Prickly Performance

Flowering Pincushion Cactus

Since the last administration vacated the Whitehouse, there has been a seemingly endless conga line of tell-all books, written by ex-staffers. Books whose unifying theme seems to be that the former guy was really as awful in-person as he seemed to be in public, or maybe even worse. Stephanie Grisham, the former press secretary who never held a press conference, has the latest entry in this line of books. One of the interesting tidbits that has been leaked from her new book, is that in order to sooth the ex-president’s terrible rages, one of his aids would play Broadway show tunes for him, until he was quieted down again. This aid, dubbed the Music Man, would routinely play the song Memory from the musical Cats, because it was a favorite song, but not just any version of this song. It had to be the version sung by Betty Buckley, the original Broadway cast’s Grizabella, who had sung it for the opening on Broadway, some forty years ago. This infatuation with her singular performance comes as no surprise to Ms. Buckley, since a cease-and-desist order had already been filed by the song’s author, Andrew Lloyd Webber, for its unauthorized use during campaign rallies in 2020. A cease-and-desist order that was totally ignored. Still, this newly revealed wrinkle must engender some additional chagrin, this work being the music used to soothe the savage beast.

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Gopnik interviewed Buckley for an article. What I found most interesting, wasn’t anything to do with the former guy’s relationship with this song, but the struggle that Buckley had rehearsing for the part. She initially was turned down for the part, because “she looked too healthy.” The part of Grizabella is a small part, a part whose main purpose is to end the first act. Grizabella is also a sick and dying cat, who is ostracized by the other cats. Buckley eventually got the Broadway role, but throughout rehearsals the director, Trevor Nunn, kept urging her to appear “More suicidal! More suicidal!” This was in the early eighties when homelessness in New York was growing into the problem that it is today. Buckley took to observing the homeless women and found in them rather than a feeling of hopeless self-pity, a threadbare sense of dignity and grace. Internalizing these feelings, she channeled them into her singing. Just two days before opening Buckley performed before a live audience. This time when she finished singing Memory, the crowd first greeted her with silence, before erupting in roaring applause.

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