There have been persistent rumors that Elaine Stritch wants to do 10 performances a week of her one-person show, "At Liberty," but that there were fears the kind of ovations she receives might literally bring down the house. For the safety of the theater, she's doing only five. Wearing a loose-fitting white shirt and black leotards that show amazingly good legs for a 76-year-old, the gravel-voiced Stritch talks about her life and career for 2 1/2 hours. She intersperses her stories with songs - such as Rodgers and Hart's "Zip" - with which she has been stopping Broadway shows for 50 years. Her delivery of both the songs and the stories seems even sharper than it was a few months ago, when she did her show at the Public Theater. One of her "greatest hits" is "The Ladies Who Lunch," which she introduced in Stephen Sondheim's "Company" at this very theater 32 years ago. Over the years, she has performed it at benefits, always drawing a big hand for the scathing way she describes women who fill their days with eating and shopping. When I first heard it, as a cynical youth, I thought its target was too easy, especially given what else was going on in 1970. These days, the song seems entirely different. It's no longer about one woman's withering contempt for her fellow lunchers. Full of anguish and compassion, it has never seemed so deep or harrowing. By contrast, "Why Do the Wrong People Travel?" from Noel Coward's "Sail Away" is not a song of great resonance, so it's hardly as if she's taking an unusual emotional tack. But because she's such a skillful comedian, I found myself marveling at its - and her - polish. A lot of Stritch's stories relate to her battle with the bottle. Some are funny, as when she lists her drink of choice for each show. Some are deadly serious. At one point, Stritch notes she is the niece of the late Cardinal Stritch of Chicago. Confession, you might say, is in her blood. The theater shares with the church an understanding of our need for absolution. By involving us in her pain and making us laugh at it, Stritch provides a heady kind of catharsis. In explaining why she drank, she says it came from the loneliness of being on stage and wanting "a friend."
In actuality, she is alone in "At Liberty." But the stage never seems empty. It is full of the memories she brings galvanizingly to life. There are more kilowatts of energy ablaze here than on any stage on Broadway. Stritch gives so much that she must feel the waves of love flooding from the audience back to her. Is this absolution? Is this remission? All I know is it's great theater.
So formidable is Elaine Stritch - in appearance, voice and vibes - that she's the kind of person you might edge away from in an elevator.
But when she gets on a naked stage - and from last night onward, she's getting on a naked stage regularly at the Neil Simon Theater - she's as oddly enchanting as hot chocolate liberally laced with liquor.
Odd, that is, because she's not so much a personality as a force of nature.
I vividly remember the first time I heard her - on an original cast album of "Pal Joey" singing her striptease song, "Zip" - and thinking, Who the hell is that woman?
I had some vision of a slinky, glamorous boa constrictor, shedding her skins while telling jokes. The image later changed, but it was clear, the more one saw and heard her, that the normal rules of performing artists did not apply.
Stritch expanded to fill roles and theaters. She was unstoppable, an unrelenting volcanic eruption of individuality.
Now, after a successful eruption off-Broadway at the Public Theater, she's knocking 'em cold on Broadway with the oldest and cheapest trick in the world: talent.
The show, "Elaine Stritch at Liberty," delicately but smashingly staged by George C. Wolfe - and as constructed (immaculately) by John Lahr, and "deconstructed" (whatever that means) by Stritch herself - makes no bones about subject matter. It is awesomely autobiographical.
Here she is, dressed in a man's white shirt, her chorus-girl legs encased in sheer black silk tights, with a stage full of one prop, a high chair that she can sit on, ignore, wield or trundle around. The presentation softly shouts: no tricks.
This is the story of Stritch's life, warts and all, stitched together with showbiz anecdotes that are warm - well, mostly, for she doesn't seem to have much time for Gloria Swanson and Marge Champion - yet hilarious, plus appropriate songs put over with such style, finesse and gumption that they sound as though she has just thought of them, orchestration and all.
You love it because it is a survivor's story - about battles with life, stage fright, booze and more life - told without a smidgen of self-pity or self-congratulation.
You feel she's had a great time, even during those years when an alcoholic haze made memory opaque.
The anecdotes I can't tell, partly because it would spoil it for you, and partly because this is a family newspaper. As for the songs - well, no one can sing these like she can. She can even bring something fresh to "There's No Business Like Show Business."
Stritch is one those performers who would be able to perform intimately - one on one - to a crowd in the largest sports stadium in the world.
This is largely because she has brought spontaneity into the realm of fine art. With careful, loving artifice, she appears to react as much as act, so her whole performance has the manner of an extenuated ad-lib aimed personally at you.
But that extenuated ad-lib is actually meticulously rehearsed. It is artlessness artfully covering up art.
The show, which started in an intimate downtown theatrical venue, has been brilliantly, if very slightly, reconceived by Wolfe and set designer Riccardo Hernandez for the infinitely larger Neil Simon Theater.
The band is grand - all credit due to Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations and Rob Bowman's music direction. And the whole evening is, in a phrase, utterly perfect.
Ah, at long last, a genuine, heart-racing love story has arrived on Broadway. None of that cerebral, self-conscious, skeptical stuff that asks, ''What is love, anyway?'' This is a bona fide tale of passion, tears and the kind of ecstasy that comes from endorphins flooding the nervous system. Yes, ''Elaine Stritch at Liberty'' has opened at the Neil Simon Theater.
Never mind that there is only one performer onstage -- a tough-as-rawhide, soft-as-butter veteran of some 50 years in show business.
The elements of a classic romance are all in place for this thrilling production: a star, a stage and an audience, all gaga for one another. As Ms. Stritch tells her tale of falling hopelessly in love with the theater, the audience reciprocates by falling hopelessly in love with her.
''Elaine Stritch at Liberty,'' which was created by Ms. Stritch and the drama critic John Lahr, was first seen Off Broadway in November at the Joseph Papp Public Theater. Under George C. Wolfe's infinitely savvy direction, this musical exercise in show and tell had a warm, beguiling intimacy that made you feel Ms. Stritch was talking to you and you alone. Wouldn't that cozy spirit evaporate in a Broadway barn?
On the contrary. Ms. Stritch has the enhanced glow of someone who has finally returned to her true home. Broadway was where she came of professional age, in ''Angel in the Wings'' and ''Pal Joey,'' and continued to top herself as a showstopper in productions like Noël Coward's ''Sail Away'' and Stephen Sondheim's ''Company.'' Now, at 77, she is topping herself once more.
The stories of Ms. Stritch's struggles with heartache, stage fright and alcoholism are emotionally larger than life, and watching her tell them here instead of at the Public is like seeing a movie on a big screen after watching it on television. The fit is natural, and the show, more than ever, brings to immediate, pulsing life a time when the Great White Way was the spiritual center of Manhattan.
Mr. Wolfe has wisely retained the spareness of the original production. It's still nothing more than Ms. Stritch, a chair, some lights and some music. But don't let the minimalism fool you. It's a Champagne production, from Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer's eloquent lighting to Jonathan Tunick's orchestrations for a heaven-sent 10-member band.
As for the songs she sings, who could possibly select a standout? Is it her simulated striptease in Rodgers and Hart's ''Zip''? Or her raspy, poignant medley of ''If Love Were All'' (Coward) and ''But Not for Me'' (Gershwin)? And you certainly can't discount the combination of Stritch and Sondheim, with a blistering ''Ladies Who Lunch'' and the most vibrant rendering ever of ''I'm Still Here.''
Mr. Sondheim's ''Broadway Baby'' may come closest to being the show's anthem. As Ms. Stritch delivers it, the song has the freshness, giddiness and trepidation of falling in love for the first time: with a city, a myth, a profession -- with a whole world, in short, summed up by the word Broadway.
Ms. Stritch's account of her life has plenty of pathos. Drink nearly destroyed her, and she lost more than her share of fellas and a few plum parts along the way. But her very presence at the Neil Simon provides the requisite happy ending. It is, after all, a tale in which girl meets Broadway and Broadway -- hooray! -- gets girl.
Superlatives left over from last fall's batch of notices for Elaine Stritch's solo show may need to be pressed into service for its transfer to Broadway. Remarkable as it may seem to those who caught it in its sellout run at the Public Theater, this singular evening of theater has become richer, sharper, funnier and more musically assured in its move uptown. It's as if a brilliant drawing has been replaced by a full-fledged oil painting, with every subtle brushstroke masterfully placed for maximum effect.
Fears that the show would be diminished in a 1,300-seat Broadway house seem risible in retrospect: After a half-century of stage experience, Stritch probably could calibrate her performance to wow the upper tier at Yankee Stadium. She may still be a little-known curiosity to popular audiences, but word of mouth and more critical hosannas should help build momentum for a show that remains the electrifying high point of the theater season so far.
No substantive changes have been made for the Broadway transfer -- the text created by John Lahr and Stritch, a fiercely probing two hours of wry self-analysis and backstage lore, is virtually the same. A smaller gilt proscenium has been built within the Neil Simon's to provide a more human-scaled frame for the performer. The lighting by Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer remains an inestimable asset: It helps signal shifts from public performance to confessional reverie, and has been punched up just a notch or two, it seems, to underline the more hallowed new venue.
So whence the improvement? It can be credited to the experience of the "existential problem in tights" at centerstage, of course, aided by the theatrical intelligence of director George C. Wolfe. In retrospect, it seems clear that when the show opened Off Broadway, the challenge of delivering nearly three hours of material, including more than a dozen songs (some with murderously complex Sondheim lyrics), meant that big-picture focus sometimes took precedence over moment-to-moment engagement. Stritch still was expending some mental energy to keep the whole apparatus afloat.
Now, with three months of performances under her belt, Stritch is more at ease with the logistical challenges of the performance. She's relaxed into it, and it flows along effortlessly. She and Wolfe have polished every moment to a fine gloss, found the perfect rhythm for each anecdote, the proper mix of witty phrasing, musical simplicity and emotional engagement to showcase each song. (Jonathan Tunick's limpid orchestrations for a nine-piece band deserve another nod of approbation.) And Stritch still dives into the show's moments of lacerating introspection with a fierceness that scrapes away any veneer of sentimentality.
The show has been faulted for emotional excess in its second act, when Stritch talks at length about her problems with alcohol, her self-destructiveness and the loneliness of life on the stage. But the show is a musical essay that explores the connections between performing and being, and the struggle to find a healthy balance between them. It's a display of consummate stage technique that doesn't hide the psychological underpinnings of that technique, and is more potent for the contrast between the bravura musical interludes and the moments of frank confession.
After all, the glow Stritch gives off as she stands in the spotlight, which reaches like a finely focused laser beam to the back of the theater, must draw its energy from somewhere inside her, and the resulting vacuum probably isn't always easy to fill when the curtain goes down. That's why many great performers are troubled -- and troublesome, too. Recognizing this only increases our appreciation for their achievements.