Elaine Stritch’s Madame Armfelt: Owwh yaissss!

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Stritch and Peters. ()
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I didn’t so much attend college as loiter around until the administration got tired of me. Four years (okay, five years) of never going to class left a lot of free time for more important things—I’d like to say getting laid and getting high, but in my case it mostly consisted of hanging around my dorm room listening to records.

One LP in heavy rotation my sophomore year was the 1973 original Broadway cast album of A Little Night Musicwhich had come out the previous spring.  In fact, during the six month period between the time my copy of Company was stolen (by one of the other two gay guys I knew) and the revival cast recording of Candide was released, that Night Music disc must have spun a dozen times a day. But I didn't care for everything in the score equally, you understand. " A Weekend in the Country" I would play sometimes ten times in a row, lifting the tone arm as soon as Victoria Mallory's high C faded out, and dropping it again on the opening vamp. "The Miller's Son," on the other hand, usually didn't play past "I shall marry..." before I'd jump back to "Night Waltz II."

All this needle dropping naturally led to a good deal of wear and tear on the vinyl, much exacerbated by the squalor of dorm life, and eventually the beloved record started doing what damaged vinyl did, skipping and playing the same groove over and over again. That invariably happened during Madame Armfelt's song, "Liaisons," just at the point when Hermione Gingold, in her gorgeously grotesque plummy manner, intoned, "Now where was I.... Owwh yaissss!" I loved that so much that I’d listen to it, hypnotized, sometimes for a quarter of an hour, as on and on Hermione would drawl, "Owwh yaissss... owwh yaissss... owwh yaissss..."

Not surprisingly, my roommate—who was, after all, straight—eventually either broke that record or threw it out the window. But by that time it didn't matter, because Infinite Gingold was etched permanently on my brain. (In fact, others' brains too: when I met a classmate at a reunion a few years ago, he answered the first question put to him with "Owwh yaissss.")

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Anyway, here it is, more than 35 years later, but other than a lingering sense of regret that I didn't spend more of my college days in class (or high, or laid) instead of listening to that long-lost LP, not that much has changed. During those years, I've seen A Little Night Music done on stage a half-dozen times, starting with the national company — no, not the first national company starring Jean Simmons, but the bus-and-truck tour with Julie Wilson—then (twice) at the New York City Opera, first with the impossibly starchy Sally Anne Howes and later an underrehearsed but game Juliet Stevenson, plus a couple of stock and little theater productions. My Madame Armfelts have included Regina Resnik, Claire Bloom and Angela Lansbury on stage, La Gingold herself in the cringey Elizabeth Taylor movie version, and, on bootleg recordings, Zoe Caldwell, Siân Phillips and Margaret Hamilton.

But that gaggle of grande dames shared a single reading of that "Owwh yaissss"; no one dared improve upon Gingold. Until last Thursday night, that is, when Elaine Stritch spoke the line—just those two little words, "Oh, yes!"—and made something entirely new not just of a line, but of an entire character. In fact, she might have made Madame Armfelt into a real human being for the first time ever.

No, I'm not going to tell you how she said it; you should rush to the Walter Kerr Theatre and hear it for yourself. In fact, I won't even guarantee she'll play that moment precisely the same way when you see the show, because everything in Stritch's performance felt, for better or worse, like an improvisation. Nerves and sketchy memory (she's 84) rob her of a laugh or two, but then, an instant later, she'll connect so seamlessly with the material that you forget there's a character, or a song or even a play around her: All that's visible is an old woman's pain and naked regret, so intimate that you feel a little ashamed for eavesdropping.

What's even more powerful is that these flashes of intimacy appear seemingly out of nowhere, from behind a mask comprising a career's worth of tricks and mannerisms: the growled one-liner, the exasperated stare, the brusque talk-singing that unexpectedly blooms into a phrase of whiskey-hardened alto. Now and then a brassy, insincere grin transfixes her face, and she indulges in more offbeat, against-the-grain line readings than most actresses would do in three months of out of town tryouts.
It's a dazzling collage of effects that could easily have turned into a self-indulgent edition of "Leonora Armfelt at Liberty" if Stritch weren't ultimately so rigorous an artist. Yes, all the Stritcheries are present in full array, but they're only props representing the elderly whore's armory of defense mechanisms: the courtesan is as much an actress in life as her daughter Desirée is on the stage.

In a sense, Stritch's moments of blunt honesty are dissonant with the tone of the play, which maintains a gossamer veneer of irony over rage, despair and heartbreak. That said, it's Sondheim's sweetest show. He's clearly in love with even the least sympathetic characters, vain Carl-Magnus and silly Anne. And his sheer adoration of Desirée inspired the composer's most celebrated and arguably greatest song, "Send in the Clowns." It's the quintessence of Sondheim, a ruefully ironic text overlaying a melody so ideal in its sentimentality that even when brand new in 1973, it sounded antiquely familiar. Now, after almost four decades of cover versions, the song may have found its definitive interpreter in Bernadette Peters.

It's not a surprise that Sondheim's muse would perform this song beautifully, of course, but what is revelatory is how truly she sings it, without vocal or histrionic exaggeration. Peters seems to realize that the tune can be trusted to convey the heartbreak, and hones in on the words: "Isn't it rich? Are we a pair?" Yes, what a laugh this is—or should be, if only I weren't dying inside. She fixes her lips in a gallant little smirk, flashes her eyes as they well up with tears, snaps off her phrases with a tiny gasp of self-mocking laughter (or is it a sob?).

It's a vocally modest performance; Peters never opens the voice out to more than half volume, and lingers on only the final note. She demonstrates that Desirée, in refusing to succumb to self-pity, finds the coherence she's half-consciously been seeking. And so, when the happy ending finally, inevitably rolls around, it feels true, complete, deserved.

To see either of these great ladies would be worth braving Broadway in the broiling August heat; the two together in a musical theater masterpiece is something you'd be an idiot to miss. But, frankly, surrounding Stritch, Peters and Sondheim are equal parts cardboard and kazoos. The production by Trevor Nunn is based on the standard Brit assumption that the entire history of the world transpired in a disused sitting room at Gosford Park, populated by dowdy folks mouthing Hugh Wheeler’s faux-Coward dialogue word... by... word, as if from a shorted-out teleprompter. I guess it's pointless to complain at this late date that the orchestra sounds like it's being played back on a cell phone left unattended on 48th Street.

Ramona Mallory, unbelievably the daughter of the divine Victoria, warbles passably enough in école de Bernadette low belt/detached head voice, but her accent sounds like Madeline Kahn spoofing Katharine Hepburn. (At one point she warns Petra, "Yah mahstn't taze Henrik," so it's unclear if Anne is auditioning for "Playboy of the Western World" or simply addressing a Vermont state trooper.) Alexander Hanson’s Fredrik is solidly professional though short on voice, and Erin Davie has a great first act as Charlotte before broadening out into Vera Charles doing "Midsummer Madness." Leigh Ann Larkin's smashing belt voice elevates that most detested of all 11 o'clock numbers, "The Miller's Son," to tolerability, which is saying a lot.

Yet, despite its shortcomings, this production was for me a "revival" in more than one sense. For three hours, those sinuous Sondheim tunes—and Stritch and Peters—reminded me how it felt hearing that score, accessing that sentimental yet ironic worldview, as a 19-year-old musical theater queen. And it made me wonder: what the hell did happen to that LP?