"This has something to do with Buckley having been in Gypsy at the Papermill Playhouse, doesn't it?" Well, yes. We weren't be able to see her do the show live, since we live on the left coast and all, but frankly after writing two columns on Gypsy back to back I need closure. So there.
Still, I know what der Brucer is talking about. Betty Buckley is, well, Betty Buckley: irrepressible, determined to do things her way. And that's not always a good thing. The question is whether or not she can do well playing the part of Rose. While I admit listening to a concert album is not the same as seeing her perform on stage, I do believe it can give us some idea of what we have missed in New Jersey.
Betty Buckley, "The London Concert" Recorded live with The BBC Concert Orchestra and The BBC Big Band, Sunday, March 19, 1995
Quoting from Buckley's liner notes: "These are highlights from the London Concert originally recorded for the BBC Radio 2. I tried to pick visual- image-oriented songs for the radio broadcast with arrangements, for this glorious group of musicians, that create theatrical atmosphere and inspire the visual and emotional with sound." That having been said, let's move on to the disc, shall we?
Concerts, like musicals, depend on a rousing opening number to get started. This is where the performer says "Here I am, world, this is what I sound like, and this is what you're basically going to be hearing all night." Buckley certainly gets off to that rousing start with "Old Friends." She swings around with the melody (which is acceptable), screws around with the lyric (which is not: where the original song asks "are we or are we unique," Buckley insists on asking "are we or aren't we unique"), and generally has a lot of fun. All and all it's a good arrangement, but I do have to question the horns at one point blaring what sounds like an impersonation of mating elephants.
Having introduced herself, and her voice, to her audience, Buckley next launches into a song I'd never heard before. The 1976 musical The Baker's Wife, which never made it to Broadway, was about a French baker whose wife leaves him for a younger love, and how he gets her back. "Meadowlark" is a remembered childhood story sung by the wife when she decides to run away, and it is glorious. Buckley does a great job expressing the excitement, and the lingering sadness, of the bolting wife.
However, I've got a nagging problem here. You might recall my "second song theory" from my earlier column on Gypsy, where I stated that the first song in a show sets the show's musical style, and the second song tells you what the show is really all about. My logic is that it takes the first song to adjust the audience's ear to the music. By the time the second song comes around, the audience is finally ready to actually listen to the lyrics.
Well, second song theory holds true for concerts as much as for shows, perhaps even more so. A concert is the artist's personal expression to her/his audience. That being the case, just what is Buckley trying to tell us here? This is a song about a woman who decides to abandon her husband, a woman who puts her desires above everything else. It is ultimately a song about self- indulgence. Don't get me wrong, it's a great song, and Buckley is wonderful singing it. I'm just in a quandary about her motives here.
Speaking of self-indulgence, the audience is allowed to applaud for over thirty seconds. It may be an accurate record of how the audience responded in the theater, but on a CD I find it excessive.
Track 3: "Pirate Jenny" (from The Threepenny Opera)
Track 4: "Surabaya Johnny" (from Happy End)
On the next two tracks, Buckley makes what I consider to be a serious miscalculation. I can understand why she might want to sing one of these songs, as they are both very dramatic. However, they are also both very down and sour numbers, and singing them both is too much. (It's part of that self- indulgent thing I mentioned.) The first, at which Buckley excels, is a charwoman's murderous fantasy revenge upon all the people around her. The second, about a woman being abandoned by her scum boyfriend, is simply wretched, perhaps the most masochistic song in the annals of musical theater. Then again, perhaps not; I'm not too well versed in opera. All the same, I strongly suggest skipping track 4 entirely.
Track 5: "Finishing the Hat" (from Sunday in the Park with George)
Buckley makes a fine recovery here. To be honest, I've always had a problem with the original cast recording of this song. I simply have never been able to get past Mandy Patinkin's singing in order to concentrate on what "Finishing the Hat" is saying. Buckley does change the gender references, but aside from that she really sells the lyric of the song, crystallizing the interior dilemma of an artist who must always watch the world rather than be a part of it. The only other artist I can think of to catch this impasse is Neil Simon in his autobiography, "Rewrites". My awe of Sondheim is renewed, and I have Buckley to thank for that.
Track 6: "Rose's Turn" (from Gypsy)
The original stimulus for reviewing this disc was to ask whether or not Buckley would make a good Rose, since she recently played the part at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. Well, here she's playing the part in London, or at least singing the final number. Buckley's approach is fairly good, bright and brassy, but I can't help feeling that when Rose breaks down and starts calling out "Momma", that Buckley is calling for her own mother rather than referring to herself. She does catch the full drama of the song's final third, however, which more than makes up for the earlier misstep.
Again, we get to listen to the audience cheering for a full half minute.
Track 7: "Marry Me a Little" (from Marry Me a Little)
Most of us know this song is really from Company, but was cut and replaced by "Happily Ever After," which was cut and replaced by "Being Alive." It is now back in Company, closing out the first act. Buckley sings the song well, slowly building the tension (and the volume) to a thundering climax. In her liner notes she wonders if the song was cut because it was "maybe too feminine in its sensibility." Perhaps. All I know is I've always found the song more impressive when I've heard a woman sing it.
Track 8: "Send In the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music)
"Send In the Clowns" has been recorded and re-recorded to death. Why is Buckley giving us yet another version? Well, quite frankly, she's singing it here because she sings it very, very well. Her tendency to be self-indulgent gets in the way some, playing around with the melody when it isn't called for, but for the most part Buckley gives the song a quiet dignity it has lacked on many recordings.
The audience restrains itself to a mere twenty-five seconds of applause.
Track 9: "Old Friends" / "Unchained Melody"
Having done so well for so much of the album, Buckley careens way off course with this track. I suppose it was impossible for her to resist, singing two identically titled songs by such vastly different composers. Simon's "Old Friends" is from the Simon and Garfunkel album "Bookends," which dates back to 1968. The first side of the album was a sequence of songs where the characters being sung about got older with each successive song. It was very arty in a 1968 way. The song "Old Friends" in fact was preceded by a short series of interviews Garfunkel had made with a number of old people, which he called "Voices of Old People." Clever title, what? Never one to be outdone, Simon extended the song "Old Friends" with an orchestral passage, notable mostly for being horribly dissonant, followed by a mercifully short vocal version of the "Bookends Theme," which had started the entire album in an instrumental version. (The lads make up for all this nonsense by including their hit "Mrs. Robinson" on side two.)
Which brings us to how Buckley blows everything. She does a very good job singing the song "Old Friends," but this is followed by, you guessed it: the Dreaded Dissonant Orchestral Passage! This goes on for a full minute and a half and, to be honest, what was ugly back in 1968 is still ugly thirty years later. She further compounds the error by singing the song "Bookends Theme" in its brief entirety, which wouldn't be so bad if she would at least list the song in the credits, which she doesn't.
She would have been much better off if she had cut the cute identical title business and simply sung the second half of this medley, "Unchained Melody." This is the song everyone remembers from the film "Ghost", but was deservedly famous well before then. The arrangement here is stately and triumphant, as is Buckley. I strongly advise fast-forwarding your CD player to about four minutes and six seconds into this track and sticking to the good stuff.
The audience applauds for a mere twenty seconds this time.
Track 10: "Over You" (from the film Tender Mercies)
"Over You" is a pretty song pretending to be a great country classic. Betty Buckley, a Texan with a genuine Texas accent, here pretends to have one of those bothersome, exaggerated country twangs used by every performer who for some idiot reason thinks that is what country music singers sound like. (They don't.) The audience pretends to be a whooping country crowd for about fifteen seconds. Yippie-yi-ti-whatever.
Track 11: "Tell Me On a Sunday" (from Song and Dance)
One of the best songs Andrew Lloyd-Webber has ever written is given a splendid interpretation by Buckley on this track. She is by turns quiet, aching, soaring, heartbreaking. I know there are those who will blast me for blasphemy, for even considering to like anything that Andrew has written. I don't care. This is a great song, Buckley is great singing it, and it deserves more than the twenty seconds of applause the audience gives it here.
Track 12: "With One Look" (from Sunset Boulevard)
Switching from such a great song as "Tell Me on a Sunday" to this typical ALW aria, Buckley demonstrates why she and Andrew are so well matched. He writes big, commanding numbers for his divas. She is a diva who can plant her feet and deliver, reaching to the very last seat in the highest balcony. He demands, she commands. She may wish she could be the great interpreter of Sondheim, but it is Andrew's music that is best served by her voice. The audience, in awe, applauds for a full thirty-seven seconds.
Track 13: "Bridge Over Troubled Water"
Buckley's tendency for self-indulgence pushes through again. The arrangement is too low for her voice. There is an interpolation in the middle of the track of "The Greatest Love of All," which is interesting but strange. And towards the end she sings along with the arrangement, vocalizing things like "la-dah-dee" as if she is part of the orchestra. The end result is unimpressive.
Track 14: "Amazing Grace"
Her presentation of this great song starts out well, low and reverent, with a horn arrangement the Paul Winter Consort would approve of. Then she blows it. Sorry, but the words are not "A-May-Yay-Yay-Zing Grace." Again, unimpressive.
Track 15: "Memory" (from Cats)
For her grand finale, Buckley falls back on one of her classic standbys. She is blessed by a shimmering, gossamer orchestration. Her adoring audience cheers her for over ninety seconds.
As you can tell, the inclusion of all that applause really bugs me. Yes, I realize that the audience's reaction is part of the live theatrical experience. However, the inclusion of so much applause on a CD carries with it a subliminal message. We are supposed to not just like Betty Buckley. We are supposed to adore her. To include that message as part of this album is perhaps the greatest self-indulgence of all.
Getting back to my original question, whether or not Buckley would be good in the role of Rose in Gypsy, the answer is that of course she'd be good. She is one of today's great ladies of the theater. However, she is also prone to some of the worst traits of a diva: self-indulgence, missed performances, stressing her personal attraction rather than trusting her material. But as long as her director has kept her from flying off in some strange direction, she should be one of the best Roses ever seen.
I figured that, as long as I'm reviewing one concert album, why not double my diva dosage and review two at the same time? So there I was at work, listening to this next disc, when I decided to share with my buddy Tony. He listened to the singer for a little while, smiling, and asked me who she was. I told him, and he got that wide-eyed look on his face. "Bernadette Peters can sing?" It turns out he was only familiar with her comic turn opposite Steve Martin in The Jerk.
Yes, Tony, Bernadette Peters can sing.
As the liner notes by no less than Arthur Laurents tell us, this was recorded during an AIDS benefit concert for GMHC, the Gay Men's Health Crisis (certainly a better way of raising money than sponsoring a circuit party, in my opinion). It was Bernadette's first recorded solo concert, and her first appearance at Carnegie Hall. I wish Mr. Laurents had paid a little more attention to what was being included on the CD, because he mentions her singing "With So Little To Be Sure Of", which is not included. Our loss, unfortunately.
From the sounds of the orchestra tuning up, the announcement of "Ladies and gentlemen, Miss Bernadette Peters" and her intro music, to the first note she sings, Miss Bernadette Peters takes a full minute. The second note comes nine seconds later, the third another eleven seconds later, and she finally gets around to singing "Broadway Baby" after we're already a minute and a half into the track. Does this sound like the self-indulgent excesses we heard on the previous album? No, it does not, because we're also hearing her audience laughing and having a good time. Mind, this would work a lot better if we could actually see Ms. Peters play with her audience, instead of just hearing her wrap them around her dainty finger. But those of us listening will simply have to use our imaginations.
From that point on, Peters shows just how good she is at selling a song. She unravels "Broadway Baby" at a slow vamp, giving the song a sultry strut that I've never heard it given before. She wanders from the melody, and displays all of the vocal traits she has that drive some people nuts. I'm not one of them. I've never been a big fan of this song, but I am a fan of how she sings it. The evening is off to a great start.
By the way, there's one other thing Ms. Peters does on this recording that Ms. Buckley did not. She talks to her audience. For all I know, Buckley may have talked, too, but none of her interplay with her audience was included on her concert CD, just their displays of affection for her. With Ms. Peters, the interplay is two-way, interactive. What is more, she is wonderfully funny! I'd tell you more about what she says, but I wouldn't want to spoil your own fun.
Track 2: "No One is Alone" (from Into the Woods)
Second Song Theory strikes again! Ms. Peters gives us an interpretation of this song that shows the anguish of lessons learned the hard way, yet is warm with forgiveness. If it seems strange to have such a slow and serious song in the second slot, her attention to the lyric proves this to be a solid choice. She is singing about community and the need for people to interconnect, even with those people who may represent the opposite side of an issue. The message gets through, tremulous but clear.
Track 3: "Sooner or Later" (from Dick Tracy) Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Switching back to her sexy and sultry mode, Ms. Peters... oh what the heck, Bernadette (the personal form of reference is almost mandatory with this lady) tosses off Sondheim's Oscar-winning song with the greatest of ease. There's almost no challenge in the song for her. Still, she has a lot of fun singing it.
Track 4: "Making Love Alone" Music and lyrics by Marilyn Miller and Cheryl Hardwick
This outrageous tango launches the "greatest hits" portion of her concert, and is a total blast. The spoken introduction goes a little long, but patience is a virtue. The song itself is slyly raunchy, with music that is every bit as clever as the lyric. I'd tell you more, but again I wouldn't want to spoil the jokes.
This was one of the tracks I played for Tony, who turned a few heads as he burst into laughter. He insisted on playing the track for another co-worker, Aydde, who danced in her chair and told us "That is so true!" At this point, our boss came into the room and glared at us, resulting in another round of giggles from Aydde, Tony, and me. I don't recommend playing this for people you don't know very well, however, as it could result in charges of sexual harassment. Which is why our boss never got to hear it. His loss.
Track 5: "Time Heals Everything" (from Mack and Mabel)
This is one of Jerry Herman's best songs, and it's a shame it is connected to a show some consider unproducable. Again Bernadette delves into a world of anguish, with a torch song worthy of the genre's name. The contrast with the previous song couldn't be more severe. The audience roars its approval for 35 seconds (but this is only the second time this part of the mutual love-fest has been allowed to play out. Previously, Bernadette's spoken intros have cut the applause short).
Track 6: "Raining in my Heart" (from Dames at Sea)
So, how does one top a crowd-pleaser like the one we've just heard? By pulling out all the stops and giving them a super-crowd-pleaser! Bernadette and company present this as a big production number (the liner notes note that "Raining In My Heart" features vocals by Bill Ebbesmeyer, Sean Martin Hingston, Sean McDermott, Craig Rubano, and was staged by Tony Parise.") The song is as fresh now as it was when Bernadette introduced it back in 1968. (Can it actually have been thirty years already? Impossible.) Plan on thirty seconds of applause at the end; you'll need them to get your equilibrium back.
Track 7: "Some People" (from Gypsy)
I suppose it is worth asking, would Bernadette Peters make a great Rose? Frankly, I don't think so. She is simply too sharing and endearing a performer to pull that one off. Rose as a character is ultimately selfish, in a way that Bernadette can never be. But that does not mean that she can't do a whopping good version of this song. And she does. There's thirty seconds of cheers and applause on the disc, which must have gone on for much longer because it is very obviously cut short by the intro to the next song.
Track 8: "Johanna" (from Sweeney Todd) Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
During the introduction to this song, and the rest of the concert, Bernadette locates and introduces Stephen Sondheim to the rest of the audience. He gets twenty seconds of applause. It is at this point that the concert (and disc) swings into a to tally different realm. This is no longer about the talents of Bernadette Peters, but rather about her love of Sondheim's work and her ability to explore the heights and depths of that work. By moving in this direction, she puts herself on the line in a way Buckley never did on her disc. The effect is dramatic.
By starting this section with this song, she also makes it clear that she is not about to be bound by traditional casting. "Johanna" is a man's song. O. K., its a tenor's song, but they're men too. What Bernadette does here is strip away the gender issue, and get at the heart of discovering that the person one has dreamt of truly exists. There is a dark magic to this song, powerful and slightly scary. Bernadette quietly captures every bit of that magic, and makes it hypnotic.
Track 9: "Happiness" (from Passion)
If I had problems with the song "Finishing the Hat," as I admitted earlier, then I might as well admit that the entire score for Passion has likewise thrown me for a loop, and it isn't until now that I've figured out why. "Happiness", that show's opening number, is a duet sung in the play by a couple we have never met until the curtain rises. There is no introduction, the curtain simply rises and there they are in bed, singing at each other. These are people I know nothing about, which shatters my empathy for them. This would make a great second song, but Sondheim gives his audience no chance whatsoever to adjust to his writing style. And that is why Passion has never worked for me.
Of course, by this time in the concert our ears have been more than adequately tuned to what we're hearing. Bernadette and her arrangers further simplify the song by combining both parts into one, and focusing on what they are saying together. (There are a few cuts made where Clara and Georgio overlap, and she wisely skips the second half of the song after Georgio tells Clara of his transfer.) She gives the song clarity. She has given me a little more understanding. I'll be able to listen to Passion differently now.
Track 10: "Hello Little Girl/Any Moment" (from Into the Woods)
From the serious passion of the previous number, Bernadette moves into a medley I like to think of as her salute to Bob Westenberg, since he sang both songs on Broadway. The arrangement for "Hello Little Girl" has a wonderful Thirties feel to it, and Bernadette is clearly having fun. "Any Moment" shows a bit more sophistication, and it is all very nice. Unfortunately, something doesn't quite jell and I am somehow left unsatisfied. This is one of the weaker tracks on the disc.
Track 11: "There Won't Be Trumpets" (from Anyone Can Whistle)
Bernadette sang this song the year before, in the concert version of Anyone Can Whistle. She does it better here. That's partly because of an improved arrangement, but it's also because she throws more of herself into the song this time. Her performance here also suggests that she would be perfect in a full-scale revival of the show.
Track 12: "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" (from Company)
Always one of Sondheim's more fun numbers, Bernadette takes this trio and turns it into a skipping little solo. Her giving each note equal weight, singing each syllable as a staccato beat, adds to the froth. It's a merry little track, handily setting us up for the depths to come.
Track 13: "Not a Day Goes By" (from Merrily We Roll Along)
There are two versions of this song, one upbeat and one down. Personally, I've always preferred the upbeat version. I've lived through both the downbeat Act I version, where "there's hell to pay," and the upbeat Act II version, "and I have to say" I like living the upbeat version more. "Better and stronger and deeper and nearer" is simply less sloppy than "Thinking and sweating and cursing and crying."
Personal preferences aside, Bernadette does one hell of a job wringing the emotion out of the downbeat version. She's got that kind of a voice, cracking with the stress the downbeat version needs. In fact, she tops my previous favorite downbeat-version singer, Carly Simon. (You'll find that rendition on Simon's album "Torch," if it's still available anywhere. Worth hunting out for what Simon does with Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well" and Rodgers and Hart's "Spring Is Here". But I digress.) It's also fun to compare this song with the earlier "Time Heals Everything," which covered some subject matter. Two great songs, one great performer.
Track 14: "Being Alive" (from Company)
I have always regretted that, in order to perform this song as a solo out of the context of the show, the singer has to jump into the middle of the song. Yes, the transition from the opening section of "Someone who" to the concluding section of "Somebody" has to be one of the most difficult in the Sondheim songbook, but it is also one of the most gut-wrenching. The problem is, it doesn't really work without the rest of the cast filling in their spoken comments, and that doesn't work in a concert presentation.
So, Bernadette jumps into the middle of the song. Guess what? She is absolutely gut-wrenching. The hell with that opening section, it's like she decided "Let's just pour our emotions into the second half," and she makes the whole thing work. The crowd goes crazy.
Let's consider that crowd for a moment. And be forewarned I'm about to wear my heart on my sleeve here, not to mention get extremely politically incorrect (according to some). This is a recording of a concert given for the benefit of the Gay Men's Health Crisis. Not the Men's Health Crisis, the Gay Men's Health Crisis. I'll leave it to you to figure out where most of the audience came from.
When the modern gay movement began (coincidentally at about the same time Company hit Broadway), for some perverse reason the movement's leaders told us that the best way to express our "gayness" was to reject the "hetero" role model of settling down with one partner. We were "supposed" to live with as many men as we could. We were "supposed" to be promiscuous. Well, beyond the facts of the AIDS disaster, that "supposed" rejection of a monogamous lifestyle proved to be highly unsatisfying for a large segment of the gay community.
Now, listen to the audience as it cheers Bernadette and Stephen's message, because that is what is happening here. "Alone is alone, not alive," is what she sings. And she and Steve are absolutely right! That applies to the gay community just as much as it does to the straight community. And to hear this audience cheer that message so wholeheartedly as it does here is a confirmation of the human heart. Why some people don't understand that is beyond me.
Track 15: "Move On" (from Sunday in the Park with George)
Needless to say, Bernadette is simply luminous here. She is given a sparkling arrangement, and sings wonderfully. But is she singing to Sondheim, or to the entire crowd? Or both? It is impossible not to take this song personally.
During the bows, as the audience continues to cheer, the orchestra plays vamps from "Not a Day Goes By" and "There Won't Be Trumpets." The satisfaction is complete.
There is a difference between Bernadette and Betty. Betty is a diva. I don't think that word should be applied to Bernadette. She is somehow different. But what is the word for Bernadette? Is "star" a big enough word? I think not. In search of something better I've been clicking through my word program's thesaurus just now, and came across what might just be the right phrase to describe Ms. Peters.
What would everyone say to the phrase "leader of the pack?"
Assassins is about how society interprets the American Dream, marginalizes outsiders and rewrites and sanitizes its collective history. "Something Just Broke" is a major distraction and plays like an afterthought, shoe horned simply to appease. The song breaks the dramatic fluidity and obstructs the overall pacing and climactic arc which derails the very intent and momentum that makes this work so compelling...
- Mark Bakalor
Which is not to say that it is perfect...
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