“I come to sing a song about hope
I'm not inspired much right now, but even so
I came out here to sing a song
So here I go…”
Jason Robert Brown wrote “Hope” in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. It was his way of channeling the disbelief and fear the electoral college had wrought. Like many of his fans, I first heard it some weeks later at Joe’s Pub, where, like many of her fans, I listened as Betty Buckley turned it into an anthem of solace piercing the fog of despair.
Last night, in the second of three concerts at the invaluable downtown venue SubCulture, composer and actress joined together in an impassioned reprise immediately notable for the unexpected beauty of the way their voices complemented each other.
Well, I oughtn’t to have been surprised. “Hope” was the opening number of Brown’s 54th concert as resident artist at the bite-size grotto room. (Yes, that means he’s been doing it for the last five years.) Before a crowd as knowledgeable as any attending an Elton John stadium gig, he hosts all manner of first-rate artists, introduces tantalizing tunes from works-in-progress, tinkers with his back catalogue, and occasionally lets the guest fly with something non-JRB. All of these were in evidence, with Buckley – looking sleek and relaxed after a grueling stint on the road with Hello, Dolly! – in exceptionally top form.
Few composer-lyricists today have Brown’s gift for writing theater songs that sound like pop standards and pop songs that sound like Golden Age musical-theater torchers, ballads, patter songs and the like. Two cases in point: “I Love Betsy,” the opening number from his “Honeymoon in Vegas,” which Stephen Sondheim has said he wishes he’d written; and “Everybody Knows,” a sparkler from his latest album, How We React and How We Recover (neither of which, sadly was on the set list).
What was included from that terrific album was Buckley’s solo turn on “Song About the Gun,” another cri de coeur about burrowing rage, ever-more evident in her rueful stretching of “Sir” at the end of each verse. She followed with the evening’s rare non-JRB number, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” from South Pacific, into which Brown interpolated an intricate Brubeckian riff, because he can.
After “Cassandra,” from his work-in-progress The Connector, came the show’s high point, “Stars and the Moon.” This great ballad, from Brown’s Songs for the New World also is a longtime staple of Buckley’s cabaret repertory. Brown re-orchestrated it for the event. Along with everything else, he’s a gifted orchestrator and was accompanied by a superb string quintet. The result was not so much revelatory as utterly transporting, which was more than enough.
There was plenty more, and some stories as well. But I want to point out the first encore, “A Boy Like That,” from West Side Story, with Buckley singing Anita and, imagine that, Brown singing Maria. It was choice. Take that, Ivo.