Betty Buckley—she of Cats (Broadway), Eight Is Enough (TV), and Tender Mercies (film), to name just a few early achievements—shines on her own, whether playing such roles as the title one in Hello, Dolly! (national tour) or singing an eclectic mix of songs in one of her many concerts around the country. But she is also a wonderful collaborator. In 2014 she released a record, called Ghostlight (a reference to the bare bulb left on at night in theaters), that was produced by her childhood friend T Bone Burnett—something they had wanted to do together for many years. I interviewed her for VanityFair.com at the time and subsequently took a master class with her (rigorous and inspiring) and attended a couple of her concerts at Joe’s Pub in NYC, which I’ve written about in this blog.
Betty Buckley at the SubCulture bar.
Last weekend I witnessed another great collaboration when Betty was the featured guest at an ongoing concert series started by Jason Robert Brown, a composer and lyricist who won Tony awards for his work on the Broadway shows Parade and The Bridges of Madison County.The event took place at SubCulture in NYC, a lovely venue with great sound and a cool bar (hang out after performances and you might catch one of the stars post-concert). With Brown at the piano and a covey of excellent string players, Betty performed—at times in duet with the composer, a strong singer in his own right—such Brown songs as “Cassandra” (from the upcoming show The Connector), “A Song About Your Gun” (a response to yet another gun-violence incident), and “All Things in Time” (from Brown’s album How We React and How We Recover, coincidentally on Ghostlight Records); as well as “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” and other Broadway classics.
These two extraordinary talents have been, as the engaging Brown put it, circling each other for almost 20 years before coming together for this show. Shortly after 9/11, for example, Betty, appearing on a TV show, decided the song she had intended to sing was no longer quite right, and so landed on Brown’s wistful “Stars and the Moon.” In this and several other songs, Brown tells a story, and Betty, a consummate actress, is the perfect conveyor, easily turning into “a girl of 23,” just by putting a hand on her hip in a flirtatious way (“Another Life”), or a weary old tailor who yearns to go back in time to his wedding day (“The Schmuel Song”).
While introducing their encore number, Brown spoke of his and Betty’s longtime mutual love of the musical West Side Story. They then treated the enthusiastic audience to a charming duet of “A Boy Like That/I Have a Love,” with Betty as the scolding Anita and Brown as the love-drunk Maria.
My husband, Robert Rosen, and I with Betty.
Betty had also already been familiar with Brown’s song “Hope” (from How We React); she recorded it (live) as the title track of her 2018 album. It explores the difficulty of feeling hopeful in our current climate, “when life is crazy and impossible to bear.” At the end of a couple of the evening’s songs—during which I marveled at Betty’s combination of such a sweet tone and those signature powerhouse notes we expect—she lifted her arm in front of her, looking up as though at a heavenly body, glowing in the beyond, that could help us find our way. I’m sure I was not the only one looking instead at Betty, as our shining star, and feeling, well, hope.