I returned from my week in New York last night, but before I launch myself back into the London round of openings again from tonight with the West End opening of Death and the Maiden at the newly re-dubbed Harold Pinter Theatre, I’m filing a final report on my trip, which climaxed with two of the week’s highlights: seeing Betty Buckley at Feinstein’s, and Audra McDonald at Carnegie Hall.
There’s hardly a bigger contrast between the sizes of these two rooms — Feinstein’s is a tiny, extremely exclusive (i.e pricey!) cabaret boite inside the Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, while Carnegie Hall is one of the city’s biggest and certainly most prestigious concert halls.
But Buckley made Feinstein’s seem like it was Carnegie Hall - and Audra achieved the reverse effect, making Carnegie Hall seem like it was Feinstein’s.
It’s partly to do with the abilities of great performers like both of them to achieve the paradoxical feat of seeming both larger than life, yet sharing a particular, peculiar intimacy that makes you feel like you’re being sung to personally. Buckley has the bigger, more forceful personality; her quirky, highly individual voice and distinctive musical phrasing have always set her apart from her peers. And here she is offering a peerless survey of songs that she has previously been deprived of singing: songs written for men to sing in Broadway shows, from Annie Get Your Gun and The Pajama Game to Sweeney Todd.
She ended the set with one of my all-time favourite theatre songs — “Corner of the Sky” from Pippin (in which she had taken over from Jill Clayburgh in the original Broadway production in 1973, but of course never got to sing this song as it belongs to the title character, but got to hear sung by three different leading men, John Rubenstein, Michael Rupert and Dean Pitchford, the latter of whom would later to become the writer of such shows as Fame, Footloose and Carrie, which she would star in during its brief Broadway run).
Then she came back for an encore with “More I Cannot Wish You”, the only duff song from the greatest Broadway musical ever written, Guys and Dolls. And even if these last two songs therefore came from opposite ends of my personal choices of favourite and least favourite songs, she managed to bring an aching power and sincerity to both that took them to new places for me.
If Buckley in her more mellow maturity is proving, some 42 years after her Broadway debut in the original production of 1776, that she’s still one of the great originals around, Audra McDonald — four time Tony winner (in both plays and musicals), TV actress, leading activist (for the right to marriage equality for all) and at this Carnegie Hall appearance, piano player, too — is in a class of her own.
It is no exaggeration to say that I regard her as the greatest singer to be born in my lifetime; and she is second only to Barbara Cook in my personal pantheon of contemporary living greats. This was the second time she’s done a solo concert at Carnegie Hall, and I’ve crossed the Atlantic to be at both; I timed my trip this time specifically to coincide with her appearance there. And she truly crowned it.
But given her immense artistic stature, the extraordinary thing is how lightly she wears it; she is warm, casual and utterly unaffected. Then she sings with a melting magnificence, and it’s a voice that soars with grace and generosity. As she sings “I’m warm all over”, that’s exactly how I felt; she provides an all-enveloping glow over Carnegie Hall.
As a performer, she has always championed new writers as well as the established greats; her first solo album wasn’t a collection of well-known songs for her to demonstrate her artistry with, but celebrated — and elevated — writers like Jason Robert Brown, Michael John LaChiusa, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel. At Carnegie Hall Brown and Guettel were on the menu, too, but she also sang work by an even younger generation, bringing a heartbreaking sincerity to Adam Gwon’s 9/11 song from his musical Ordinary Days, and also performing some brand-new lieder set to words taken from Craig’s List ads that reminded me a bit of London Road’s setting of real dialogue to music.
A great artist like McDonald, of course, has the uncanny knack of making brand-new songs into instant classics, and also pulls off the opposite effect of making classics sound like they’re brand-new. As she performed a shimmering ‘I Could Have Danced All Night’, I could have listened to her all night.
As it is, after a programme that went on for over two hours without an interval but felt like it passed in an instant, I left Carnegie Hall on a total high, ready to fly home.