1. Broadway legend Elaine Stritch, who died Thursday at 89, was known for many iconic performances, none of them more indelible than “Ladies Who Lunch” from Stephen Sondheim’s Company. But Stritch, never a “great” singer, sometimes struggled with the song.
2. In director D.A. Pennebaker’s 1970 documentary about the making of the original Broadway cast recording of Company, Stritch famously struggled through take after take.
The sequence is an uncommonly revealing look into Stritch’s hard-knuckle process, and how she was often her own fiercest critic.
3. After the very first take, in fact, Sondheim thought Stritch’s voice was already hurting, and decided the song’s key should be lowered to compensate.
5. Stritch asked for three more takes.
Sondheim agreed, but he was wary. “Your voice is tired,” he said. “I want to be sure that we get, you know — this is the permanent recording. Therefore, it’s important.”
6. Indeed, Stritch’s subsequent takes proved to be a struggle.
Stritch’s performance here is far from perfect, especially for a cast recording. And yet she is still an electrifying performer — you can feel her desperation, both as the character in the song and the actress fighting against a voice that won’t deliver what she needs.
7. Record producer Thomas Z. Shepard’s assessment of her performance was unsparing.
You can see Stritch deflate as she hears it.
9. By the eighth take, everyone’s nerves were fried, and Shepard made a particularly stinging request of Stritch.
Stritch, her voice exhausted, had relied too much on speak-singing the song, and Shepard was having none of it.
10. Stritch, in turn, was having none of Shepard’s passive aggression.
12. But she also had no illusions about her performance.
13. Sondheim (just off camera) tried to gently support her, but Stritch was having none of that either.
14. But listening back to her performance with Sondheim, she saved her loudest scorn for herself.
16. Her final attempt was her worst, and everyone knew it.
They only had their orchestra for that one recording session. So Sondheim and Shepard sent Stritch home and laid down a clean orchestral version of the song that Stritch could sing along to by herself a few days later after her voice had rested.
17. And indeed, when Stritch returned, her voice was richer, more resonant, and more full of feeling.
19. No one more so than Stritch.
Rise, Elaine. RISE.
20. Just because, here’s a fabulous video of Stritch performing the full song.
We will miss you, Elaine. Here’s a toast to you.
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