Posted on February 12, 2020 at 12:47 am

Betty Buckley and I have been circling each other for over a quarter-century, always saying how much we love each other’s work and how much we’d love to collaborate, but never knowing exactly how to do it. I’ve conducted for her at some benefits and taught some classes with her, and she’s sung several of my songs brilliantly in her concerts, but the opportunity to really make music together has eluded us. Until now.

When I saw that Betty was wrapping up her year of touring with Hello, Dolly!, I crossed my fingers that she might have a small period of time where she could commit to learning some new songs and, since I wasn’t in rehearsal for a show and my next writing deadline was a couple of months off, I might happen to open enough free time to build a show around her. Would she consider leaving her ranch in Fort Worth to come to New York and play in a tiny concert hall with me for three nights? Miraculously, and to my amazement, she said yes.

Now what? How do I create an evening with arguably the greatest storyteller in the musical theater, one of the most powerful and distinctive voices in Broadway history? How do I serve both her insatiable appetite for new challenges with her equally strong loyalty to those of my songs already in her repertoire? And how do I reinvigorate some of those older songs in a way that feels true to who both of us are now, at such different places in our lives than we were when we first encountered some of this material?

As I often do, I started by asking myself what the musical texture should be. Betty’s own concerts often feature a blazing jazz-rock rhythm section, as do mine, but I felt like that might get in the way of the intimacy I really wanted. I proposed that we just use strings and piano, no traditional rhythm section or percussion, and Betty agreed to let me try it.

Next was the question of repertoire. Betty first sang “Stars and the Moon” twenty years ago, and it was even the title of her Grammy-nominated concert album of 2001; her Story Songs album in 2017 contained “All Things In Time,” “Another Life” and the premiere of “Cassandra”; and then “Hope” was the title track of her 2018 concert album. I gave all five songs a fresh look, particularly “Stars and the Moon,” and furnished them with new arrangements. But now the real fun began: what else could we do?

Betty chose “A Song About Your Gun” after listening to my new album, How We React and How We Recover. Then I suggested three things. First, a song I’d written with the great Charles Aznavour that I knew would complement Betty’s extraordinary access to her own complex emotions. Second, I thought about what in my repertoire would really satisfy Betty’s amazing storytelling talents and yet be completely unexpected; the answer, to Betty’s delight, was “The Schmuel Song” from The Last Five Years, a seven-minute adventure with shifts in time, a huge cast of characters, wacky Slavic accents, and the kind of heartbreaking directness that Betty can pull off better than anyone. Finally, I knew that this was my chance to write something specifically for Betty, something quiet and vulnerable and smart. A conversation with a friend of mine led me to think about what it would be like to confront the challenge of falling in love later in life after your partner is gone, and I built “Love Again” around that idea. Hearing Betty Buckley introduce one of my songs to the world was one of the most satisfying, magical moments of my life.

And then for the finale. Well, that one was obvious. When Betty and I first talked, decades ago, about doing a show, what we originally came up with was the idea of a one-woman version of West Side Story where she’d sing all the characters and I’d bash through the score incorporating every note I could possibly fit on the piano. For years, whenever Betty saw me, she’d ask “When can we do our West Side?”, and she even mentioned it more than once in interviews, always to my surprise. Of course, it never did happen, but since we were finally doing a show together, maybe we could do a little something… So finally, Betty got to fulfill her lifelong dream of playing Anita, and I got to fulfill my lifelong dream of playing and singing Bernstein’s glorious score, and what better way to wrap up this wonderful collaboration than for both of us to have our dreams fulfilled?

It’s been a year of getting to work with legends and personal heroes. How lucky am I to get to sit in a room with the people who made me the writer and musician that I am, and make music with them? Here’s to the next five years of SubCulture concerts!

JRB & BETTY: Hope from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
BETTY: Another Life from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
BETTY: What I Meant To Say (music and lyric by Charles Aznavour; English lyric by JRB, 2014)
Wondering from The Bridges of Madison County (2014)
The Old Red Hills of Home from Parade (1998)
BETTY: A Song About Your Gun from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
BETTY: Carefully Taught from South Pacific (music by Richard Rodgers, lyric by Oscar Hammerstein II, 1949) arr. Christian Jacob
BETTY: Cassandra from The Connector (2019)
BETTY: Stars and the Moon from Songs for a New World (1995)
Invisible from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
BETTY: The Schmuel Song from The Last Five Years (2002)
Fifty Years Long from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
BETTY: Love Again (world premiere, 2019)
JRB & BETTY: All Things In Time from How We React and How We Recover (2018)
JRB & BETTY: A Boy Like That/I Have A Love from West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein, lyric by Stephen Sondheim, 1957)

Betty Buckley: vocals
JRB: piano and vocals
Todd Reynolds: violin
Kiku Enomoto: violin
Monica Davis: viola
Khari Joyner: cello
Randy Landau: bass