CATS!

I went to see CATS tonight, then came home and fired up some pizza rolls, and now I want to share some thoughts.

a) Is it a common feature of CATS that the audience is invited onto the stage at intermission? Because that happened at these CATS. And while I’m not saying the stage is a sacred space, exactly, it is—to me—a space that holds, or should hold, at the very least, some reserve of magic, so I found this to be a frankly grotesque spectacle: a bunch of grubby lookers up there snapping selfies and pawing at Old Deuteronomy. I’d feel better if it were some famous CATS gimmick that only true CATS aficionados are informed of beforehand, I guess. If you are this CATS fan with underground info, do tell.

b) CATS is not a very good show. Empirically, I mean. And I say this as someone who adores Mamma Mia, which I will admit to you is also a bad show. But this was like 45 very loud, repetitive dream ballets strung together when one dream ballet is already too many. I really only liked Mr. Mistoffelees, which is akin to saying I like Santa Claus. Lame. But that CAT’s coat really sparkled.

c) They ain’t kidding with that title.

d) When they reached the 11 o’clock number (you know the one I mean), it 100% did not fail. The CAT who performed it (Mamie Parris) certainly did it justice but I kept thinking what it would have been like to sit up in the mezzanine at the Winter Garden all those years ago and hear Betty Buckley—whose voice can light your hair on fire on a slow day—lift that thing into the rafters. I did hear her sing it at City Center once, at a benefit concert that also featured Donna McKechnie and Deborah Gibson, so it’s not too far off. However, she did not come dressed as a CAT. Ah well.

Betty Buckley @ Joe’s Pub

There was a time, a couple of iPhones ago, when the iPhone I had played ghost music at random every once in a while. I would be sitting on a bus, or at home, minding my own beeswax, and music would spontaneously burst forth from this otherwise silent machine. There was no rhyme or reason to it—it happened only rarely and seemed unrelated to anything I’d recently been listening to—so I didn’t think much about it until SarahB and I were coming out of a theater one night, chatting as we made our way down the sidewalk, when she suddenly grabbed my arm and said, “I think I hear Betty Buckley coming from your bag.”

Anyway. At the risk of sounding pretentious (FYI not a crime), I will quote myself:

Betty's voice scares me sometimes, like getting a jolt from an electric fence and then stepping on a rake right before you stumble into a hole that might be your own grave. But in a good way.

In the best possible way.

The most distinctive voices are seldom the prettiest, and the music and we the listeners are better for it. I’m not saying her voice isn’t beautiful—it’s gorgeous—only that “pretty” as a meter of quality is oversold. It's surface shine. Stephen Sondheim wrote, “Pretty isn’t beautiful… / Pretty is what changes / What the eye arranges / Is what is beautiful” (yes, there’s a Sondheim for everything), and this is true of the ear, as well. The hard wire of Betty’s voice, her habit of moving between singing and speaking in the same line and lingering on a syllable a beat longer than expected, are what make her sound like no one else, are what carry the songs through a room, through a radio, through a speaker or headphone, and turn them into stories. For me that's a gift and a fine grace, forever & ever, amen. 

She sang this one last night (written by Lisa Loeb, and also included on her Bootleg album), along with some Steely Dan, a couple by T Bone Burnett, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Joni Mitchell:

I've already employed every superlative I can think of to describe the experience of seeing Betty Buckley perform live with my dear friend SarahB at my side—from year to year to year, from Town Hall to Feinstein's to Birdland to the Blue Note to Joe's Pub—so all I have left is this: together they form one of the best markers of my time here, of what I wanted my life in this city to be. I'm awed by these chances still, and by their good company, and will be forever grateful.

Buckles @ Joe’s Pub

There's a point during every Buckles performance where when she reaches a particularly emotionally heightened note she'll pull the microphone away from her face and let the full force of that voice come at you, no holds barred, and in a smallish, cabaret-type room with good acoustics it has the effect of making her sound even louder without amplification than she does with, and thus it's a little like being hit straight-on in the sternum with a ball-peen hammer. It's a bit of a showy move but not overly so, since she doesn't do it all that often and knows by instinct where it's needed and how much of it you (we) the audience can handle. Just a second or two of this raw steel sound and that thrilling *ping* *ping* *ping* right there in your chest, and then before you know it it's over. Boy is it something.

Last night for the encore she did "I'm Still Here," which she dedicated to our pal Stritchie, and while we were all on our feet clapping our heads off SarahB said "What do you follow that with?" and I whispered "Mary Chapin Carpenter" hopefully, because Betty singing MCC is one of the best combos in the world. But then she did something possibly even better, which was "Both Sides Now," and it was both clear-eyed and rueful, the way Joni herself sings it on that circa 2000 recording, which I was first introduced to by Steve Dahl on WCKG—I still remember the exact bridge I was stuck on in traffic after work when he played it—and it was so many things coming at me at once that every little piece of my heart just broke apart and then stitched itself up again with joy.

And that in a nutshell is why I love Betty Buckley. (The End.)

Except: etc. Here's one of my classic all-time faves:

I Am a Town

Take yer pick... Best for dark late nights of reflection and/or booze. (Only a little booze.)

I heard Betty's version first because ... it's Betty! (+ Betty is finally coming back to this town after a sad long absence following the equally sad closing of Feinstein's in 2012. SarahB and I are seeing her at Joe's Pub in October and I could not be more excited. Nothing is more New York to me than an autumn evening with Betty Buckley.)

And Mary Chapin Carpenter's original... Just unbelievably pretty.