Elaine vs Elaine.
The Ladies Who Lunch is the penultimate song in Stephen Sondheim’s 1970 Broadway musical Company. The show doesn’t have a linear plot - more a series of vignettes surrounding the central character Robert, but each person gets their moment in the sun, something to do, a rousing solo or a swishy Michael Bennett-choreographed dance or a quietly comedic monologue. Throughout, the character Joanne remains in the background. There is a sense that her moment has been waiting for us, simmering, lurking, a crank turning tighter and tighter with every acerbic aside she offers. She is the needle that deflates the balloon of the more romantic characters before they float away: “it’s not so hard to be married” they chorus, “I’ve done it three or four times” she concurs smirkingly. (In regards to her latest attempt — “I’d introduce him, but I’ve forgotten his name.”)
Company is, by any musical’s standards, absolutely replete with show-stoppers. Like a tour group in the high summer of Western Europe growing burned out from visiting too many historic and beautiful cathedrals thus losing their capacity to be impressed anew, the audience could grow weary by the time the show starts to wind up. Indeed, how you could possibly top everything that has come before? Can we go to bed yet? And then Sondheim gives us Joanne singing The Ladies Who Lunch: a lacerating and uncomfortable snarl of a song that, once heard, near-on obliterates everything else.
Because the late Elaine Stritch originated the role of Joanne, the accompanying cast recording of the show can be accepted as canon, the ur-text, that to which all subsequent iterations of the role are compared. Here’s what we know about Joanne by the time we get to her big number: she’s rich, she’s sardonic, she appears to be drinking to get drunk, and she’s significantly older than everyone else, which affords her, admittedly largely by her own appointment, a kind of elder-stateswoman role in the show. (Elaine Stritch herself was only 45 when the show opened on Broadway, but 45 in 1970 was so much older than it is now, and a rich white New York woman’s worth was a briefly opened window. Consider how Betty in Mad Men is referred to dismissively as “middle aged” by her doctor when she can’t be more than 34 in that very scene, or how Joan is mortified in Season 1 when the office finds out she’s not actually in her 20s. Meanwhile I’m in my 30s and will tell anyone who will listen about how, for example, I have enough leotards to have an entire drawer dedicated to them but no savings account.) The Ladies Who Lunch is a song that looks outwards, scathing, a right dressing-down of every woman Joanne observes in her life. The funnier the song gets the meaner it gets, but then the meaner it gets, the more it becomes about Joanne herself. The song turns inwards with a sickening lurch like a twisted kneecap, a strange anthem of self-loathing as well as keenly observed internalised misogyny.
Much as I don’t require a reason to discuss any of this at length, there’s a reason I’m discussing it at length: I found a video on YouTube of Elaine Stritch performing The Ladies Who Lunch that I’d never seen before and it moved me profoundly. It’s not a case of it being better than the original cast recording, but more that it was clearly from that same time and yet so different due to her stylistic choices, and I couldn’t get it off my mind.
I thought I’d compare the two.
This is the original cast recording with full orchestration building as Joanne sings this song, and the scene is a crowded bar with her husband and Robert, the main character.
This is the video that I found. In this performance it’s just us and her, with a piano accompaniment. Intimate, and claustrophobically for our eyes only.
So, let’s start. I‘m mostly analysing the respective performance choices as opposed to breaking down the lyrics, but let’s not rule out any breakdowns altogether, lyrical or otherwise.
“I’d like to propose a toast. Here’s to the ladies who lunch — everybody laugh”
That opening line is extraordinary, positive on paper and upsetting in execution, her voice doing the exact opposite of what the words require — we quickly realise that this song will be more an unpicking of sutures than a glowing tribute. Elaine Stritch’s voice is remarkable, the chesty depth of an Ethel Merman with the chewy glottal quality of an Angela Lansbury with the energy of a slightly unripe lemon smoking a cigarette. In the cast recording, Stritch opens with this dismissive yet deliberate sound to her voice until the word “laugh” when she drops into her speaking voice, wearily. In this video, she carefully holds that same word in her singing voice and sounds instead rather achingly sad. The song has barely begun and with the slightest of changes she’s giving us two distinct interpretations. Either way: everybody laugh? I wouldn’t dare.
“Lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch, on their own behalf. Off to the gym, then to a fitting, claiming they’re fat — ”
In the cast recording this is sung with a certain slow-moving menace. In this video, watch how she narrows her eyes when she says “brunch”, see her sideways head nod as though she’s indicating someone just offscreen — look at them go, it seems to say — her face is knowing and her tone is almost conversational which, coupled with her careful hand gestures, gives the impression that she’s coming up with these examples out of thin air.
“And looking grim, cause they’ve been sitting choosing a hat — does anyone still wear a hat? I’ll drink to that.”
In the cast recording, the “and” is drawn out and the tension rises, which she then deflates with her fabulous line reading of, after a pause, “does anyone still wear a hat”, during which you can hear the laughter in her voice, and a one-two-cha-cha-cha beat starts to come in from the orchestra. The audience always relaxes at this point and dares to laugh with her, like, okay, this is going to be funny. In this video however, she practically does this entire stanza in spoken word, the calmness of which ratchets up the tension in its own way. There’s a hint of a smile to her voice when she asks about the hat, but it feels more direct and less theatrical. Finally she smiles on “I’ll drink to that” and I feel myself relax, slightly.
“Here’s to the girls who stay smart, aren’t they a gas. Rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass.”
In the cast recording this is sung in a fairly straightforward way, we’re gathering momentum as we’re given more examples of these ladies that she holds in such low regard, but note the way she characteristically breaks up “aren’t” into two distinct syllables, something she’ll continue doing throughout the song. In this video she maintains hard eye contact with the camera and swallows the smile she flashed us before — did I say I’d relaxed slightly? Well now it’s somehow even more tense. She conveys a kind of, I want to say, apprehension in equal measure to the disdain that we usually associate with this song. It’s small, but adds such depth — with a mere twitchy frown, instead of just looking down on these women she is also amongst them trying to find a way out, watching as her pre-ordained gender role marches resolutely closer.
“Another long exhausting day, another thousand dollars, a matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler…I’ll drink to that. And one for Mahler!”
Again in the cast recording she’s singing this straightforwardly, emphasising where we would expect, increasing the mood as we would expect. Which is great! But — in this video watch how she frowns while singing, it makes her appear genuinely irritated more than anything else, which — as she maintains practically unblinking eye contact — is quite uncomfortable. You find yourself wanting to appease her somehow so she’ll stop looking so annoyed with you. By the way! Harold Pinter was a famous playwright whose work is typified by building tension through long pauses (they’re literally called the Pinter Silence and Pinter Pause) and I would argue comfortably that Sondheim uses silence in this song to do just that — look at the space around “does anyone still wear a hat” for example. Pinter’s work was often referred to as the “comedy of menace” and Pinter himself offhandedly and to his own later regret described it as being about “the weasel under the cocktail cabinet.” You don’t need a Pinter Pause to draw the connection to Joanne there.
In the cast recording, Stritch is starting to give us some growling riffs on certain words, to match the song’s momentum — it’s immensely satisfying to the ears when deployed correctly. We then hear that wonderful sardonic laugh return to her voice when she nods to Mahler — she’s toying with us, as though we are but a small white ball and she is holding the console of a game of Atari Breakout. In this video it’s quite different! She carefully enunciates these stanzas and matches her words with crisp hand movements. She sustains eye contact and there is not a hint of a laugh in her voice on the Mahler line — she is distinctly not playing right now. Mahler was a composer, considered to be a bridge between the 19th century Austro-German tradition and the modernism of the early 20th century, similar to how in Company, Robert is the bridge between the younger, more exuberant characters and the older married couples of varying levels of contentedness. Mahler himself was a real piece of work by all accounts, described as moody and authoritarian, as someone who derived a certain pleasure from their own misery. Hmm. Did Sondheim include these two specific references on purpose? The names scan well — Pinter alliterates with the word “play” and Mahler rhymes with Stritch’s pronunciation of “dollars,” but I’d like to think there’s some rampant subtext afoot.
Anyway, as I said I wasn’t really going to analyse the lyrics.
“Here’s to the girls who play wife, aren’t they too much? Keeping house but clutching a copy of Life, just to keep in touch — The ones who follow the rules, and meet themselves at the schools, too busy to know that they’re fools”
In the cast recording the music starts to really climb here with bigger instrumentation, and Stritch herself starts sounding meaner with these lovely long held notes on schools/fools. In this video, on the other hand, she resumes a similar energy that she had at the very first verse — a little sad and weary — her reading of “too much” almost drops off into a murmur. To match, she continues these delicate small hand movements for emphasis. But then her eyes widen and she starts blinking on “the ones who follow the rules” — keep in mind that she’s barely blinked so far, and it appears she’s imitating the naivety and lack of experience of those about whom she’s singing — and then as she sings she starts twitching her head as though she’s short-circuiting from the pressure — and then just as suddenly she snaps back to herself again, almost barking on “too busy to know that they’re fools”. Now she’s playing with us.
“Aren’t they a gem! I’ll drink to them! Let’s all drink to them!”
This is the first big part of the song and, if you know the tune already, it’s what you’re waiting for if you see a live version of it, to see how the performer interprets the opportunity that they’re given. In the cast recording, we have that characteristic two-syllable “ar-en’t”, but Stritch lets the orchestra convey the heft of the moment, and spits out gem/them in a short staccato. She does give us a satisfyingly massive growl on “all”; and don’t get me wrong, even with the abruptness of her line readings here it’s still very powerful — she’s stepped it up a notch, bigger, louder, somehow more disdain yet to be mined from her performance, the stakes feel much higher.
In this video, she plays it quite differently and it’s something to behold — the word “gem” is held for ages and she uses her hand in the manner of a conductor and enunciates the ending crisply, pinching the air as she closes the note — it’s so arrogant, I love it! She does the same thing on “them” but holds her hand up in a classic “I’m singing a big note now” pose, the joyfulness of which is in direct contrast to the ice cold expression on her face which does not value your comfort in the slightest. We get that same delicious growl on “all,” and she beckons us closer with a wink but then holds up her hand and pauses — Pinter-ly? — before finishing with “to them” in a voice that’s almost a gulp. It’s amazing.
“And here’s to the girls who just watch, aren’t they the best? When they get depressed it’s a bottle of Scotch, plus a little jest.”
In the cast recording, this part is sung very calmly. We know she’s talking about herself. She doesn’t betray a lot with her voice, and it’s very careful. In this video, Stritch does a LOT in a short space of time. First: she holds her hand up, as if to say wait, I’ve got another lady — then she winces and her voice almost breaks on “the best” with this slight upwards inflection — it sounds so vulnerable that it hurts to watch. Then she grants us our first laugh-voice, but oh my lord, it’s on “bottle of scotch, plus a little jest” — unlike her cast recording chuckle at the expense of Mahler, this is not funny at all, it’s terribly sad and I can’t believe I’m seeing this, such self-assessment, such brittleness, something bordering on desperation. The subtext is text: it’s no secret that Stritch herself spent a long time working on her alcoholism; she was massively candid about it, but it’s hard to separate that knowledge from any of her performances of this song.
“Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger, another reason not to move, another vodka stinger”
If you had hitherto missed it, this is where Joanne lets you know that it’s definitely herself that she’s singing about now, since she’d been drinking vodka stingers throughout the scene beforehand. Now, before we go any further, we could deduce that Sondheim used the stinger cocktail here because it rhymes cleanly with zinger and also the name sounds prickly by nature to match its drinker. I mean he could’ve chosen anything instead, right? Another witty joke/another rum and coke (or “line of”, it was the 70s!) — another clever quip/another porto flip — another ridicule/another Moscow Mule — this is fun. But! We could also deduce that Joanne’s drink of choice was a calculated inclusion. The stinger, believed to have been invented in the late 1890s and comprised of brandy and creme de menthe, was immensely popular in New York by the middle of the 20th century, and enjoyed a distinct association with the upper class via pop culture — James Bond, John le Carré, a film literally called High Society — so it couldn’t be more apt that Joanne partook in this and subsequently further cemented its position. But her particular variation is important too. Vodka was mostly a peculiarity in the early 20th century but via some canny marketing, largely by Smirnoff, everything it lacked became everything that drove its popularity. It blends into drinks without a trace of flavour, it can barely be detected on the breath, it’s relatively low-calorie. Hollywood celebrities endorsed it, the aforementioned James Bond drank it shaken not stirred and frankly has a lot to answer for. Naturally, therefore, Joanne, an ageing New York socialite (especially one whose drinking habits are implied to be the product of alcoholism as opposed to mere rich person cocktail hour) is going to have vodka in her signature drink. Or maybe it just rhymed.
In the cast recording Stritch’s voice starts to rasp with anger — you can really feel the self-loathing here. In this video, again she makes these fascinating, crucial choices. She drops her hand into her lap and you can audibly hear it land with a slap, which is so oddly chilling — she’s been deliberate and crisp with all her hand movements so far and it feels like an indication that she’s starting to unravel. She somehow fits these long pauses around her words and the way she barely sings, but instead says “another chance to disapprove” reminds me, of all things, of the character Doris Finsecker and her nervous slide into spoken word when she sings Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were for her audition at the beginning of the movie Fame. Stritch then pauses again and practically hisses the word “zinger” and pumps her fist sarcastically to match and then starts to sing properly again, reaching out to the camera and then winking at us on “vodka stinger.” The absolute whiplash of it all feels, well, like whiplash.
“AAAAAAAH…I’ll drink to that.”
And then she howls. I don’t know what other word to use— it’s like an outburst of pure frustration that these are her options and there’s Robert watching doing whatever the hell he wants to very little consequence, an outburst to shock us and herself into life. In both the cast recording and this video she sounds oddly controlled while also completely unhinged, and it’s fantastically unsettling.
“So here’s to the girls on the go, everybody tries, look into their eyes and you’ll see what they know — everybody dies”
In the cast recording Stritch resumes her composure with a kind of sad resignation before giving us a lovely big note on “dies”. In this video she drops her hand audibly again. Rather than singing normally she adopts this almost syncopated beat on “here’s to the girls” before sliding over the beat on “everybody tries”, I’ve never heard it sung like that and it’s like, is she spinning out of control, is she messing with our expectations, is she mocking us, is she mocking herself? But the effect is marvelous. There’s an intense unhappiness during this verse in both recordings because let’s face it, these are intensely unhappy lyrics.
“A toast to that invincible bunch, the dinosaurs surviving the crunch, let’s hear it for the ladies who lunch-”
That rhyming tercet is propelling us upwards to a big finish, and while you couldn’t exactly consider it a retraction of her earlier scathing words there is a certain modicum of grace and acceptance here, as she damns herself with faint praise. In the cast recording we get her growling and building in volume, sounding angry and almost tersely joyful, but in this video she de-escalates by dropping the last two syllables of “invincible” to a near-spoken voice; but then she startlingly shouts on “dinosaurs”, and reaches out to the camera and says “let’s hear it” in a way that implies that she’s addressing you directly, we’re all in this together and then -
Sondheim cleverly screws with us so many times in this song. We think we’re going to get an 11 O’Clock number, a showy showtune, and it is but it isn’t — discordant when it should be soaring, roaring when there should be belting, silent when the music should be swelling, and by should what I mean is, this is what our ears have been conditioned to anticipate. For her big finale, we’re expecting one huge, sustained note on “rise” and for the orchestra to bulge accordingly around it. And she does. “Everybody rise!” sings Stritch, her voice enormous and fulsome and beautiful in its own angry way. And then she repeats the word. She repeats the word “rise” nine times as though she were stabbing someone with each iteration, it’s like an inverse Sideshow Bob standing on the rakes theory, it grows more unnerving and sinister and where is this going the more she bellows it at you. It’s one of the most powerful and aggressive and alarming endings to a song in musical theatre.
It should come as no surprise by now that in this video Stritch was entirely disinclined to let us go without some significant meddling. First! She does this unusual riff on the word “everybody”, throwing the first syllable upwards as if she’s doing a descant. The camera retreats as she repeats “rise”, presumably to isolate her further, but then she points at the camera and whispers “come on” in between repetitions and then shouts “why not!” like, I can’t believe what I’m hearing right now, and her next “rise” is off the beat altogether because who even cares (why not!) and then with her final intonation of “rise” she brings her arms up, Evita-style, a stance in complete juxtaposition to her style of singing, and then the song ends and one more time her hands crash down upon her legs and she stares at the camera in silence, a Pinter-esque silence of mounted and thoroughly achieved tension, if you will, and I have CHILLS.
The sensitivities in the interpretation in this video that I’ve analysed don’t dramatically change the meaning of the song but they show us how skilful Elaine Stritch is and just how much Sondheim gave her to work with. There’s an amazing behind-the-scenes video of the cast album recording process and in it we see Stritch, and indeed everyone involved, growing more and more frustrated as the night goes on and she tries to hammer out the song to the level required. If there was any doubt, it shows what a keenly difficult number this is to get right — that mixture of weary and powerful, sad and disdainful, angry and mocking, there’s so much yelling but you can’t just yell it, you have to act it. In many productions of this song Joanne will be holding her vodka stinger as she sings and at the climax of the song she slings its contents into the audience’s face. This song is teeth clenched together, it’s white knuckles around a cocktail glass, it’s mint liqueur in your eyeballs, it’s a canon loose canon, it’s a masterpiece.
Consider listening to Donna Monk’s turn as Joanne in the 1995 Broadway revival — note the way her voice scoops upwards during the “aren’t they a gem/I’ll drink to them” stanza, it’s such a great choice and it’s lovely to hear her voice soar so confidently. (Donna Monk is one of those “oh that guy” actors, she’s everybody’s girl, and this revival also boasted the presence of that overripe orange tree laden with fruit but the fruit is a metaphor for Tony Award nominations, that’s right I’m talking about Boyd Gaines; and Jane Krakowski.)
Also consider watching Barbara Walsh in the 2006 Broadway revival (an unusual production in that the cast also provided their own music by playing all the instruments, a move that is daring but also somewhat unrelaxing to watch), her performance captures a lot of that Elaine Stritch authoritarian self-loathing and she really does seem to be slightly drunk, and at the end when the character playing piano calmly stops and closes the fallboard while Walsh continues yelling “rise!” alone to the silent room I gasped.