But the 70s and 80s were a different time in the Theatre and in the Music Industry.
This meant that, for the most part, other than cast albums, Betty, Patti and Bernadette’s recording careers didn’t launch until the 90s. (Bernadette actually made some wonderful records in the 70s, but two decades passed before she started recording again, and those early Bernadette albums weren’t even released on CD, except in an incomplete compilation of (someone’s idea of) the best tracks, which was never really promoted.) In the 90s, these women were already into their forties and the result is a sort of Judy Garland effect – early success with signature song/performance a la Judy with Over The Rainbow in The Wizard of Oz followed by an up-and-down career singing showtunes and standards to gays around the world.
A major moment for fans of these ladies was Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall in 1992, a glossy PBS production featuring Liza Minnelli and Glenn Close and other celebrities, opera stars, etc. The highpoints of the night were definitive performances of “Children Will Listen” and “Being Alive” and and “Not A Day Goes By"
. . . sung respectively by Betty, Patti and Bernadette. Already deeply obsessed with LuPone and a big fan of Bernadette’s work in Sunday In The Park With George and Into The Woods, it was this concert that made me reinvestigate that Betty Buckley I remembered from childhood.
Around that time, Betty released two CDs that I cherish to this day, Children Will Listen and With One Look. Both feature eclectic, sometimes off-putting arrangements of standards and showtunes, but what the best of these tracks lack in Betty Buckley Broadway belting bombast, they make up for in expressiveness. Betty has an uncanny ability to evoke a stark, still sadness, which cuts right through to the core of a song. I remember sitting in my dorm room freshman year of college, listening to Betty’s medley of “When October Goes” and “Two for the Road,” reflecting on my recently vanished childhood as she sang, “The children running home beneath the twilight sky. Oh, for the fun of them, when I was one of them…” And I don’t think there’s anyone who wouldn’t be a fan of her take on Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On.” Another highlight: her “Dysfunctional Family Medley” capped off by the world premiere recording of, “When There’s No One” from the legendary flop musical version of Carrie in which Betty starred as the mother.
Still, it was a thrill to find Betty’s subsequent albums surrounding her with a large theatrical orchestra and full-brass arrangements. Betty’s voice isn’t as distinctive as Bernadette’s cupie-doll trademark and she doesn’t have Patti’s ability to unlock her jaw like a velociraptor and unleash a hurricane of sound, but there’s a visceral thrill in taking the journey with Betty from that quiet aching to the histrionic heights of a power ballad. I believe that won her the Tony.
I used to love to bellow out showtunes along with her Live in London album as I cleaned the apartment, or just stand in the mirror trying to reach her legendary high chest notes. And the more sensitive tracks on those two albums are equally impressive. “Hi Lili Hi Lo” and “September Song” and “Everything Must Change” from her Carnegie Hall album were the soundtrack to my first broken heart.
Like all divas, Betty’s voice has diminished somewhat with age. Burnished with time, deepened in color, blah, blah, blah, but while she can no longer provide the same goosebumps I used to know, there is something special to be relished in Betty’s work today. In her current Feinstein’s show, the focus is shifted to that still sadness, that longing inside so many of her songs. I can’t think of a more lovely, New Yorkier way to spend an evening than being moved by Betty’s storytelling through song of broken heart after broken heart. If Betty’s concerts of 15 and 20 years ago, were spectacle, circus, then now, when Betty gets to the catharsis of a searing, joyful Home from the Wiz, this new show is theatre.