It’s difficult to put into words the unique charm that Rachel Bay Jones, who made her Broadway debut in Meet Me in St. Louis, brings to her stage work. The captivating actor, who is a 2017 Tony nominee for Best Performance by an Actress in a Featured Role in a Musical, first caught this writer’s attention as Catherine in the Tony-winning revival of Pippin in 2013 at the Music Box Theatre. Jones, who also appeared in the short-lived musical version of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown—where she had the chance to go on for two-time Tony winner Patti LuPone—brought a quirky sensibility to Catherine, the love interest of Pippin's title character. Jones managed to unearth previously undiscovered comedic moments and also delivered a stirring version of Stephen Schwartz’s “I Guess I’ll Miss the Man.” She is similarly one of the shining lights of the thoroughly moving, Tony-nominated new musical Dear Evan Hansen, playing mom Heidi to Ben Platt’s shattering work in the title role at the Music Box Theatre. As Heidi, Jones again displays her seemingly endless, rich emotional reserves, and her vocals are as powerful and profoundly heartbreaking as ever. She mines the role for all its dramatic worth, creating a wholly real portrait of a mother struggling to connect with her teenage son. I recently asked the gifted artist to pen a list of her most memorable nights in the theatre; her responses follow.
Evita in Español
“I was hired to play Eva Peron in a production of Evita at the Actors Playhouse in Miami, Floria. The production was to have a short run in English, then a short run in Spanish, then back to English. Though I spoke no Spanish, I lobbied my friend and director to cast me for both runs. He somehow agreed, and rehearsals began for our Spanish-language production during the day while I performed the English version at night.
I was given a Spanish-language script, and a literal English translation of it, but in the Spanish version the character of Eva is more complex and sympathetic. So, the Eva I discovered during the day was a different person from the one I was performing at night! Our opening en español came, and I still hadn’t made it through a run without forgetting lines. I freaked out, convinced I wasn’t going to be able to pull it off in front of an audience of native Spanish speakers. The stage manager and I printed out my lines and planted them not only in the wings but all around the set. The Casa Rosada had the lyrics for “No Llores por Mi Argentina” written on the balcony. I added a prayer book full of my lyrics for the death scene. They were everywhere. My experience of the show that night was a desperate Where’s Waldo hunt in every scene for my Spanish lyrics! It was an awful experience I knew I couldn’t have again, so the next day I went to the theatre and tore down all the notes, just went out there, and did it. I still feel like my body just took over. It was amazing.”
Pippin (Round Two)
“My Pippin, Matthew James Thomas, is so delicious in every way, and made me feel like a little kid. We had such fun playing together. When we were developing the staging for the ‘Love Song’ duet, we naturally found something so sweet and comically beautiful: While singing together we moved in closer and closer as if for a kiss, but ended lips together too early and still singing, and then so, so quietly sang the ending of the song in harmony into each other’s mouths before the final kiss. Not only was the innocent sexiness of this moment gorgeous, but the resonance of that sound!!!”
Dear Evan Hansen
BETTY BUCKLEY'S STORY SONGS (Palmetto Records)
When a great artist steps before a live audience, there’s something magical that happens that can’t quite be reproduced in the recording studio. That may be why my favorite Betty Buckley recordings include her live performances from London, Carnegie Hall, and her debut solo disc, recorded at St. Bartholomew's Church. Add to that list the Tony winner’s latest offering, the two-CD Story Songs, which was recently released on the Palmetto Records label.
The first disc—recorded at the Samueli Theater at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California—features Christian Jacob on piano, Oz Noy on guitars, Trey Henry on bass, and Ray Brinker on drums. The second disc, taped at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York, spotlights Jacob on piano, Noy on guitars, Tony Marino on bass, and Todd Isler on drums.
Buckley, whose voice sounds particularly sweet in these two live concerts, kicks off her generous double album with an all-too poignant version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “You've Got to Be Taught,” and the recording offers many other life lessons. In fact, the life the Sunset Boulevard and Cats star has so fully lived both onstage and off is evident in her supremely moving takes on “September Song,” “Don’t Give Up,” and “Throw It Away.” And, “Chanson,” “Too Many Memories,” and “Bird on a Wire” simply throb with haunting emotion.
The new tunes, it should be noted, are as thrilling as the older ones. Each of the three Jason Robert Brown offerings—“Cassandra,” “All Things in Time,” and “Another Life”—is uniquely powerful, and Joe Iconis’ “Old Flame” may battle some of Buckley’s theatre arias to become her new signature. The song epitomizes Buckley’s particular interpretive genius. She becomes the character of the Iconis ballad—an older, off-balanced woman, who never overcame an ill-fated love affair—interweaving layers of comedy and pathos to bring this complicated woman to full and intricate life.
As I was listening to “Old Flame,” I was especially struck by the lyric “I’m not living in the past. It’s the past that lives in me”: It's Buckley's rich past coupled with her acting prowess that makes her interpretations definitive.
The star of the recent hit film Split also shares heartfelt memories of three fellow artists, the late Stephen Bruton, Howard DiSilva, and Elaine Stritch, before launching into her own stunning rendition of Stephen Sondheim's “I'm Still Here.” Thankfully, Buckley is, indeed, still here, and as soul-stirring as ever.
Buckley discusses her friend, the late Elaine Stritch, in the interview below: