alcohol-soaked manifesto that became one of her signature songs and one of the most inimitable recordings in the history of musical theater.
Stritch was no stranger to the screen, appearing in films such as Woody Allen's September (1987) and Small Time Crooks (2000). In recent years, she had been a memorable presence on 30 Rock, where she had a recurring role as Alec Baldwin's character's tyrannical mother, earning her third Emmy Award. Baldwin served as executive producer of the 2013 documentary Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me.
But the stage was her natural habitat, and she was championed by some of its most noted creative minds. Noel Coward revised his 1961 musical Sail Away to build it around her performance as a cruise-ship hostess; in other shows, among them dramas such as Albee's Who's Afraid Of Virginia Woolf and William Inge's Bus Stop, she evoked pain and alienation with unflinching candor.
Stritch recounted some of her own struggles in the one-woman show Elaine Stritch at Liberty, which premiered at the Public Theater in 2001 before moving to Broadway for an acclaimed run in 2002. Written by drama critic and author John Lahr and "reconstructed" by Stritch, Liberty found the star reminiscing about dating Marlon Brando and understudying Ethel Merman, and recalling her battles with alcoholism and diabetes.
Her final appearance on the Main Stem was in 2010, in a revival of Sondheim's A Little Night Music. Astonishingly, Stritch never received a Tony Award in an acting category, though she did collect several nominations, and Liberty earned a trophy for "special theatrical event."
She remained a formidable cabaret presence as well. In April 2013, she revisited the Café Carlyle for a five-night farewell engagement before leaving New York City to return to her first home, Michigan. But here's little doubt that, at heart, Stritch remained a Broadway baby to the end.