I had three rough, technologically challenged cellphone conversations with Elaine Stritch a couple of weeks ago, one right after the other, each broken up by dropped calls and a lot of understandable flustered impatience on Stritch's end of the line. That day (Feb. 17) she was getting her hair done in New York City prior to the evening's event: a 92nd Street Y "evening with" featuring Stritch.
The 89-year-old Broadway legend and "30 Rock" alum shared the stage that night with the director of the highly enjoyable new documentary "Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me," Chiemi Karasawa and moderator Michael Musto. As the YouTube clips from that evening attest, Stritch put Musto through the wringer, to the great amusement of all, but with the sneaky fondness underneath the crackly surface so evident in the documentary.
In all phases of her career, Stritch has been known for putting herself through her own set of wringers on behalf of her art. "Fred Astaire! That's who made it look easy," she says. "It seemed to come so easily to him. But he worked harder than anybody in the world. Toward the end of his career I began to think of him in rehearsal ... he had the talent to make it look easy. One of the compliments my relatives used to give me when I performed was, 'Oh, Elaine! You looked like you were home in your living room up there.' Believe me, it takes work to look that way."
In the documentary, there's a moment when Stritch recalls a day when she was 7 years old, killing an afternoon in the sun by arranging her name spelled out with dead flies on the sidewalk. Not quite star billing in lights, but close. It's a great story, and she laughs remembering it all over again.
Of her career highs and lows, she says: "I can't worry about what they think of me. It took an awful lot to please me about myself."
In the classic one-hour documentary "Company: Original Cast Album" by D.A. Pennebaker, Stritch is captured on camera wrestling, unsuccessfully, with her signature Stephen Sondheim song, "The Ladies Who Lunch," an excoriating tribute to the boozy, benumbed Manhattanites of a certain breed and temperament. Stritch has serious trouble nailing it, finding the builds in the Sondheim song without pummeling it. And then she does, and the sun shines.
"I don't remember a minute of that experience," she says now, regarding Pennebaker being a fly on the wall in the recording studio with Stritch, Dean Jones and others. "I never thought about the camera. I just wanted to hear me do it right. That's a hard song to make people understand without having them see it."
Then it's time to head off to the 92nd Street Y, Stritch in a wheelchair.
"I'm doing the show with my legs elevated. What can you do, right? I've had a lot of trouble with my legs, one of the few things that served me well all my life. Now they're falling apart. Full circle, right?" She laughs that laugh, and gets on with it.
"Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me" opens Friday.Copyright © 2015, RedEye