Judy Collins and Betty Buckley both emerged as stars in the 1960s. Collins’s first recording was released in 1961, and Buckley made her Broadway debut in the musical “1776” in 1969. Their recent live recordings, performing songs from the theater and elsewhere, confirm that they are still in top form. Though their voices and styles are quite different, both coincidentally end with the same song, Sondheim’s “I’m Still Here” from “Follies.”
This past theater season, Betty Buckley received some of her best reviews. This is surprising, since she didn’t appear in any shows. It was her absence in the revival of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” that led to memories of Buckley’s Tony-winning portrayal of the role and her spine-chilling singing of “Memory.”
Buckley’s latest release, “Story Songs” (on Palmetto Records) is a double CD live album, recorded at the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, and at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York.
Her group features arranger Christian Jacob on piano and Oz Noy on guitar. On the first CD, Trey Henry plays bass and Ray Brinker on drums. On the second disc, the pianist and guitarist are the same but Tony Marino plays on bass and Todd Isler on drums. (Note: Jacob is an excellent jazz pianist and he contributes a lovely solo piano performance of the Gershwins’ “How Long Has This Been Going On.”
Although the collection contains a number of theater songs, Buckley also performs pieces by top contemporary songwriters. The first song is “You’ve Got to be Taught” by Rodgers and Hammerstein from “South Pacific” about how people learn how to become bigots. Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is about overcoming life’s adversities. Leonard Cohen’s “Bird on a Wire” is, in her words, a “soul confession.” Abbey Lincoln’s “Throw it Away” is about focusing your life on the essentials.
Buckley has had a long artistic relationship with Jason Robert Brown and sings Another Life” from his Tony Award-winning score to “The Bridges of Madison County.” He has also sent her some new works. The set includes the world premiere of “Cassandra,” about a young woman who can see into the future. “Chanson” is from Stephen Schwartz’s “The Baker’s Wife” and “September Song” is from Weill and Anderson’s “Knickerbocker Holiday.”
Buckley (a consummate actress of stage and screen) also speaks affectingly of artists who had an influence on her career. Howard da Silva played Ben Franklin to her Martha Jefferson in “1776” and was his comeback vehicle after being blacklisted during the McCarthy era. Buckley recalls their relationship and sings “Both Sides Now,” which, at his request, she had sung at his funeral. Stephen Bruton was a childhood friend and musician, who helped bring her career back on track after 9/11 and has since passed away. She sings his “Too Many Memories.” Buckley considers Elaine Stritch her guardian angel and, in her memory, performs “I’m Still Here,” with an intensity that approaches Stritch’s own.
Judy Collins first appeared on the scene as a folk singer but she soon broadened her repertory to include theater pieces (for example, “The Ballad of Pirate Jenny” and “Marat/Sade” on her 1968 “In My Life” album) and also wrote some classics, such as “My Father).
Her DVD, “A Love Letter to Stephen Sondheim” was filmed in May 2016 at The Boettcher Concert Hall in Denver, Colorado, and was broadcast on PBS. Collins is accompanied by the Greeley Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Glen Cortese. The arrangements are by Jonathan Tunick, who has orchestrated most of Sondheim’s Broadway shows.
Collins’s first recording of a Sondheim song was the Grammy winning 1975 “Send in the Clowns” (which she performs at the concert). When she met the songwriter, he thanked her for giving him his first hit record. Calling him a “national treasure,” she goes on to perform songs from “Sweeney Todd,” “Sundays in the Park with George,” “Company,” “Merrily We Roll Along” and “Into the Woods.” She prefaces “Gun Song” from the controversial “Assassins” by reminding the audience that Sondheim has written some edgy works that have expanded the bounds of our musical theater.
Collins occasionally strays from Sondheim into songs by Joni Mitchell (“Chelsea Morning”) and John Denver (“Leaving on a Jet Plane” and “Country Roads”). The latter two are pleasant but seem out of place here.
As “I’m Still Here” manifests, Collins does not approach Buckley in dramatic fire. The same is true of “Being Alive,” if compared to Raul Esparza’s cathartic version in the last Broadway revival of “Company.” Though emotionally cool, Collins’ interpretations are so beautifully sung and clearly enunciated, that her renditions manage to be just as compelling.
Barry Bassis has been a music, theater, and travel writer for over a decade for various publications.