The I'M STILL HERE Story
Earlier today I was reading the chatboard ALL THAT CHAT and one of the chatteratti asked what backphrasing was. Someone replied by posting a link and saying "this is a perfect example of backphrasing". The link was Dolores Gray singing the Stephen Sondheim classic I'M STILL HERE. I watched the performance. I've seen it many times and listened to her recording of it even more. I happen to be a Sondheim fan and a FOLLIES devotee; so I've heard I'm Still Here a lot and I always love it. I had never noticed, though, how MUCH Dolores Gray did, in fact, backphrase (unlike the original poster on All That Chat, I do know what backphrasing is) -- it didn't change my love of the performance because, as an actor, the person (usually a woman) singing I'm Still Here should be allowed to interpret the musical monologue in their own way. After watching the video ( there are a lot of links in this story .. follow them all - it's a treat!)
I fell into the Youtube pattern ... I clicked link after link, looking at numerous versions and performances of the song. What it left me with was a question for Facebook. I went to my status and updated it with the question "what is YOUR favourite version of I'm Still Here and why?" Many of my friends chimed in with their choices and their reasons -- with a promise from me that I would chime in, at the end of the day.
This is me, chiming in.
Brady and I have talked about this, often and we both always seem to come up with the same favourite (to be revealed later); but, while reading the comments on Facebook, I found myself nodding yes to a lot of them. My friend, Jamie, was the first person to weigh in and his choice was the great and glamourous Miss Gray (who, by the way, played Carlotta Campion in FOLLIES in London) - natch, he (like I) loves the glamourous divas of that era - such style and such gumption.. the ladies and Jamie and me. My friend, Gary, and my husband, Pat, both went with Carol Burnett, who sang the song in the FOLLIES concert, back in the 80s. This is actually one of my favourite performances of the song (and I tend to agree with Pat and my friends Dana and Richard when they say there is merit in every version of this song) because Carol Burnett sings the song and acts it - but she doesn't OVER sing it or OVER act it. It is a complete performance, right down to the laughs she gets on a handful of lines at the top of the performance. Some people say funny things and some people say things funny. Carol Burnett blends them so seamlessly, as to leave the audience wondering which is which?
My friend, Lindsey, is partial to Ann Miller's performance from the Papermill Playhouse production in the 90s. Pat and I saw this show and we LOOOOOVED it and Ann Miller (who was really too old for the role) because she was the very living end. My own memories of Ann Miller singing this song are the personal ones I have from photographing her as she recorded the song for the cast album. Pat remembers: "...Ann Miller - I saw her do it and the triumphant feel she brought to it and the standing ovation she got from teh audience that night and the tears in her eyes as I saw her say "thank you! I Love you!" is a memory I will keep with me forever." What I love about the performance is that Ann Miller earned the right to sing this song because she was one tough surviving dame. And she sings it with spot on rhythms without sacrificing the individuality of her performance ( a bit of trivia - when she recorded this song for the cd, she did it in ONE TAKE ... almost.. I'm not kidding. She sand the entire song one time and Mr Sondheim told her, after, that she has sung "God knows at least I was there" and that the lyric is really "God knows at least I've been there" - she did a pick up on that line and it was a cut.)
Vince loves Polly Bergen from the Roundabout revival in the 90s. I was one of the few people who loved that revival, in spite of inherent flaws that I needn't discuss here .. not one of them being the performances of the Follies ladies. I was incredibly moved by the work of Judith Ivey, Blythe Danner, Carol Wood, Jane White, Betty Garrett and Polly Bergen. Polly was a Tony nominee that year and here is her tough as nails, down to earth, elegant and sophisticated, determined performance in some bootleg footage shot during performance (not by me - I don't bootleg shows).
Bob and Mitchell chose, in the Facebook thread, this performance (preserved, only, in audio format) by Nancy Walker. This was an event titled An Evening With Sondheim (I think that's what it was called) performed and recorded, live, at the Shubert Theater in the 70s. It's a popular and well loved version of the tune - if you haven't heard it, check it out.
And, again - in the Facebook thread that started all this, Ryan, Ricky, Lindsey all mention the deliciously over the top Shirley MacLaine version from the film Postcards from the Edge. Now... who couldn't love this? She effing means every G-D word - right? I worship this woman. And it was pointed out that Sondheim re wrote some wonderful new lyrics for this.
There are a lot of worthwhile performances of I'm Still Here, all these years. Some that I would love to share with you, in case you haven't seen them:
Julie Wilson is at her very best here:
My favourite chick singer, Miss Marilyn Maye:
Eartha Kitt replaced Dolores Gray and made it all her own:
This may be a tough watch because of the generational loss of this bootleg dvd - but to hear the one and only Karen Morrow sing this song is worth the effort. Amazing. She played Carlotta at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1990.
And, of course, here is the famed birthday concert performance by one of Sondheim's foremost interpreters, a lady who (truly) can sing this song and know what it means. Elaine Stritch. A LOT of people love this version. Pat and I are among them.
After all you've seen, do you know what you haven't seen? Do you know what my favourite(s) are? Well, I'ma tell you.
This is a performance that many people reviled. I am NOT one of those people. I watch this and I GET it. Note the presence of the drink. Note the commitment to character and emotion without sacrifice of song. This performance by Christine Baranski, who played Carlotta Campion for the famous ENCORES! series production in New York City touches me in a very personal way (and, ps, doesn't Lisa-Gabrielle Greene own this same dress?). Watch it. Just hit play and watch.
It irritates me SO much that the sound sync is off on this. Here is the great Millicent Martin giving what is my PERSONAL favourite performance of this song. It is a complete performance.
Well, it is (not quite) my favourite. It is tied for first place; it is tied for first place with the performance I have seen the genius Elaine Paige give three times. I saw her in FOLLIES four times - the first time, Carlotta hadn't arrived. The second time, she had. The third and fourth times, she had gotten even better. I wonder, if I find the time and money to see it a fifth time, what will I get?
So where does that leave us? I love them all, for different reasons. I have a special attachment to the Carol Burnett version. I really GET the Christine Baranski version. My personal favourites are Millicent Martin and Elaine Paige.
NO mention? NO MENTION? Not one word for Yvonne de Carlo?
No. Because she does not belong in this little competition.
I'm Still Here was written for Yvonne de Carlo. She lived that life. She lived the creation of that song. She performed it over and over, remembering the words, forgetting the words -- it doesn't matter. What matters is that she WAS and she IS Carlotta Campion. She is untouchable. The song is and always will be hers. She doesn't have to overact it or telegraph it or backphrase it or work hard to make it hers. All she has to do is sing it - because it WAS hers.
SHE is still here.