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Interview: Betty Buckley

November 12th, 2014
Betty Buckley (photo: Victory Tischler-Blue via The Broadway Blog.)

Betty Buckley (photo: Victory Tischler-Blue via The Broadway Blog.)

It’s a busy, long weekend ahead for Betty Buckley. From Thursday through Sunday (November 13-16), the Texas-based Tony-winner brings her latest program of intimate interpretations to Feinstein’s at the Nikko, presenting distinctive idiosyncratic spins to standards and showtunes.

Sunday night also brings the premiere of Buckley’s vanity-eschewing guest gig on acclaimed HBO series, Getting On, in which she plays a lonely alcoholic patient in the show’s geriatric ward (Her character shares an impromptu same-sex kiss with Laurie Metcalf’s Doctor Jenna James).

And then, after a cross-continental flight, Buckley will take to the stage of the Al Hirschfield Theater in Manhattan as part of Everybody, Rise!, a one-time memorial tribute to the late Broadway doyenne, Elaine Stritch.

From the cabaret stage, to national television, to the Great White Way, Buckley, at 67, continues to nimbly move between media in what she describes as a deeply fulfilling personal path that has carried her from a childhood in Fort Worth, Texas, to a Broadway debut in 1776, to television stardom as stepmother Abby on the 1977-81 television drama Eight is Enough, to indelible turns as the original Grizabella in Cats and Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard.

“You have to love what you do,” said Buckley in a phone conversation last week, sharing some of the advice she offers to the students in multi-day master classes she regularly teaches around the country—and also reflecting on the vicissitudes of a career that has not brought her back to a Broadway musical since The Triumph of Love in 1997. “You have to really love the craft of storytelling, singing, and acting.”

“That’s what keeps you buffered from the winds of show business, because those are things you can always go back to, engage with, and keep working on. If you really love the work, that can save you from all the rejection.”

“Begin by knowing that everyone’s a star,” Buckley tells her students, “and then dedicate yourself to being an artist. A necessary artist.”

Take the leap to read about Buckley’s latest album, Ghostlight.

Buckley’s latest artistic necessity is Ghostlight, an elegantly poignant album of songs that she’s performed in concert over the years, but never included on any of her 15 prior solo records. An air of self-confident resignation infuses the album’s mix of hauntingly reimagined showtunes (“This Nearly Was Mine,” from South Pacific, is a standout), sinewy pared-down standards (“Bewitched,” “Body and Soul”), and ingeniously re-arranged contemporary pop (Tom Waits’ “Take It With Me When I Go”, Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Where Time Stands Still).

On the recording, produced by legendary soundsmith T Bone Burnett (Elvis Costello, O Brother Where Art Thou, Roy Orbison, Counting Crows), Buckley’s intricately phrased, delicately understated vocals are pretty much the antithesis of the belt-for-the-rafters singing style in vogue with the American Idol and Voice contestants who have lately been riding their momentary fame into stints on Broadway.

The album’s beckoning first cut—which Buckley has included on her set-list for Feinstein’s—is an achingly beautiful version of Lerner and Loewe’s “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon. Buckley doesn’t thrust songs out at her listeners, but rather invites listeners to join her inside of the songs, closely exploring the nuances of their lyrics and the elasticity of their melodies.

“We really wanted to create a feeling and a sort of an environment throughout the record,” says Buckley, “a sense of life in the city after dark. When we first got together with some of the musicians in the recording studio, T Bone played us a clip of Lauren Bacall singing in a bar from To Have and Have Not, and it just clicked, this tone we were going for.”

Ghostlight is a long-in-the-making musical reunion for Buckley and Burnett, who knew each other as teenagers in Fort Worth. When they were both just 19, the pair collaborated on a recording in Burnett’s home studio, which was finally released—as Betty Buckley 1967—four decades later.

Even when 19-year-old Buckley turns the occasional sophisticated phrase on that early album there’s a youthful exuberance at play. The first Buckley-Burnett collaboration captures the sound of a bright young singer working to make her presence known.

Now, nearly 50 years later, in the seasoned subtleties of Ghostlight, Betty Buckley seems free of any need to grab hold of the folks in the balcony or knock anyone’s socks off. It’s an album that alchemizes the learnings of a long and storied career into musical wisdom for those who are willing to lean in and listen closely.

CLICK HERE to find out where Betty Buckley will be performing next.

Jim Gladstone is a San Francisco-based creative consultant and writer. A book columnist and Contributing Editor at PASSPORT, he is the author of an award-winning novel, The Big Book of Misunderstanding.

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