Betty Buckley: Ah, Men! [Palmetto PM 2158]
Sitting backstage during her two years as a replacement Catherine — the romantic lead of Stephen Schwartz's Pippin — Betty Buckley listened to John Rubinstein (and later Michael Rupert) do "Corner of the Sky," nightly, over the dressing room intercom. "Rivers belong where they can ramble," they sang; and Buckley occasionally wondered, why can't I have a song like that? Or like "I Can See It," the shiningly despairing male duet from Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's The Fantasticks.
Songwriters wrote songs like "Come Back to Me," "Luck Be a Lady" and "Hey There" for their male stars, while the leading ladies got "I Feel Pretty." Buckley never wanted to play Maria in West Side Story. She is, she tells us, Riff, and sings "The Jet Song" as evidence. Why can't Betty sing the men's songs? Why, in musical comedy terms, can't a woman be more like a man?
That is the hook for Buckley's new CD, "Ah, Men!" This originated at Feinstein's in October 2011, one of Buckley's most enjoyable turns in years — because, in part, she was decidedly not singing the same old songs. The CD captures the very special club act, including a piece of special material originating with "Why Can't a Woman?" (AKA My Fair Lady's "A Hymn to Him"). This deft parody was arranged by Eric Stern — drawing on show tunes by everyone — with new lyrics by Eric Kornfeld, and it turns out to be as good as you hope it will be. (She tells us all about that trouble in River City, and notes that it would be nice to have "a King Arthur who can actually sing.")
But that's the gimmicky part of the program. The strength is when Buckley sings for real. William Finn's "Venice," for example. Buckley gave some terrific performances of some terrific songs in Elegies over at Lincoln Center in 2003, but this is the one that gripped her as Rupert sang it night after night. ("Venice" — at Feinstein's — had the audience so shatteringly still that the ice cubes in the glasses stopped clinking.) Or listen to her Sweeney Todd Suite. "Not While I'm Around" for the ragamuffin Tobias, "Johanna" for the noble sailor Antony, and Sweeney's own love song to his razors, "My Friend." Three distinct characters, three distinct impersonations, and let me say that Buckley's brief take on Mr. Todd was chilling. Why can't a woman...?