DIVA TALK: Marti Webb, At Last, On a Sunday A Journey in Song & Dance

By Andrew Gans
24 Jan 2014

Bernadette Peters in Song & Dance

In 1985 it was announced that Bernadette Peters, who had just scored a major success in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's Sunday in the Park with George, would play the role of an English girl in America — the character was given a name (Emma) and a profession  (hat designer) when the production came to the States — and the lyrics, originally written by Don Black, were substantially revised by Black and Richard Maltby Jr. (One of the joys of following this musical has been charting how the lyrics and the placement of songs have changed from production to production.)

Already a fan of Peters from the original cast recording of Sunday in the Park, I eagerly awaited the New York debut of Song & Dance, which I first caught during previews, subsequently returning three times. Peters' performance remains one of the highlights of my nearly 40-year theatregoing history. Each time I returned, there were more nuances in both her acting and singing of the role. I wish her star turn had been preserved for PBS; as great as the cast recording is, it fails to capture just how funny she was delivering the letters home. I have often found with roles Peters created that no one mines the material for as much humor as she. I remember her drawing laugh after laugh during "English Girls," and the trills and other vocal flourishes she added to the score later in the run, unfortunately, were not preserved. She was also heartbreakingly real, delivering "Tell Me on a Sunday" with palpable pain, and her self-discovery at the end of the show was as thrillingly sung as it was emotionally honest. Watching her performance in the show's first act was one hour of complete joy.

When Peters left the production, she was succeeded by Tony winner Betty Buckley for the musical's final six weeks on Broadway. Unfortunately, I was in college at the time and was unable to catch Buckley as English hat designer Emma, but I have heard audiotapes of her performance, and her singing is phenomenal, some of the most exciting belting of her career. Buckley, in superb voice, belted the F sharps in the final verse of "Unexpected Song," and in the title tune, she held the word "Take" in "Take the hurt out of all the pain" longer than anyone I've ever heard. It is simply stunning singing from start to finish.

Years later, I had the pleasure of catching Tony winner Alice Ripley perform the role in a limited engagement at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, but I always regretted never having seen the woman for whom the role was written (Webb) perform what is arguably the best song cycle to showcase the talents of a female belter. In fact, Webb was the one singer I grew up listening to that I had never seen perform live. So, when it was announced a few months ago that the 69-year-old Webb would re-create the original BBC version of Tell Me on a Sunday, I thought this would likely be the last opportunity to catch the English actress in the role. Truth be told, I hadn't boarded a plane in about a decade (the last time I flew ended in an emergency landing at an air base), and it wasn't until a week before her run that I actually booked the flight.

As I told Webb after her performance, I had waited 30 years to see her live, and she did not disappoint. Her vocals remain almost eerily unchanged, a clarion tone that easily handles the demanding score.