Singing Seniors

They worry, on Broadway, when everything's a revival. This year, even the new musicals are mostly old movies or old albums recycled. And the three best revivals on Broadway are neither plays nor musicals, but female persons—old (forgive my frankness) musical comedy stars whose energy, verve, and bravado suggest that the word "revival" itself might need rethinking, since manifestly nothing about any of them needs to be brought back to life. It's the generations following theirs that might need some reawakening.

Bea, Barbara, Elaine: All in their seventies now, they all began their careers in the same late-'40s, early-'50s time span. The microphone hadn't yet poisoned theater singing habits; other forms of electronic wizardry hadn't yet taught the scenery to move faster than a show's maturer cast members. The Rodgers & Hammerstein collaborations had, since 1943, thickened Broadway's gravy with a renewed move toward "serious" musical drama, but they hadn't pushed it into its later lumpiness. Their work was flanked, too, by numerous counterexamples as well as predecessors: The 1940s shows that weren't R&H dramas, or their spiritual cousins, "Broadway operas" (Blitzstein, Weill, Menotti), were often Mike Todd's girlie revues—burlesque shows in higher-priced fancy dress—or revivals of the classic operettas that had been Rodgers & Hammerstein's unmentioned guides. (The '40s boasted a new operetta genre, too, carved by Wright and Forrest or their ilk from the oeuvres of "light" classical composers like Grieg, Villa-Lobos, and that Tony Award winner, Borodin.)

In that variegated, fluid-yet-rigid world, women onstage tended to overspill categories rather than resist them. Elaine Stritch, in particular, was never exactly typed because she was able to do so many different things. (Ironically, having so many strings to her bow may have been one reason she never quite became a nationwide star. A mass public needs its concepts simple and reiterated.) She was, mostly, a gravel-throated broad who could throw a wisecrack or a torch song in your face with equal aplomb. But while you weren't looking, she might transform as easily into an ordinary, decent-hearted working woman, a society dame who looked down her nose at torch-singing broads, a slightly goofball comedienne, or the romantic leading lady. Her two above-the-title Broadway ventures, Goldilocks and Sail Away, were both commercial flops in part because they tried to weld Stritch's protean selves into just such a lead role—a sort of gravel-throated Celia Johnson with a tough girl's snide wit, a marshmallow heart, and a goofball slapstick streak.

Arthur and Stritch: channeling lifetimes
illustration: Shawn Barber
Arthur and Stritch: channeling lifetimes

Details

Bea Arthur on Broadway: Just Between Friends
Booth Theatre Broadway and 45th Street 212-239-6200

Elaine Stritch: At Liberty
Neil Simon Theatre
Broadway and 52nd Street 212-398-8383

Barbara Cook: Mostly Sondheim
Vivian Beaumont Theatre, Lincoln Center (closed; will return in June)

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Bea Arthur, in contrast to Stritch, was not so much multicategory as unclassifiable. Where Stritch could become any number of different people, Arthur in any role would remain ineffably, unflappably, adorably Bea. Her big presence and big, lower-range voice have given all her stage work a slight touch of incongruity. (Another female elder of the musical theater, Jo Sullivan Loesser, used to recount in her nightclub act how the producers of the 1954 Threepenny Opera, transferring a number from her Polly to Arthur's Lucy, told her, "We're giving one of your songs to the baritone.") The hint of detachment always present in her tone, which can range from wryly amused bystandership to a coolly Brechtian alienation, undercuts any sense of her total immersion in the character. Logically enough, Arthur spent much of her early career in Off-Broadway revues, parodying the kind of torch songs that Stritch gravelled out so convincingly; the TV roles that have made Arthur a nationwide celebrity are women who instantly grasp the ironies in their every situation.

As you might expect, the solo shows that Stritch and Arthur are now performing, a few blocks from each other, convey their nearly antithetical personalities and backgrounds. At the same time, they sum up the opposite coasts on which American culture forms itself. Intense, confessional, and fiercely determined, Stritch is purest New York; her show runs a full two hours 40. Bea, impudent, imperturbable, and gracious, delivers a full plate of selections in a breezy, intermissionless 90 minutes. As she amicably explains the pleasure of being barefoot onstage, she looks the height of hostessy elegance in her smartly tailored pants and sequined top; Stritch, explaining only her past as she drags an inexplicable barstool around the stage, is a Broadway gypsy, dressed for rehearsal in shirttails and tights. When she tells the story of her failed audition for Golden Girls, you can instantly see why Bea got the role instead: Self-punishing Stritch works too damn hard for TV-land.

There were times, of course, when all she did was punish herself: Elaine Stritch at Liberty is a song-studded drama of alcoholic recovery—a quintessential Hollywood genre, ironically. While some of Stritch's songs, like "Ladies Who Lunch," are valued items of personal property, brought out as evidence of her high status in the theater, others are "spotted" in the evening, just as familiar songs might be dropped into a screenplay for effect. Shifting from song fragment to talk and back again, Stritch is her own underscoring (backed by a small band playing exquisite Jonathan Tunick orchestrations). The songs, from hither and yon, are all made to belong to Stritch's story, and her performance guarantees that you'll think they all belong to her.

Bea's material, in contrast, mostly belongs to anybody but Bea, and she's far too gracious to do anything as crass as seizing it for her own. The hither-and-yon quality of her selections suggests hors d'oeuvres, from various ethnic cuisines, served on the terrace in lieu of a heavy sitdown dinner—not inappropriate for a show that opens with the star's favorite recipe for roast lamb, derived (Bea gives full credit) from Julia Child. Bea's career survey, lacking the big downs and recoveries of Stritch's, makes for a string of anecdotes, lewd jokes, and reflections, which the songs sometimes illustrate and sometimes just interrupt pleasantly. She sings songs that evoke Ethel Merman (also a presence in Stritch's show) and Mabel Mercer; a double-entendre comedy number associated with the British music-hall star Leslie Sarony, and another one last dished up on Broadway by Ruth Brown in Black and Blue. Reminiscences of Lenya and Threepenny Opera lead to the politest rendering ever of "Pirate Jenny," and Bea's tribute to her accompanist, composer Billy Goldenberg (who should study the piano part of "Pirate Jenny"), is a song from Ballroom that Broadway's memory links to Dorothy Loudon.

In all this there's nothing shameful, or even irritating. If Bea doesn't intersect deeply with her material, her aplomb in presenting it constitutes a sort of lesson in taking life as it comes. Stritch's more thundery event preaches an alternate wisdom: how to bounce back from the fear-driven choices that undo us all. Bea's charm, even when sardonic, makes you feel welcome; Stritch's intensity makes you riffle nervously through your past, hoping you were never in such a state. Bea is democratic, but distant; Stritch is shattering, but solipsistic. Is there a middle way? Barbara Cook, whose solo show will be back at the Vivian Beaumont in June, didn't get into this review by accident.

Like Bea, Cook has been a sustained presence, though live rather than in the two-dimensional media. Like Stritch's, her career has had a big slump and a climb back up. But unlike them, she was trapped early on in a recognizable category: the ingenue, blonde, soprano, and eternally virginal. The career slump came when she was getting too mature for this role. Instead of becoming either a recovery case or a personality, she went deeper into her singing, and found acting there. Bea serves up her songs as acquired objects of interest; Stritch makes hers express her own pain. Cook, in contrast, finds herself through the pain or pleasure in the song. As a result, she can make the most improbable songs sound fresh and new, as well as personal to her. In her show, dedicated to Sondheim and to songs by others that he loves, she renders such un-Cook-like items as "Hard-Hearted Hannah" and Arlen's "The Eagle and Me," containing truths that are a long way from Marian the Librarian. She reawakens the laughs in numbers so familiar they've long since ceased to be funny, like "You Could Drive a Person Crazy." And she neither lures us into nor sloughs off the bumpy road of her life; it is simply there, to be noted, like the rest of reality, while she gets on with the business of singing. And will there be new musicals worth her singing? Probably, when every young performer on Broadway strives to be as serenely in control as Bea, as passionately self-revealing as Stritch, and as securely centered in his or her work as Cook.

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