Betty Buckley, who performed on stage in hits such as Cats and sunset boulevard and on stage and on screen in two versions carrie, had a long and storied career with Stephen Sondheim. Recently she shared some of these stories and some on her new album with Newsweek.
Like most people in the theater, Buckley was deeply affected by Sondheim’s death last year. After a period of mourning, Buckley found a way to cope by creating a compilation album of Sondheim songs she recorded over the years. The collection Betty Buckley sings Stephen Sondheim dropped on March 11 and is available on streaming and digital platforms. It features 24 of Sondheim’s greatest songs, which have been recorded from the early 1990s to the present day in Buckley’s career. She spoke to Newsweek on how the album was born. work with Sondheim and his upcoming concert at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York.
When Sondheim passed away on November 26, 2021, the news hit Buckley very hard. She said Newsweek“I was deeply moved, private in fact, for weeks after his death. Everyone in musical theater knows and loves his work. There was great common grief shared about his loss. It’s like if he was okay one day, and the next day he died. As far as I was concerned, I thought he would still be here.
The art of making art
Over the next few weeks, she said Newsweek, “I started thinking about the great collection of his music that I recorded. My first five CDs were released by Sterling Records, which was founded by Mort Drosnes. I worked with my band of musicians for 20 years , and we did quite a few albums together.”
Buckley worked with a group of jazz musicians led by Kenny Werner, “who is a renowned jazz pianist and arranger. Working with Kenny and my musicians, I was able to do these interpretations particularly of Sondheim material, but also Andrew Lloyd Webber and other pieces of musical theatre. And they’re kind of like paintings of how I felt about music, how I saw music – in terms of color, sense of place, environment and sound, and I think they’re very innovative, beautiful arrangements that Kenny and I did together at that time.
“The albums have been out of print for a while. And I just thought it would be really cool if I could put together a compilation of all the Sondheim songs that I’ve done, as a memorial to Sondheim and what he wanted say. To all of us.”
After recording several albums for Palmetto Records, Buckley contacted record executive Missi Callazzo about the project. She said yes. Buckley then sought to secure the rights to the recordings from Brendi Drosnes, wife of Sterling Records executive Mort Drosnes. who has since died. Brendi is a huge Law and Order: SVU fan on whom Buckley had a recurring role this season. That connection thankfully seemed to help grease the slip-ups a bit, and after several conversations, “Brendi finally signed on. So now I’ve got all these tracks. I’d also performed Company’s ‘Another Hundred People’ in concert—and “I Know Things Now” sung by Red Riding Hood In the woods; I’ve always loved this song. So I sent those two mixes of those songs to my sound engineer, a brilliant guy named Jason Wormer, and asked him to fine-tune the mixes, which he did.
“And then I spoke to Missi, and I said I think we should remaster all of this because the standard of mastering has changed, and what people expect to hear has changed over the years since I started making records. So we sent the 24 tracks to Lurssen Mastering in LA and there’s this wonderful mastering engineer Reuben Cohen who I’ve made many of my more recent albums with.
“The songs are on the recording as an album in the order that I put them out, that I brought them into the world, you know. It’s kind of like, for me, a glimpse of the evolution from a singer in love with musical theatre. to work with these phenomenal jazz musicians. It’s also great to have them all in one place in timeline form, compilation form and to honor the memory of Stephen Sondheim who is the one of the greatest geniuses of our time.
When asked if Sondheim was difficult to sing, Buckley replied. “You’re asking the wrong person because I think it’s all difficult. You know, I mean, to do it right, it takes a lot of work. You have to process the song and figure out who you are in the material and still be true to what he wrote. And at the same time, you have to make it your own. It’s quite a process. But it’s true for all the great musical theater writers – Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jason Robert Brown, Rodgers and Hammerstein, all great composers and lyricists.”
Memories… of Sondheim
While Buckley only appeared in one Sondheim musical, she played Mama Rose in Gypsy at the Paper Mill Playhouse in New Jersey – she has performed her work at many events over the years. And she accumulated very special memories, which she shared. In the mid-1980s, she took part in the first workshop and then in the pre-Broadway workshop for In the woods and she said Newsweek “One day Sondheim brought me into a rehearsal room, just him and me. We sat down and he said, ‘I wrote this for you’ and it was ‘Stay with me’ and I I cried. You know, it’s just so sweet.”
Buckley was a last minute replacement, singing “Children Will Listen” from In the woods in Sondheim: a celebration at Carnegie Hall. She had to travel from Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she was performing in threepenny opera. She must have left in the middle of the day, “We drove to New York, and I’m literally in the back of the car, counting the bars, you know, trying to make sure I get there where I’m supposed to with the boys choir and end up where I’m supposed to And the counts were tricky.
“Before, in the dressing room, I was literally on my knees saying, ‘Please God, I’m not even asking you for a big performance. I’m just asking to finish when the symphony ends, when the boys are stop Please help me count the cut so that I don’t go past the end of the orchestration.
“So I hear what I think is my cue. Mind you, I only had one rehearsal – with the boys choir and once with the symphony. So I tapped the stage manager on the shoulder and I said ‘I think I better go over there now. And she’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, go over there.’ And I go on stage, and I look at conductor/musical director Paul Gemignani, and he turns around – I’ll never forget that in my entire life. I love him beyond love – and he looked me straight in the eye, and he just held out his arms as he was leading as if to say to me, you know, ‘You’re fine. Go ahead.’ And my heart leapt in my throat. Because of that moment of beauty and generosity on his part, that compassion, because he knew I was terrified.”
The incident and performance aired on PBS and can be viewed on YouTube.
“Sondheim comes up to me at the party after the show, and he smiles, which was rare in my experience, and he says, ‘Good job, good job.’ And I said, ‘Thank you.’ And he said, “Oh, by the way, Jerome Robbins came up to me after the show and said, ‘That Betty Buckley is really beautiful. And I melted.’
After the rehearsal for the In the woods workshop, which can be daunting. “I was like, ‘Don’t be stupid. What are you going to say?’ You know, so we’re sitting next to each other in the cab and he’s like, totally, in his own world, not interested at all. And I finally said to him, ‘Can you just tell me how did you come up with these phenomenal ideas? in your writing? I would really like to know how it works. And he turns to me, very seriously, very kindly, saying: “He’s my collaborator.” [writer-director James Lapine] describes the situation to me, he specifies what the moment is for the character. And I write it, but they are still my collaborators. And I was just very moved by that.”
Now, Buckley will perform a concert series, “Betty Buckley & Friends,” featuring some of her favorite songs starting March 18 with an eight-performance engagement at Joe’s Pub in New York City, which will run through March 21. . She will be joined at some performances by Veanne Cox, Todd Almond, James Harkness and Claire Moore. For more information, visit PublicTheater.org. Buckley will next perform in San Francisco at Feinstein at the Nikko for four performances from March 30 to April 2. For more information on San Francisco’s pledge, visit FeinsteinsSF.com.