The Influence

The style, wit and intelligence of Elaine Stritch have been beacons for comedian Rhys Nicholson. By Neha Kale.

Rhys Nicholson

Elaine Stritch performing in her one-woman show At Liberty, and Rhys Nicholson (below).
Elaine Stritch performing in her one-woman show At Liberty, and Rhys Nicholson (below).
Credit: Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images (above), courtesy Stan (below)

Rhys Nicholson started their stand-up career as a teenager, performing at open-mic nights in their home town, Newcastle. Since then they’ve achieved global acclaim. In 2019, they opened for Conan O’Brien’s Australian tour. In 2020, their comedy special Rhys Nicholson: Live at the Athenaeum aired on Netflix. This year they won the 2022 Melbourne International Comedy Festival Award for most outstanding show. Their current projects include a book of essays, a role in the upcoming sci-fi series The Imperfects and a Melbourne venue named Comedy Republic, which was partly conceived as a training ground for the next generation of young Australian comedians to hone new work.

Nicholson, who’s as witty in conversation as they are on stage, often returns to the work of Elaine Stritch, the Broadway actor whose 2001 show, At Liberty, reflects everything a performer can be and do.

You’ve chosen to talk about the late, great performer Elaine Stritch, who was known as the first lady of Broadway. She was a great wit who worked for seven decades as a singer and actor, a career that’s impossible to imagine today. What drew you to her work?

When I first moved to Sydney I joined Newtown Library and they had this funny system that anything with gay interest had a little rainbow sticker on the back of it. I was 19 and was living out of home and fucking a lot and working out what kind of gay person I was. I found this DVD called Women of Broadway or something. It was a live show from the mid-late ’90s. I was like, Who is this lady? She sings “The Ladies Who Lunch” and all these people lose their minds because it’s her signature song.

What I love about her is that she is that last bastion of that era of show business. People like Patti LuPone and these kind of big theatre actors exist, but we know about them as the general public because of the movies that they are in. But Elaine Stritch is from that era when you could make a really decent living off being a theatre actor – and you could be very, very well known from being a theatre actor. I don’t think that’s the case anymore.

In her Tony-winning one-woman show Elaine Stritch: At Liberty, Stritch juggles an amazing volume of comic modes and registers across two-and-a-half hours. She combines songs by her collaborator Stephen Sondheim with anecdotes, confession, introspection and wit. Why did you connect with At Liberty when you first watched it?

One of the things I love about it is that it’s really beautifully directed. One-woman or one-man shows can be quite laboured. It’s often the thing that the performer leans back on in their later years, so they can go somewhere like Florida one month a year. You just sing a song from the ’50s and your audience gets smaller and smaller. With At Liberty, she’s like, I’m going to get fans from this.

At Liberty is one of the only shows I’ve seen when the music blends into the anecdote. Usually I think those shows are really boring, because you have someone like Debbie Reynolds say, “I did this thing – and here’s that song.” I don’t think there’s any point in this show where Elaine says, “And here’s that song.” There’s a particular part where she is telling a story about being in two musicals at once, and she sings this song “Zip”, from [the 1940 musical] Pal Joey. And she sings the one song and it’s like a 15-minute bit.

My partner, Kyran [Wheatley], directs all my shows. I’m not a singer. I don’t have musical ability at all. But my shows are about pace and, to get that right, you need eyes on the outside. Kyran will come to Adelaide when we are putting a show together and we will work for two weeks. A lot of people think that comedy, especially stand-up, is a very solo thing.

I associate your work with impeccable rhythm. Early in At Liberty, Stritch hooks the audience with a joke about a date with Marlon Brando, which, thanks to her Catholicism, she declined. What has Stritch taught you about comic timing? 

Another YouTube hole that I go down very often is ’60s and ’70s talk shows. People would come on and just talk for half an hour. You would hear stories of Gore Vidal and people having fights on live television and things being cut. And now it’s just like Jimmy Fallon going, Oh my god, it’s so crazy.

She is part of this era of show business where you had to be a raconteur. You had to not just sing and dance but hold a story for half an hour. You didn’t have to be funny, but you needed to be interesting. We don’t have that anymore.

Often, show-business people then were intellectuals. You couldn’t be a pretty person who went on panel shows. When you go on a talk show these days, they vet everything you are going to say. In those days, because it was early days of television, they were like, We are going to turn the cameras on. I think what I loved about At Liberty and how I relate it to what I do is that there’s music under her, she’s going into songs and of course it is deeply rehearsed. But she’s such a good performer that you forget that.

The artifice of performance disappears.

You feel like you could be at a cocktail party. She will be telling this story and say, “Judy Garland once said to me…” I’m not saying that my shows do that, but the dream of my shows do that. It’s a trick, but for the first 20 minutes of my show I say, “We haven’t started the show yet, don’t panic.”

Stritch is completely unapologetic – but she also weathered emotional crises. She dealt with alcoholism after the death of her husband, the playwright John Bay, and in At Liberty she addresses the loneliness of life on stage. What inspires you about the darkness and light in her comedy? She was criticised for revealing her sadness – which is a strange reading of her work.

What I love about this show is that there’s a pace, pace, pace and it screeches to a halt but at no point do you feel unsafe. Personally, the kind of stand-up that I do is that I talk about personal things, but I always make sure it’s from a funny place. Early on I did a show about having an eating disorder and in retrospect it was so heavy-handed and weird, and I was still dealing with it. As a young performer, when you are producing your own work, there’s this pressure to bare all really quickly and you are often not equipped to do it.

That’s the same with Elaine. She’s not reaching for the stars – she is just reaching for her life, there’s no over-reach. Some stand-up comedians would put darkness in the show and it’s like, why? You know at the 40-minute mark, they say, “That’s when I realised Dad isn’t coming home.” Elaine’s show is not indulgent. It feels earned.

The part where she talks about alcoholism, she uses the phrase, “It’s lonely up here, and to take a drink was to not be alone.” And that’s why I love the show so much. Of course, show business is a lush and stupid job. But you could be a TikTok performer and there is sacrifice because in order for it to be a lucrative or fulfilling career it doesn’t have too much room in it for any other stuff.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Rhys Nicholson".

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Neha Kale is a Sydney-based writer and former editor of VAULT magazine.

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