Hello from beautiful Lisbon, Portugal!
Side note: one of my favorite authors is Chris Pavone and I just had him on my radio show to talk about his new (fantastic) book which is called, coincidentally, Two Nights in Lisbon! It’s so good!
I am here on a mini vacay with my husband James before we begin our Broadway cruise. At the beginning of last week, I had a whirlwind few days of cross-country travel and continent hopping!
First, I flew to L.A. to perform two concerts with Stephanie J. Block at the Wallis. We had a 2 PM and a 7 PM show and they were both so fabulous. The 7 PM was a little more special because I invited Megan Hilty to come see the show, and once she said yes, I immediately asked her to also make a guest appearance on stage!
FYI, Megan starred opposite Stephanie on Broadway in 9 to 5 and having her at the Wallis was an even bigger reunion than planned because 9 to 5 producer Bob Greenblatt was also in the audience. Once Megan came onstage, I asked her and Stephanie what it was like working with Dolly Parton and if it was like Charles Busch’s experience with Carol Channing. Let me first explain my reference.
I just finished Charles’ amazing book Leading Lady; The Story of a Most Unusual Boy and it’s fantastic! One of the stories he mentions is doing a big Broadway benefit and, because he was going to be dressed as a woman, being put in the female dressing room. First, he was like, “What?” But then, he was thrilled because one of his co-stars in the dressing room was the legendary Carol Channing. Charles writes that Carol entered the room with no make-up but slowly started applying it in her signature style with unique choices like blush on her nose. Then, because she had an eye infection, she told him she couldn’t wear false eyelashes, so she drew them on her lids!
When she finished applying it all, she turned to him and asked, “How do I look?”
Charles took it all in and replied, “You look like her!”
So, my question was, did Dolly show up to rehearsal unrecognizable with maybe short dark hair and sporting old sweatpants, but then at night appear with the giant blonde hair and country chic outfits we know and love? Stephanie and Megan assured me that she was always in full Dolly glam.
Stephanie actually mentioned that she heard Dolly wakes up early and applies her face so her husband has never seen her without makeup. And, apparently, when she takes off her shoes, her feet are permanently on relevé because they’ve molded into the shape of wearing heels. Megan also mentioned that the entire time they worked together, she never saw Dolly in the same outfit twice. Brava!
I asked Stephanie and Megan if they still remembered the title song and, without waiting for an answer, I launched into it at the piano. They lasted around three-quarters of the way into the song, but finally their lyrics ran out and they told me to cut!
Then, even though they starred in Wicked at different times, I had them sing “For Good” together. It was fabulous!
After the show at the Wallis (where I am reappearing December 9), I took a redeye flight back to NYC because I was part of the American Songbook Association concert honoring Betty Buckley with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
The American Songbook Association was founded by Carolyn Montgomery, and is dedicated to getting music education to more students, especially those who don’t have enough access to arts education. I say brava! We need to go back to the time when it was common for schools to have chorus, orchestra, band, and musical theatre.
The whole evening was incredible and, just so you know, Betty personally requested every person who participated. All the singers who appeared performed their own rendition of a song Betty had sung in her career. Here are just some of the highlights!
Sharon Catherine Brown opened the show and mentioned that she played the Narrator (after Laurie Beechman) in Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat on Broadway at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre (formerly the Royale Theatre). She was able to do the entire show, sign autographs, and head over to the Winter Garden Theatre where her uncle worked as the stage doorman and Cats was in performance. He would let Sharon backstage and, because Joseph was a short show, she would get there just in time to watch Betty bring down the house with her 11 o’clock number “Memory!”
Sharon told everyone that Betty was an inspiration to her and how meaningful it was to be honoring her. Then she launched into a fabulous version of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from Sunset Boulevard. Watch!
And, if you are wondering how fabulous Sharon sounded in Joseph, here she is on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
Then Elizabeth Davis, who Betty became a fan of after she saw Elizabeth in Once, was accompanied by Ian Herman, singing a unique rendition of “Old Friend” from I’m Getting My Act Together And Taking It On The Road. It was unique because Elizabeth also played violin during the song, a delicious touch. I told Elizabeth backstage that I also play violin, but added the caveat that I “suck.” As Bruno Mars sings, “Don’t believe me, just watch.”
P.S. Betty did the West Coast production of I’m Getting My Act Together…while she was filming Eight is Enough. Here she is singing “Old Friend” while the production was running.
Also, during Monday night’s concert, Orfeh did a rocking version of “Knowing When To Leave,” by Burt Bacharach and Hal David. Betty starred in the London premiere of Promises, Promises, opposite Tony Roberts. Check out a recording of their performance here!
I filmed this wonderful clip of Betty and Orfeh backstage reviewing the very wordy song (with Bonnie Milligan in the middle, loving it!).
Speaking of Bonnie Milligan, I was so impressed that she learned “Serenity” from Triumph of Love just for the concert. That song has very tricky intervals and so many lyrics. Because Bonnie was sick last week, I suggested to Betty that we give her an easier song, but Betty was insistent that Bonnie perform “Serenity” because Bonnie’s such an incredible performer. She was right. Bonnie nailed it!
Here’s Betty performing the song on The Rosie O’Donnell Show while Triumph Of Love was on Broadway.
P.S. Betty became a fan of Bonnie after seeing her in Head Over Heels. I had Bonnie add her fabulous riff from Head Over Hills into one of Betty’s songs from Carrie. Listen!
Also, during the Betty salute, one of my idols, Stephen Schwartz, came out and spoke about his love for Betty, who played Catherine in his brilliant Pippin for two and half years. Betty stayed in the show so long not only because she loved it, but also because, as she says, it helped pay for her acting lessons “and therapy.”
Kurt Peterson and Veanne Cox sang the lovely “Love Song” from Act Two. Speaking of Pippin, that show was mentioned by author/composer/singer/lyricist/orchestrator Rupert Holmes. Rupert spoke about the 1970s and how he had produced (and also wrote many of the songs on) Barbra Streisand’s album Lazy Afternoon. He felt he had worked with the world’s top singer and did not think he could be impressed with anyone else’s vocals. Then he saw Pippin and was blown away by Betty’s singing. He told us how incredible it was that, ten years later, Betty was starring in his show The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. That incredible score was represented that night with the wonderful Carolee Carmello and Jessie Mueller singing the stunning duet “Perfect Strangers.” Such a beautiful song, but not beautiful when I try to cover Jessie’s soprano part in rehearsal. Watch!
Speaking of Drood, Howard McGillin recreated his dashingly evil John Jasper in “Two Kinsmen” and, before the song, I asked him what it was like singing opposite Betty’s powerful voice. He said it was like being next to the power of a 747! Joining him on the night of the tribute was my pal, Jennifer Simard.
I told the audience that Betty had seen the show I co-wrote on Broadway (Disaster!) and that Betty had loved Jennifer’s performance as the Nun and posted about it. Jennifer told everyone what a huge deal it was because Betty was the first celebrity to “endorse” her. Jennifer then told us that she had performed “Two Kinsmen” in New Hampshire in a revue when she was 19 and what a huge deal it was to be performing opposite the original star (Howard), with Betty and Rupert in the wings! And, even under all that pressure, Jen nailed it.
There were also wonderful speeches by numerous directors like Marsha Mason (who told us that Betty helped her become a better director), Michael Wilson (who has directed Betty nine times and asked to do more shows with her), Scott Schwartz (who flipped out when Betty first called to meet with him even though she had starred in his Dad’s show), and fellow actors like Sandra Bernhard (who spoke wistfully about having a crush on Betty and ending up in a hot tub when they first met, but then sadly revealed that “nothing happened”).
The original Old Deuteronomy, Ken Page, told everyone how the set malfunctioned in Cats when Betty was going up to the Heaviside Layer and how she might have wound up in the actual Heaviside Layer (aka Heaven) if he hadn’t intervened. He then did an incredible version of “The Way We Were,” leading into a stunning “Memory.” It brought the house down!
Here’s Ken doing his big song from “The Nightmare Before Christmas” live in concert.
Katrin Rose showed her vocal sass with the vengeful Joe Iconis song “Old Flame.” Here’s Betty’s version!
Bryan Batt spoke about how wonderful it was to star opposite Betty in Sunset Boulevard, and then launched into the title song. The audience soon realized he was actually singing the parody version for Forbidden Broadway. Suddenly, he was joined by Ethel Merman (as played by Christine Pedi) who was yelling at him for wearing a body mic. Here’s that hilarious segment which was written by Gerard Alessandrini.
Christine Pedi stayed onstage and gave a wonderful speech about the late Bill Sensenbrenner for whom the Dream Maker Award was named. That award is given annually to a leader in the art and business communities who exhibits a passion for investing in the cultural capital of our youth. And I had the honor of receiving it!
Near the end of the show, Mario Cantone came out onstage (without any introduction) and started raging, “I thought you did it for me!”
The audience soon realized he was doing the dialogue before “Rose’s Turn,” from Gypsy, which he eventually launched into, giving a spectacular performance in (almost) the original key. He was fantastic! And so was Betty when she performed the role at the Papermill Playhouse and the song at her Carnegie Hall Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS fundraiser in the 1990s. Watch!
At the end of the show, Betty finally came onstage to rapturous applause and a standing ovation.
Betty sang a beautiful “Chanson,” from The Baker’s Wife, accompanied by her pianist, Christian Jacob. Then, Jason Robert Brown came out, lauded Betty for her incredible skill as a song interpreter, and they ended the show with Betty singing Jason’s song “Hope.” Talk about #StillGotIt.
Oh! Most thrilling for me—I got to deconstruct Betty throughout the evening, showing the audience the brilliance of Betty. Of course, my favorite is her performance of Rupert Holmes’ joyous “The Writing On The Wall,” so I will end the column with that deconstruction. Enjoy and Brava Betty!
Okay, everyone! I’m about to set sail around Portugal, Spain, and lots o’ other beautiful countries. So bon voyage and peace out! ✌🏻