22 September 2006

On "Here's to the Ladies Who Lunch"?

1979: Dinah Shore sings Sondheim's "Ladies Who Lunch" with everyone's favorite full-figured gal, Jane Russell, who replaced Elaine Stritch in Company, so long long ago. Jeph found this one on YouTube, and exclaimed, "Oh, I love YouTube." And we do, for how would you or I ever know this existed?

You need to watch the wonderful amazingness of the film, but first, let's look at the "three-act play," as Stritch called it, of the song. It serves as the kinda a eleven o'clock number in the show, but it comes off more like an out-of-nowhere song like Weill's "Tchaikovsky" in Lady in the Dark. What to make of this song? Well, looking at it briefly it concerns:

1. The ladies who lunch
2. The girls who play smart
3. The girls who play wife
4. The girls who just watch
5. The girls on the go

Which might just be a five act play, depending on how you count. This heartless vivisection of New York City women includes its singer, Joanne, aka, Elaine, aka Stritch, most especially in the stanza about the girls who just watch, who get depressed, have a bottle of scotch or a vodka stinger (a repulsive drink, by the way), who disapprove, who jest, who don't move. But like the "Cellblock Tango" in Chicago, which Company predates by the way, the star is full-focus in the penultimate stanza, though in this song there is only one singer.

The brilliance of this song is that on first blush it comes off as a bitchy song written by a bitchy man for a bitchy woman to sing, but when you spend a little time with it, the number starts resounding with an enormous sympathy and a great melancholy. In a weird way, and quite unintentionally I think, it starts becoming a feminist song about the hardships of living under the sophisticated urban Patriarchy, a song of boredom or too much money and too much freedom, of not getting what you signed up for even when you thought you were too smart to really sign up for it in the first place. The anger in the song is quite clear, though articulated through clenched teeth, but when we ask from whence the anger emanates, the waters become quite deep and dangerous. Good job, Sondheim. (For a lovely cf. see "Every Day A Little Death" from A Little Night Music.) For now, we should just enjoy the words, as with PJ Harvey, as a poem, before the delicious Dinah Shore massacre. Watch for Shore singing this like a pop song--she's practically Perry Como with this--and Russell doing her best world-weary Stritch impression. I love Jane Russell, and she's a fuckin' trouper, but the asides here are spectacular. And she was directed initially, but not for this broadcast.

Oh. One last note. Years ago, I listened to this song and called a friend, Todd, in San Francisco, and said, "I think 'The Ladies Who Lunch' is about gay men," and he said, most wonderfully, "All musical theater is about gay men." I'll leave that for you to decide on either count. And now for the song.

The Ladies who Lunch

Here's to the ladies who lunch--
Everybody laugh.
Lounging in their caftans
And planning a brunch
On their own behalf.
Off to the gym,
Then to a fitting,
Claiming they're fat.
And looking grim,
'Cause they've been sitting
Choosing a hat.
Does anyone still wear a hat?
I'll drink to that.

And here's to the girls who play smart--
Aren't they a gas?
Rushing to their classes
In optical art,
Wishing it would pass.
Another long exhausting day,
Another thousand dollars,
A matinee, a Pinter play,
Perhaps a piece of Mahler's.
I'll drink to that.
And one for Mahler!

And 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.
Aren't they a gem?
I'll drink to them!
Let's all drink to them!

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.
Another chance to disapprove,
Another brilliant zinger,
Another reason not to move,
Another vodka stinger.
I'll drink to that.

So here's to the girls on the go--
Everybody tries.
Look into their eyes,
And you'll see what they know:
Everybody dies.
A toast to that invincible bunch,
The dinosaurs surviving the crunch.
Let's hear it for the ladies who lunch--
Everybody rise!
Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise! Rise!

"The Ladies Who Lunch," music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, from Company, 1970.

And now for the film.

But for real: Elaine Stritch:


Demosthenes said...

Sondheim is a genius. What will we do with out him?

Fern said...

Dinah Shore's pathos on "Everybody dies" is just so ... so ... absent.