Tuesday, September 16, 2014

All the Eyes That Watched Her Once

Over in his erudite corner of the blogiverse, the Post Apocalyptic Bohemian has reminded us that this week marks what should have been the birthday of a remarkable performer who made it on Broadway, became a household name in a vehicle unworthy of her talents, and then flamed out far too quickly.  Nell Carter would seem in no way to have been an easy person, but at her best, she was magical.

The PAB's post reminded me of something I'd nearly forgotten - the experience of seeing Carter in a ramshackle cabaret show in my early days in New York.  The venue was a large and ungainly room in Times Square that someone foolhardily thought might bring back the glory days of supper clubs.  It didn't.  But I heard Nell Carter sing.

And of her singing, this song is what I remember.  Carter brought an incredible commitment to "Back in the High Life," a vital truth that overcame the glitzy arrangement, the unpromising space, even her own affect, which seemed to waver between a sort of smiley disdain and sudden anger and which undercut most of her set.  But suddenly, here, singing what at the time just seemed another fairly recent MOR hit, she lifted the audience to a place I've seen only a few performers take us, that moment when you float together inside the music; when you can even forget to breathe.

Here's she's giving poor Miss Dolly Parton's misbegotten TV series a reason to exist, and if she's not quite transcendent the way she was that rainy September night, she's pretty damn good.  I wish she'd lived; I hope somehow she knew what kind of talent she had.

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