In a rare conversation, Unsung Broadway’s Founding Editor, Scott Kaufman sits down with the Broadway legend. In Part One, Buckley discusses childhood, ‘Carrie’, “Norma Desmond”, and how ‘Cats’ almost didn’t happen for her!! We also talk about ‘The Vixens of Broadway’, her newest show currently running at Feinstein’s San Francisco through December 15th.
When I was growing up as a child with a diagnosable musical theatre obsession, I wondered “What is it?” What did the musical theatre “greats” have that made them a “star”? I couldn’t explain what it was that many of my heroes of the 1980’s and 90’s had that magnetized me through their voices, it was beyond mere storytelling. I didn’t grow up in New York, or anywhere near there. I only had the records, cassette tapes, and CDs that I managed to buy, or steal (literally) from my parents, or across-the-street neighbors. Before the internet, the Tony Awards were my only exposure to what Broadway shows even looked like. In 1983, we had the first VCR on the block, and my father taped the Tony Awards that year (he loves musicals). The experience/musical that changed my life: Cats. Betty Buckley sang “Touch Me…!” to the world; and it was at that moment that I felt chills and understood tears of joy, for the first time. It is safe to say that I wore out that video, and the London Cast Recording, stolen in the night from my parents music cabinet. From then on, I knew Betty Buckley as one of the great First Ladies of the American Theatre. Recently, my 7-year-old self and I had the honor of sitting down with Ms. Buckley after the opening weekend of The Vixens of Broadway, currently running until December 15th at Feinstein’s San Francisco.
In “Vixens”, Ms. Buckley takes us through her favorite characters that are the second leads in Broadway shows; singing through a catalogue that includes Chicago, The Pajama Game, Company, Into The Woods, and Dear World. (Ms. Buckley most recently starred in the London premiere at The Charing Cross Theatre. She was inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame for 2012 during that time, her friend Ellen Burstyn accepted the award on her behalf.) The surprise of the evening came as a fabulous parody of “Memory” from Cats….Buckley hitting that note as thrillingly as I remember (chills). The show concluded with selections from Pippin (Ms. Buckley starred in the original Broadway run), and Guys and Dolls which are also selections featured in her show, Ah, Men! The Boys Of Broadway, as well as her recent album of the same name. Buckley’s sharp wit and theatrical “war stories”, tied in with that unmistakable voice, made for a very special evening that I won’t soon forget.
Betty Buckley’s Ah, Men! The Boys Of Broadway at Feinstein’s New York (2011)
-Courtesy of BroadwayWorld TV
Sitting down with her in the plush lobby of the Hotel Nikko, I decided to ask Ms. Buckley about her first time on stage. She recalled that she sang in the church choir, and attended dance class with her Aunt. Growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, she remembered always being put in the back row and being told to “Blend in! Blend in! I didn’t know why I wasn’t ‘blending in’.”
During that time, “Betty Lynn” was taken to see The Pajama Game at the renowned regional theater, Casa Manana, complete with the original Bob Fosse choreography. As a young audience member that night, Buckley was immediately hooked, and says that she knew she would be a on stage for the rest of her life. Afterwards, Betty set out to learn Fosse’s “Steam Heat” number. So her mother did what any good stage-mom would do, and found the choreographers (whom had worked with Fosse on the original Broadway production), and they taught it to her. Hat, cane, and all. She ended up nailing it for her school’s talent competition, bringing the house down, as she recalls. After that, Buckley says “My Mother had me performing everywhere!”. At age 15, she made her professional debut in Casa Manana’s production of Gypsy as “Dainty June”, and she was off and running.
Buckley was Miss Fort Worth in 1966, and runner-up in the Miss Texas pageant. Though Buckley did not compete in the Miss America pageant that year, she was asked to perform at the Pageant in Atlantic City the following year. It was after seeing her on television that she was contacted by a talent agent. And in 1969 she moved to NYC, where she landed the role of Martha Jefferson in 1776 on her first day in town. Immediately following that, she was sent to London to star in Promises, Promises opposite Tony Roberts. Donnie McKechnie would even join the cast for six weeks to lock-in the “Turkey Lurkey” number. “We were the only Americans brought in from the States for the show.” Buckley noted. After that, the hits just kept coming.
Buckley’s next several shows included Pippin (Catherine), and I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking it on the Road. She also became busy starring in successful films such as Carrie (1976), Tender Mercies (1983) opposite Robert Duval, Woody Allen’s Another Woman, and Roman Polanski’s Frantic, both in 1988. Not to mention, the beloved hit television show, Eight Is Enough (1977-81).
Then came Cats in 1982. “It had been a massive hit in London starring Elaine Paige before New York” Buckley explained. “Everyone in New York was auditioning for the oddly premised musical.” “Nobody knew what it was!” she said. Buckley said that after her first audition for Grizabella, she was told that she was “too healthy looking, too tall and athletic.” Buckley told her agent “they’ll be back.” Sure enough, she was right. And Betty Buckley went on to win a Tony Award for her interpretation of the iconic role of the heart-breaking alley cat.
Betty Buckley in Cats at the 1983 Tony Awards.
She went on to star in The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985 and replaced Bernadette Peters in the Andrew Lloyd-Webber musical Song and Dance. She created the role of “The Witch” in the workshop of Sondheim’s Into The Woods in 1986. Then, In 1988, came Carrie. Buckley, who was already known for playing gym teacher “Miss Collins” in the blockbuster film was approached to tackle the role of Carrie’s mother, “Margaret White” on the musical stage. As many know, the show would go down as a legendary Broadway flop (turned major cult hit). Buckley’s performance (along with that of title star Linzi Hately) was considered the saving grace of the production. I asked Betty if she has seen the recently revamped production at MCC in 2011, and she said that “yes” she had. I asked how it differed from the original, she said “It was more homogenized, which worked in some ways. I think it wasn’t as scary as our production!” Buckley noted. “But, it was very good, very nicely done. And everyone in it was very good.” “They fixed some of the issues, and I am extremely happy about the new found success, especially for my friends (writers) Michael Gore and Dean Pitchford. It’s a great piece of material.”
In 1994, Ms. Buckley starred in the London production of Sunset Boulevard. “Ours was a totally new production. Sunset Blvd had been running for a year in London and after Patti LuPone left, they closed the show, then reopened eight weeks later it with me in it.” “It was a completely new production, new script, sets, everything. It was the first time in theatrical history that a production that had been running for a year closed, then reopened with a new cast.”
Noting that all of the distinctive leading ladies who portrayed “Norma” put their own stamp on the role, I asked what her process was in preparing for Sunset Blvd: “There was a lot of study. I watched a lot of silent films. I studied them and Gloria Swanson. I read many biographies books on silent film stars.” Buckley traveled to London with her trainer and movement consultant, Patrick Strong. Along the way, they would pick pieces of physicality and movement that they liked for the role. “Those silent movie actresses were so subtle in their movement, they were like dancers.” Speaking of legendary director, Trevor Nunn, Buckley says “I was very lucky because nothing was imposed, he allowed me my own interpretation (of the role) rather than insisting on what had been done before. It was very different than Patti or Glenn’s interpretation.” Buckley then took three months off, and reopened on Broadway after Glenn Close concluded her run. She would remain in the show for a year in New York, and remembers the role as “constantly evolving.” “My version in London was very different than the version in New York. It got more, and more refined. More subtle I would say.” When asked about the Sunset Blvd experience over all Buckley quickly replied “It was great. It was one of the most sublime working experiences of my life. My collaboration with Trevor Nunn, I had worked with him on Cats, it was quite a journey. I consider him one of the greatest directors in the world, and one of my great teachers. I think that the work we did together in Cats and with “Norma” in both London and New York, is about as good as it gets in terms of my being able to play a great role, in the hands of a great director, composer, and lyricist in a brilliant production.” Buckley states “I think it is Andrew’s most wonderful work (speaking of Lloyd-Webber), and one of the greatest musicals ever.” We both agreed on that one.
Betty Buckley in London’s Sunset Boulevard (1994).
(Join us for Part Two of “A Conversation with Betty Buckley” where we discuss the Tony winners favorite roles; as well as her technique, and philospohy for creating such iconic performances.)
Betty Buckley appears through December 15 in “The Vixens of Broadway” at Feinstein’s at the Nikko with musical director Christian Jacobs on piano, Alan Hall on drums, and Daniel Fabricant on bass. For more information go to: 866.663.1063 or visit www.ticketweb.com
-Written by Unsung Broadway’s Founding Editor, Scott Kaufman.