Tony Award winner Betty Buckley has been a Broadway star pretty much since the day she got to New York in 1969 when, as legend has it, she pulled up in her El Camino to the 1776 audition and was immediately cast in her Broadway debut. There was never any question as to whether Betty had big-time talent, and what's even more remarkable is how she has continued to nurture that gift and grow as an artist over the years, particularly on record, where she's amassed a sprawling discography covering almost any song you could request of her and quite a few surprises.
Click through to read my selections for the Essential Betty Buckley on disc.
"An Evening At Carnegie Hall" (1996 solo album)
Betty Buckley's thrilling Carnegie Hall album is immediately evocative of Judy Garland's legendary concert at the same location, and not just because the opening medley pays homage via a Judy-esque arrangement of "Almost Like Being In Love." In a voice that runneth over with richness, Betty serenades her audience with one showstopper after another, building from contemplative crooning on such standards as "As Time Goes By" and "Where Or When" to full Broadway belting on a string of showtunes including big numbers from Gypsy and Sunset Boulevard. For the fiery passion of Betty's live performances, there is absolutely no sacrifice in vocal perfection and these tracks represent unequaled — or at least unbettered — Buckley versions of these songs. As if all that weren't enough to sell an album, there are some deeply felt renditions of more sensitive material that strike chords rarely attempted in the company of such bombast, particularly stirring performances of "September Song" and "Everything Must Change," a definitive take on Mary Chapin Carpenter's "Come On, Come On" and an inspired pairing of "Hi Lili, Hi Lo" with "I Can Let Go Now" that continues to linger long after the song has ended.
"The London Concert" (1995 solo album)
Betty Buckley's London Concert album, recorded live with the BBC Concert Orchestra and the BBC Big Band, is another gem. If it lacks the grand sense of occasion of her Carnegie set, she manages to pack in even more of her most requested songs, including "Memory," "Meadowlark," "Over You" (which she sang in the film "Tender Mercies") and a heartbreaking version of "Tell Me On a Sunday" where she deserved a Grammy just for the emotion she depicted in the word "hurt" alone. She also delivers some riveting pop song performances on an "Unchained Melody" unlike anything you ever dreamed and a "Bridge Over Troubled Water" exactly like you would wish. Best of all are the dramatic Kurt Weill numbers she nails —"Pirate Jenny" and "Surabaya Johnny" — and gorgeous, powerful performances of some Sondheim songs not otherwise in her repertoire, "Old Friend," "Finishing The Hat" and "Marry Me a Little."
Cats – Complete Original Broadway Cast Recording (1982)
There is a lot to love on the Original Broadway Cast recording of Cats. I know, I know, you might think, "Cats?! Are we really talking about this?" But before it became Broadway's easiest pot shot, it was an innovative dance theatre piece choreographed to T.S. Eliot poems set to peak Andrew Lloyd Webber tunes. And here they are performed by some of the biggest talents on Broadway of the last half a century, including Terrence Mann, Harry Groener and the great Ken Page. Best of all, though, is Betty Buckley as Grizabella. When she sings "Memory," it's not just a played-out hit. It's art.
"With One Look" (1994 solo album)
"With One Look" is a pretty flawless album. Working with just a small jazz ensemble, Betty gets right to the heart of a collection of songs, mostly ballads and mostly on the melancholy side. It's to her credit that she's able to bring such integrity of purpose to her intense investigation of each of these pieces of music that the whole doesn't feel disjointed. You may not be surprised that Betty Buckley is a natural interpreter of both Stephen Sondheim and Joni Mitchell, both Barry Manilow and Amanda McBroom. Still, it's impressive how on "With One Look," she makes them all fit together so well, along with more by Hank Williams and even Andrew Lloyd Webber. Beyond all that analysis, though, "With One Look" is an album to be experienced, to be heard and felt.
"1967" (2007 solo album)
When Betty Buckley was 19, she recorded a demo album that was finally released 40 years later. It was worth the wait. Betty's youthful voice is bright and brassy, a perfect fusion of Julie Andrews and Ethel Merman, and it's a joy to hear her sail through this fun set of standards and period pop. Her recording of "One Boy" from Bye Bye Birdie rivals Ann-Margret's. My absolute favorite, though, is her bilingual recording of "Quando Caliente El Sol" (adapted as "Love Me With All Your Heart"), which she sings first slowly in Spanish, and then swings in English. It is irresistible.
"Ah, Men! The Boys Of Broadway" (2012 solo album)
Betty Buckley's most recent album documents her successful touring cabaret show, "Ah, Men! The Boys Of Broadway," wherein she sings songs originated in musical theatre by men. Betty's steely, muscular voice is a good fit for this material and she dives into it with zeal. The selections are smartly chosen to cover both lighthearted fun ("Jet Song" from West Side Story) and a more vulnerable approach ("Maria"). My favorites are "Come Back To Me" (from On A Clear Day…) and "Corner Of The Sky" — and of course, the disc's showpiece, a Sweeney Todd medley that allows for Betty to play several roles, all quite convincingly.
The Mystery Of Edwin Drood – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1985)
Much is made of Betty Buckley's high note at the end of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. If it's not the highest note ever belted on Broadway, then it's the highest note ever held that long in a full belt voice. These girls today "mix" their voices to get the high belt sound and it's all an illusion, smoke and mirrors. Betty's old school. Regardless, there is much of her to enjoy on the Drood album. She's charming and soigné throughout all the ensemble material and positively lovely in "Perfect Strangers," her duet with Patti Cohenour (as Rosa Bud). And then there's the finale, "The Writing On The Wall," with that final note. Good luck singing along!
"Children Will Listen" (1994 solo album)
Betty Buckley's debut studio album is a mellow collection of theatre songs, many by Stephen Sondheim. There's almost no belting as she plaintively ponders the pathos in this material. This approach is a perfect fit for "I Remember" from Evening Primrose and surprisingly effective on "I Still Believe" from Miss Saigon. Betty's strengths are undeniable in a moving medley of "Children and Art" from Sunday in the Park With George and "Stay With Me" from Into The Woods. Best of all is the rare treat of hearing her sing "When There's No One" from her unrecorded original Broadway role in Carrie. It is shattering.
1776 – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1969)
In her Broadway debut, the testosterone-heavy 1776, Betty Buckley only sang one song, but she sang the hell out of it. There is no question that everyone needs to hear young Betty's rendition of "He Plays the Violin." It's about as pure and as strong as singing can possibly be.
"Much More" (1997 solo album)
Betty Buckley's 1997 studio album, "Much More," represents the beginning of a fertile period for her, when she was prodigiously recording a series of albums of understated, almost impressionistic, jazz versions of standards and showtunes. They all have their merits, and "Much More" is my favorite of these for the luxuriant legato she brings to wonderful performances of such classics as "Laura," "Autumn Leaves" and "Skylark." Her quiet, mournful take on Bernstein's "It Must Be So" is another standout.
Promises, Promises – Original London Cast Recording
It's too bad that Burt Bacharach and Hal David never followed up on the enormous success of Promises, Promises with another Broadway musical. At least their original London Fran Kubelik, Betty Buckley, followed up with quite a few. All the thrill of Betty's later work is here in dynamite renditions of the hit title song, "Knowing When To Leave" and arguably the best sung "I'll Never Fall In Love Again." Dionne Warwick be damned.
Triumph Of Love – Original Broadway Cast Recording (1998)
There was a lot of talent in the cast of Triumph Of Love, notably F. Murray Abraham, Roger Bart, Susan Egan, Nancy Opel and Christopher Sieber, but the overwhelming reason to get the album is Betty Buckley's enthralling rendition of "Serenity," which literally stopped the show. It is no less impressive on record.
Elegies: A Song Cycle – Original Cast Recording
William Finn's Elegies: A Song Cycle was an intimate 2003 revue, a meditation on the loss due to various tragedies, including September 11 and AIDS. It's great fun to experience Betty Buckley as a happy member of an ensemble and to hear her on the less serious material. And then when she puts her indelible stamp on Finn's "Infinite Joy," you remember why she is a Broadway legend and one of the most gifted actor-singers ever to appear on the musical stage.
"Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall" (1992)
The all-star gala tribute concert "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall" has many assets, chief among which is Betty Buckley's definitive version of "Children Will Listen" from Into The Woods. From her entrance (backed by the Boys Choir Of Harlem singing "Our Time"), Betty already owns the song just by virtue of the clarity and focus her bright, burnished silver tone brings to the tune. That is to say nothing, however, of how she flies as the (terrific) arrangement progresses. I think I lived a thousand lifetimes in the single moment I first heard her vibrato on the word "careful" of the final "Careful the tale you tell." The thing is the song is almost a throwaway in Into The Woods — another ballad after we've already heard the superior "No One Is Alone." And no actress that's played the Witch in a major New York production has really been able to sound good on "Children Will Listen" with its pointless high F mucking up their moment. But then you hear Betty Buckley belting out the last line, and the song is suddenly amazing.
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues, currently on tour internationally. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)