Over the years, I’ve attended countless tribute-type concerts, honoring one famous singer (or actor or musician or director) after another. I’ve seen some concerts that were quite good, others that disappointed. Quite often, tribute-type concerts run much longer than they should. (I’ll talk a bit about that all-too-common problem later.) And tribute-type concerts don’t always do justice to the artist being honored, don’t always tell us what is was that made the artist being honored so special.
But this fall, I saw two of the most rewarding tribute-type concerts I’ve seen in recent years—one a gala, star-filled salute to Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley; the other a tribute to Tony Bennett by students from the New York City school that he founded. Both of these very different events gave me some moments I’ll never forget.
Let me tell you first about the gala celebration of BettyBuckley, who was being honored at New York’s Merkin Hall / The Kaufman Music Center with a lifetime achievement award from the American Songbook Association Inc. In the last 50 years, I’ve attended many different galas honoring performers, none more satisfying than this one.
I sensed that this night was going to be special even before the program began. As I made my way to my seat in the fourth row, who did I see taking a seat in the third row? None other than Ellen Burstyn, one of our very greatest actresses. She’s won the Oscar, the Tony, and the Emmy (twice). And at age 90, she’d chosen to come here to honor Betty Buckley. Burstyn was one of some two dozen stars who lent luster to this occasion. There isn’t space todescribe the full program. But let me at least share Ellen Burstyn’s contribution to the night. And share a few of my own reflections concerning the talents of the star being so deservedly honored last night.
Burstyn–in a high point of the gala–recalled seeing Betty Buckley (whom she did not know back then) on Broadway in “Sunset Boulevard” in 1995, saying: “I was knocked over by her. I thought that was the most astonishing performance I’d ever seen. The acting while singing…. I went backstage and told her what a great performance I’d witnessed.” Burstyn wound up seeing Buckley in “Sunset Boulevard” four different times, each time going backstage afterwards. Buckley finally told her: “That’s four times, we’re going to be friends.” Burstyn invited Buckley to her 65th birthday party; Buckley came, Burstyn said, bringing her whole band with her so she could sing.
I’m very glad that Burstyn–as great an actress as any living–was there to praise Buckley’s masterful way of acting while singing. Buckley has long been my favorite Broadway diva, and that’s precisely because her acting, no less than her singing, is first-rate.
I watched Betty Buckley’s early successes on Broadway. Many younger theater buffs–and I was one of them back then–were thrilled by her technical virtuosity. We loved the audacious way she could belt out unusually clear, bright, ringing high notes–a step-and-a-half higher than any of the other Broadway belters.
And Seth Rudetsky did a characteristically superb job at the gala honoring Buckley in discussing her technical prowess as a singer. Every word he said about her vocal virtuosity was correct.
But as her career progressed, I came to feel that Buckley’s real genius was the way she had of acting and singing with such complete commitment that whether she was belting a song all-out or holding her formidable powers in check, the impact could still be tremendous. I realized, when I saw her in such Broadway musicals as “Sunset Boulevard” and “Triumph of Love,” that she could make a song the high point of a show without ever reaching for those famous “Betty Buckley high notes.”
Reflective songs like “As if We Never Said Goodbye”–the peak moment in “Sunset Boulevard”–and “Serenity”–the peak moment on “Triumph of Love”–were sung by her with restraint. (We sensed power in reserve.) The songs seemed as natural, coming from the characters she was portraying, as any of the lines of dialogue leading up to them. Whether Buckley was speaking or singing, it was all of one piece. And we were held by her. (Incidentally, I alsogot to watch her work privately with her vocal coach, Joan Lader, on “Serenity” back then, seeing the care that went into each choice she made as a singer; I saw the wisdom of her not opting to belt all-out on that number; she was finding what best served the musical.) She could be equally powerful whether belting or singing quietly.
Her “Momma Rose” in “Gypsy” at Paper Mill Playhouse is still the greatest “Momma Rose” I’ve ever witnessed. (And I’ve seen Patti LuPone, Bernadette Peters, Linda Lavin, and other favorites of mine in that demanding role.) She was big and bold and electrifying when she needed to be, but subtle and nuanced (and unexpectedly vulnerable) inquieter scenes. She made us feel–as she did in “Sunset Boulevard”–the humanity of the character she was playing. All of these various gifts of hers are rare.
Broadway producers should get her back on stage; we need what she has to offer. I wish someone could star her in a Broadway revival of “Sunset Boulevard” or “Gypsy” or write a new show for her. She looks great and sounds great.
At night’s end, she sang Jason Robert Brown’s “Hope,” accompanied by Brown himself at the piano. (Thank you both, for that. I hung on every word and note.) For me, that was a perfect ending.
I wish I could tell you about each performance of the night, from Sharon Catherine Brown‘s superb rendition of “As if We Never Said Goodbye” (a terrific opener for the night), to Ken Page‘s moving “Memory” (he’s always been wonderful and somehow keeps getting better), to Christine Pedi and Bryan Batt‘s brilliant version of “You’re Just in Love”–wonderful comic relief. But I’d be here all night if I described every performance.
Let me at least drop the names of participants in this gala concert presentation: Marsha Mason, Rupert Holmes, Sandra Bernhard, Mario Cantone, Carolee Carmello, Veanne Cox, Elizabeth Davis, Paul Hecht, Howard McGillin, Bonie Milligan, Jesse Mueller, Orfeh, Kurt Peterson, Katrina Rose, Scott Schwartz, Stephen Schwartz, Jennifer Simard, Michael Wilson. Many of these artists had worked with Buckley in one show or another over the past five decades.
Betty Buckley, closing the show, was a joy. Even the funny, self-deprecating way she set up a song from “The Baker’s Wife” that she sang, “Chanson,” was a treat. She told us that composer Stephen Schwartz wrote the song for her—adding that isn’t quite the way he remembers it.
As for myself, I went to that concert against doctor’s advice. But I’m so very glad–and so very grateful–that I could be there. Real greatness is rare. And I was in the presence of it at that concert.
And thank you, too, to Carolyn Montgomery (Executive Director the American Songbook Association, Inc.) and everyone who helped put together this gala program. It also made me happy to run into various friends there. I felt lucky to be there. It was a historic night, one I’ll long remember.
My only criticism of the event is that it was longer than ideal—lasting nearly three hours without an intermission. That’s simply too long. It’s always better to leave an audience wanting more. I’d like to discuss this issue a bit. For I’ve been to far too many overlong concerts over the years.
First, scheduling an intermission in a show of this length isabsolutely essential. These gala benefit concert presentations attract many older patrons, who might especially welcome or need a bathroom break.
In addition, in a program lasting nearly three hours without a pause, if there’s no intermission a certain amount of ear–fatigue will inevitably set in (no matter how talented the participants are). An intermission gives listeners’ ears a chance to refresh. You can appreciate better a performer who’s opening a second act than the same performer if he or she is simply, say, performer number 14 out of 24 performers presented without an interval.
Tribute-type concerts so often run longer than they should, many producers may feel that the problem is impossible to solve. But the greatest concert producer I ever knew, George Wein (1925-2021) always brought his indoor concerts in on time. (He could sometimes be a bit more relaxed about time limits if he was presenting a concert in an outdoor setting where audience members were free to come and go as they pleased.) For more than 50 years, Wein made his living presenting concerts. He was the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, the JVC Jazz Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and many other similar events in the U.S. and abroad. He took justifiable pride in making sure, as much as anyone ever could, that his shows ended on time. And we talked about that. I picked his brains when Idecided to produce my own theater festival, presenting show after show for six weeks in midtown New York. He convinced me it was important to keep presentations on time, and it was do-able so long as you made it a priority.
Wein strived to make sure his concerts ended on time for a variety of reasons, he told me. First, a producer needs to control the length of his presentations in order to control costs. Wein presented concerts in some of the most prestigious venues in the world, such as Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. If a concert was too long, he noted, overtime costs for stagehands and such could quickly mount up. And giving audience members an extra hour of music was not necessarily giving them a gift—not if some audience members had trains they needed to catch, in order to go home; and not if audience members wound up growing weary (making them less likely to buy concert tickets the next time). He advised me to watch and to listen to my audiences. If too many audience members are looking down at their programs rather than straight ahead at the stage, it’s a bad sign; some of them are probably counting how many more numbers they have to sit throughbefore they can go home. And he taught me to also listento audiences. Specifically: How many random coughs do you hear from audience members? If you’re losing the audience or if they’re getting restless, he noted, you’ll begin to hear more and more coughs—a subconscious expression of discontent. And Wein and his associates had to maintain control of the concerts they presented, he believed, just the way an effective school teacher has to maintain control over a classroom.
How might a producer keep a concert from running too long? I’ll give a few old examples that I’ve mentioned previously in books of mine. I attended the memorial concert for Count Basie, presented at Carnegie Hall, shortly after his death in 1984. Seemingly every great musician who’d worked with Basie in his long career was on the bill. And all wanted to perform for him and say how great he’d been, and express their love for him; the concert could easily have wound up lasting all night. But each participant had been instructed to work within specified time constraints.
Drummer Jo Jones, who’d risen to fame with Basie in the 1930s, came onstage to lead a little combo and he just did not want to stop. He was a legendary jazz drummer, an elder statesman of jazz, and no one wanted to give him the hook; but it became evident that he had to be reined insomehow. He would have been happy to keep drumming all night. A prominent jazz saxist was sent from the wings to swing Jones’s combo into a closing riff, and then beckon the audience to give it up for Jo Jones. The number ended, everyone was clapping wildly; Jo Jones had, in effect, been“given the hook” without most audience members even realizing it. It was a producer’s call. But the show had to be kept on schedule, and sending a musician out from the wings to get Jones to wrap up his performance was necessary.
In 1983, I watched Eubie Blake—who was then nearly 100 years old, the last living link to the Ragtime Era—look into the wings as the clock neared 11 pm, and sadly tell his fans that were vigorously shouting for more—“I’d like to play more for you. I wish I could play more for you. But they’re signaling me now that I have to get off.” He tookhis final bows—he died soon after that concert—and the concert ended without going into costly overtime. I remember how much I wished, that night, Blake could have played much longer. But I understood the producer’s call.
In 1998, I was watching the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival from the wings with Hampton himself. A self-indulgent jazz group was playing endlessly on stage. “What do you think of them?” Hampton asked me. I tried to be diplomatic, saying: “They’re all right, I guess.”
Hampton responded more bluntly and honestly: “They’re putting the audience to sleep. I have to go out there and wake them up.” And as frail as he was—he’d had a stroke—he went out and did just that, playing, winning over the crowd, and getting the others to conclude their performance. Even in his 90s, in declining health, it was Hampton’s festival and he was keeping it on track.
Wein said that a producer had to make clear to concert participants that if they went significantly over their allotted time, they were stealing time from others on the bill, and potentially depriving some others of a chance to perform at all. But if a producer was firm, there was no excuse for concerts running overtime. He noted he’d grown up in the Golden Age of Radio, and ALL network radio broadcasts were “live,” and programs routinely ended on time. Early television broadcasting was almost all “live,” as well; and producers brought the shows in on time. It could be challenging to make sure concerts ended on time, but it was do-able. And it was better than sending any audience members home exhausted, who might be reluctant to buy tickets the next time, as a result.
Now, let me tell you a little about the Tony Bennett tribute…..
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Oh! I wish Tony Bennett could have seen the tribute to him presented on November 4th 2023 by the students of the wonderful arts high school that he founded, the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts in Astoria (where Bennett grew up). In his long and vibrant career, Bennett, who died in July, recorded well over a thousand songs, and the students offered with zest their interpretations of some favorites of his.
For my ears, the two most satisfying, fully realized performances were the two that closed to the show–“New York, New York” sung by Logan Spaleta (next-to-closing) and “Rags to Riches” sung by Andres Mejia (giving the show the strongest possible finish). Mejia’s sound was just gorgeous. And both those performers were offering “big singing” with a confident, assured sense of swing one rarely encounters in singers so young. I’ve enjoyed their work in the past (I’m happily remembering them singing Billy Joel’s “Baby Grand” together last year), and it’s neat seeing their skills continue to mature.
I never got to meet Andres before this concert, but I’m very glad I got to meet him briefly after the show to tell him how much pleasure his singing has given me. He’s really just an amazingly good singer with a bright future.
It’s sheer luck that I got to see Logan and Andres; the Saturday night concert just happened to be the only one of four Tony Bennett tribute concerts the school presented lastweekend that fit my schedule; and each of the four concertsfeatured different songs and singers. (Had I gone to anotherperformance, I would have missed Logan and Andres.) The school presented no less than 84 different acts in those four different Bennett-tribute concerts. And one more Tony Bennett tribute concert is coming up at the school—a big one on Friday, December 1st. (Tickets may be purchased through the school’s web site.) But I’m glad I got to see Logan and Andres. Such very good work! (I’m claimingmy future “I–knew–them–when” bragging-rights right now!)
There were other rewarding performances on the bill, of course. Some memorable standouts included: a warmly swinging “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” (performed by Thomas O’Neill and Andres Mejia), a marvelously sensitive and tender “Blue Velvet” (performed by Bruce Cabrera), “It Had to be You” (swung with appealing ease by Katherine Ahrens), “Dream a Little Dream of Me” (performed dreamily by Cecilia Curti), a jaunty “Anything Goes” (performed by Juliet Cama and Katherine Ahrens),” and “Smile” (performed earnestly, touchingly by EilojPeralta). Valerie Campos and Megan Golemi were the concert’s spirited co-hosts. The program was under the direction of the school’s voice teachers, Heidi Best and Steve Kirby.
I went there just for fun. I hadn’t planned on writing anything, but some moments were just so fine, after I got home I decided to write a little something. I might add, I almost didn’t make it to the concert at all; I have been dealing with some health issues. But I’m glad I went; their singing really was good medicine! And the whole energy was great. I’m not claiming, by any means, that everyyoung singer on the bill was ready for Broadway—some singers were clearly farther along than others—but all held my interest. And were trying their best. I really liked the show. (And I was impressed, too, I might add, by the lengthy list of kids with perfect attendance that I happened to see on the wall before the concert began; the public schools where I live often complain about problems with so many kids cutting and eventually dropping out; but if you create a really good school, kids will actually want to attend.)
Tony Bennett–as I’ve mentioned previously in my Theaterscene column and elsewhere over the years–was one of my all-time favorite singers. I love his sense of swing. He had superb tase in material.
And he had such great warmth and kindness in him. I liked him on stage and off. (No one in the business gave better hugs! And I still have on my door the last Christmas cardthat I got from him.) He loved this school, as he told me, and he was a generous benefactor to it. And he wascertainly proud of his Astoria roots. (I wish they could turn his boyhood home on 32nd Street into a museum in his honor.) He loved recalling how his talents were recognized in Astoria when he was just a kid. And how he got to represent the borough as boy, singing at the opening of the Triborough Bridge (today the RFK Bridge).
For me, it was neat seeing his teenaged students do a night of his songs. I enjoyed hearing once again such Bennett signature songs as “Because of You” (his first million-seller), “Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” and “The Good Life.” They didn’t sing every famous song of his. (How could they?) I would have welcomed hearing two of his biggest hits, “I Wanna Be Around” and “I Life My Heart in San Francisco,” but the truth is, you don’t have to do every song in a tribute concert. And the program was, in my opinion, just the right length. Perfect! By the concert’s end, I was beaming.
As usual, I’m awfully busy these days—I’m working on another book and another play, and I’m always working on the next CD. (I’ve produced more than 40 CDs.) But if my schedule permits, I’d love to also see the school’s December 1st tribute to Bennett. Not to write about it. Simply to enjoy it. There’s some real talent at the school, in various stages of development. I got a lot of happiness from watching the concert I just saw. And maybe, if I can make the December 1st show, I’ll get to see some of the singers I happened to miss this go-round. It’s beautiful that the school is honoring Bennett this way.
I might add that when I attended the concert the other night, I also got a kick out of noticing in the audience—enthusiastically showing their support for their fellow students onstage—some of the talented students I’ve enjoyed greatly in past shows at the school, like Imogen Williams and Jason Schachner. In my eyes, they’re something like stars (or stars-in-waiting). Just seeing them brought good memories of past performances. A terrific performance will stay with me for years, and I have a good eye for talent. A case in point: I complimented in print this year Jason Schachner, who gave an absolutely first-rate performance in “As You Like It.” Now to me, itfeels like only a moment ago–although it was actually about a quarter-century ago, long before Jason was born—that I was complimenting in print Jason’s father, whose talent back then leading a band called “Shirley Temple of Doom” and whose contributions to a production of “Godspell” remain penny-bright in my memory all of these years later. (It’s not often I get to review two generations of one family…. but there you go!)
I take young performers seriously. A couple of years ago, for example, the gifted Mateo Lizcano was a student at the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Now, at the tender age of 19, he’s doing his second Broadway show—the highly recommended “Kimberly Akimbo”–after previously starring in “Dear Evan Hansen.” He’s also provided the speaking/singing voice of “Pablo” on the Nickelodeon TV cartoon series, “Dora and Friends.” And I’ve very much enjoyed his work onstage this year with the Latiné Musical Theatre Lab, too. He’s a terrific, rising singer/actor. I really like that voice of his. He’s training these days with one of Broadway’s most respected vocal coaches, Dan Thaler; soI’m sure he’ll continue to get even better, musically.
It’s neat seeing young performers’ talents develop. The first time I ever saw Logan Spaleta perform “live” was when he starred in “Rent” at the Frank Sinatra School, when he was a sophomore. He’s now a senior—time passes so quickly!–and it’s cool witnessing his growth as a performer. And not just on stage at the Sinatra School, I might add; this summer, for example, he impressed me as an actor in the prestigious Samuel French Short Play Festival in New York (which is always worth seeing), and he recently released a music video of a song that he wrote/sang/arranged, “Summer Camp,” that’s irresistible. (His carefully chosen backup singers, blending their voices perfectly, are all from the Sinatra School, are all students whose work I’ve appreciated on stage in the past: Daniel Stowe, Imogen Williams, Nia Jimenez, Ben Gluck.) It’s great seeing people putting their talents to good use, and creating original work. I wish them all continued future success.
Over the years, I’ve worked with many seasoned Broadway pros. In many cases, I spotted their talents long before they became famous. Their potential just seemed so clear to me. Let me give a few examples. Tony Award-winner Santino Fontana, who’s recorded for me, is in his 30s today. But I first met him—and first wrote about him—when he was still in high school. Stephen Bogardus–who’s starred in such Broadway musicals as “Falsettos,” “High Society,” and White Christmas,” and often records for me—first impressed me when he was starring in a college musical at age 19. Tony Award-winner Celia Keenan Bolger was singing in my theater festival long before she made Broadway. Jed Peterson, who often records for me, now has fine credits Off-Broadway and on TV; but I first saw him and wrote about him when he was doing a student show at LaGuardia High School. Seth Sikes, who’s today the hottest singer in the nightclubs and a favorite of reviewers everywhere, wowed me as a singer almost from the moment he arrived In New York, fresh off the bus from his home town of Paris, Texas. It took 10 years for most critics to discover him, but I was working with him on stage and in the recording studio right away. Analise Scarpaci, who’s sung on assorted albums of mine (and will be on more), impressed me with her work in a Staten Island school show; she now has three Broadway musicals to her credit. I could see the potential in these artists, even when they were just beginning to learn their craft.
It did my heart good to see the current students of the Frank Sinatra School enthusiastically pay tribute to Tony Bennettthe other night. I’m so glad I was able to go. It gave me inspiration and hope for the future. And opened my heart. Can’t beat that! I’m grateful to them.