Betty Buckley at Joe’s Pub. (Photo: Sarah Escarraz via The Broadway Blog.)
“I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look tonight” are the classic lyrics from Jerome Kern and Dorothy Field’s 1936 tune, “The Way You Look Tonight,” but they may might also describe the emotional reaction from an enthusiastic crowd at Joe’s Pub last evening, where Tony Award-winner Betty Buckley is currently performing a seven-show engagement through September 25.
And how did she look? As a “lady of a certain age,” Buckley—dressed casually but smartly in a slate-colored button down shirt with black pants—looked like a sweet grandmother with her thick beautiful hair and kind face. She presided over the evening as though she were taking care of her flock and imbued a caring confidence that everything in the world would be just fine. More importantly, she sounded marvelous as she navigated her varied and interesting material in her new show entitled Story Songs.
Buckley’s sense of assurance came early in the evening with “All Things In Time,” a song written by one of Buckley’s admired composers Jason Robert Brown. “Let’s make a deal: I will be here, waiting with you, Trusting what’s true, stumbling blind, but knowing we’ll find, everything in its’ time.” She later tapped into the Brown songbook with “Cassandra”, a brand new song that is part of a musical-in-progress, and once again with “Another Life” from The Bridges of Madison County. Perhaps if we’re lucky, a role is in the works for a future Jason Robert Brown musical.
Buckley may have a maternal aura about her but she also demonstrates hipness, referencing a fondness for Facebook, Instagram, and the English rock band Radiohead, covering their 1995 hit “High and Dry.” Returning to her musical theater roots, she sang Stephen Schwartz’s “Chanson,” a song that takes us to the French countryside and “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” a timeless song from South Pacific that strikes an even deeper nerve at the height of our current political and social chaos.
Betty Buckley (Photo: Scogin Mayo via The Broadway Blog.)
Buckley joked that she is past the phase in her life of having certain angst. She admitted that one of the joys of growing older is that there are things you simply don’t care about. After discovering the up-and-coming theater composer Joe Iconis on social media, she reached out to him and asked if he would write a song for her upcoming show. Iconis came back with a few tunes that didn’t exactly fit her temperament, but he finally struck gold with the hilarious but deeply poignant “Old Flame.” It speaks about a woman who seeks revenge on a former lover, but in time, changes her mind after realizing that some relationships can never be snuffed out (in spite of insight from Oprah Winfrey). It is a song that no doubt, is destined to become a classic, but only if left in the capable hands of a legend like Buckley.
The Texas native tapped into her country/folk side with a hauntingly beautiful rendition of Emmlyou Harris’ “Prayer In Open D,” featuring her wonderful guitarist Oz Noy. Buckley’s presence was only enhanced by Noy and her entire band directed by jazz pianist Christian Jacob, Tony Marino on bass, and Ben Perowsky on drums and percussion.
She yielded the spotlight to Jacob, who, along with Tierney Sutton, composed the orchestral score for the new Clint Eastwood film, Sully. Jacob performed the theme song to the movie. Buckley shared that Jacob and Sutton had only three days to write all of the music for the film. Clearly, Jacobs is a master and is not only a great film composer, but is a first rate accompanist.
Buckley’s version of Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song” was a major highlight of the evening as she breathed heart wrenching emotion into the standard. Like all good performers, she left on a high note with Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up,” an anthem of hope and perseverance.
Early in the show, Buckley spoke about how the evening came together with the help of Jacob and other friends who provided input. She remarked that certain songs have a specific emotional connection at different points in life. One only wishes that she had elaborated more on the reasons for choosing her specific songs. Still, Buckley is a gifted and gracious artist who knows the capabilities of her own vocal range and in the final analysis, solidifies her status as a legendary performer.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or on Facebook.
Betty Buckley (Photo: Scogin Mayo via The Broadway Blog.)
Truth be told, this interview wasn’t 15 minutes. In fact, it was well over 45 and I have a feeling that if I hadn’t had a pressing deadline, the Tony Award-winning Betty Buckley would have chatted with me for more for an hour. Because that’s what happens when you engage a true artist on the subject of creativity: the floodgates open and you better know how to swim.
At the time of our phone conversation, Buckley had just finished a celebrated run of Center Theatre Group’s Grey Gardens and completed a road trip with her longtime assistant back to her ranch in north Texas to “blow the cobwebs out of my mind.” They called themselves the Road Warriors and even posted some of their journey on social media.
It was after 9/11 that Buckley felt the pangs to return to her Texas roots. With decades of studying, performing, recording, and teaching under her belt, she felt visionless and without purpose. Her love of horses and the equine sport of cutting reinvigorated her and this November she’ll celebrate 14 years of life on a ranch.
But ultimately Buckley is a self-proclaimed “working girl” and this fall she heads to the East Coast for 15 concerts, including her latest show, “Story Songs,” which will play seven performances at Joe’s Pub in New York City.
Can you tell me more about the inspiration for your latest show, Story Songs?
Betty Buckley: At each point in your life certain songs fit and others don’t. This is a collection of songs that I feel at this point—through interpretation and from my vantage point—can resonate with a degree of truth.
I do a new show, generally, once a year. This past Spring, I connected with composer Joe Iconis and he invited me to sing in his show at Feinstein’s/54Below. He sent me some songs and at the last minute he wrote a song for me, “ Old Flame”—it’s very funny and he’s a wonderful writer. It fits me, as a Story Teller, like a glove.
In February I went to Australia to perform “Defying Gravity,” an evening of Stephen Schwartz’s music. It was a wonderful series of concerts with a full orchestra and I sang “Chanson” from The Baker’s Wife and “No Time at All” from Pippin.
And then I reached out to other composers whom I admire—people like Jason Robert Brown. He sent me a few songs, one titled “Cassandra”– from a new show he’s working on. This is the base of the material and then I start to consider what they all have in common. It’s an evening of stories about some interesting characters.
Betty Buckley: That’s not a big deal for me. It’s something I include in my awareness, of course. It’s just a different space. My work process remains the same in every venue and genre.
CATS is back in the limelight with its first Broadway revival recently opening at the Neil Simon Theatre. It’s certainly one of the benchmarks of your career. What do you think is the emotional entry point for the character of Grizabella and what were some of the challenges in bringing her to life?
The job assignment was to “stop the show”. But within that, you have to find in yourself a world of profound isolation and loneliness. Grizabella is in the last moments of her life. As the Glamour Cat in her youth, she lived life to great excess. She was considered a great beauty. And she drank too much, smoked too much, and she was promiscuous. And now in her later years she is no longer desired and has become the pariah of the Tribe of Cats. She longs to be included but the cats shun her and keep sending her away.
The character is only on stage for 13 minutes. (I timed it at one point when I actually got to sit and experience the show for the first time from start to finish. It was the 8th Anniversary Celebration of the show in London.) I kept waiting for Grizabella and thinking, “Where is she?”
Trevor Nunn’s direction was to play pathos, but I was overwhelmed with the responsibility of stopping the show, and I didn’t know that there was a formula for that. I wasn’t “stopping the show” during previews and it was frustrating—they called special rehearsals for me, and there were lots of conversations.
In desperation, I called my voice teacher, the great Paul Gavert. I thought they were going to fire me. He said, “Come over on your lunch break.” He threw a pillow on the floor and told me to hit it. And I said, “This won’t work, teach me how to stop the show.” He said, “Hit the pillow!”
I hit the pillow and started sobbing. And I heard the voice of this little child inside me saying, “I’m here, too. I’m here, too.” I’d forgotten to ask my inner being how she wanted to do the song. From that awareness, I then hit the streets of New York City on a quest. I found this beautiful portrait book of photographs of homeless people, and I began to follow various homeless women around New York City. There were women on the streets at that time that were my age and had eyes like mine.
One morning heading to work I passed woman on the Upper West Side. She was dressed shabbily with white, pasty makeup and smeared lipstick. She moved as if in slow motion with tremendous grace and dignity. I was profoundly touched by this encounter and the connection she made with me in just a few fleeting moments.
Two nights later, the Universe sent me another woman, almost exactly like the first one. We too had that same amazing connection. It took me about two weeks to incorporate all this information into my journey through the show. The creative team kept calling rehearsals. I said, “I’m in transition.” And they trusted me which was amazing and generous of them to do.
These women I observed reminded me, most profoundly, that we often overlook people because of circumstance: Bigger. Better. Best. We are taught to believe that on some level, and it’s not true.
It finally came together a few performances before Opening Night. “Memory” became a song for me about longing—a cry of the heart. And I suddenly understood: To ask for nothing but be willing to share everything.
I see Grizabella as my soulmate. The character is one of my closest friends and I visit her every time I sing her song. I immediately go to that world, it’s a dreamscape, a place that I love. It is a privilege and great blessing in my life.
(l to r) Rachel York and Betty Buckley in ‘Gray Gardens.’ (Photo: Craig Schwartz via The Broadway Blog.)
Do you see continuity among some of the major theatrical roles of your career: Grizabella in CATS, the title character in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, Rose in Gypsy, Big Edie in Grey Gardens?
Betty Buckley: The explanation is soul and spirit. I loved the great actresses of the previous generation to mine: Kim Stanley, Gena Rowlands and Geraldine Page. They told truths in their rawest form. They were my role models and I wanted to become that kind of actress and be able eventually to bring that kind of raw truth to my work in the Musical Theater.
My first Broadway show, when I was 21 years old, was 1776. There were two women in the show and 30 men—mostly actors who could sing but they’d never done a musical before. Howard Da Silva, William Daniels and Paul Hecht took me under their wings. I was an experienced performer but a very naïve girl. I continued to go to acting school and studied hard at the Actor’s Studio, Stella Adler, and with Sondra and Greta Seacat, and my coach Peter Flood.
Then I got the part of the stepmother Abby in the TV series Eight is Enough. We did 29 episodes a year for four years. That’s where I continued to practice and learn my craft and the business of “Big Business Show Business.” On the heels of that came Tender Mercies then CATS. That was my training ground. I had a goal to become a certain kind of Story Teller/Singer/Actress. The Universe collaborates with your truest vision for yourself. If you’re willing to do the work, you’ll be guided how to achieve that vision.
Betty Buckley at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. (Debby Wong / Shutterstock.com via The Broadway Blog.)
Betty Buckley: I share and teach the tools taught to me by great teachers. They have never failed me. The tools are very practical, not amorphous. We, as a Humanity are completely connected. We each of us have a heart that is beating and wants to love and be loved. We have to remember that in our storytelling. You must allow your heart to go there. Each lyric or line must be vivid to the singer/actor. Each word must have a deeply personal resonance. When you’re willing immerse yourself, to do that work, then vicariously your journey becomes something in which the audience can experience their truest selves. It takes time to learn and a willingness to be that vulnerable.
Betty Buckley (Photo: Scogin Mayo via The Broadway Blog.)
Tony Award-winning Broadway legend Betty Buckley will return to Joe’s Pub at The Public with her new show, Story Songs, for an exclusive seven-show engagement from September 22 to September 25. A renowned interpreter with an eclectic taste for music from all genres, Buckley will share a collection of songs that range from Radiohead to theater greats Stephen Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The evening will also include works by the next generation of exciting young theater composers Joe Iconis and Ben Toth. Buckley will be joined by renowned jazz pianist Christian Jacob, her longtime Musical Director and arranger; as well as Tony Marino on bass; Oz Noy on guitar; and Ben Perowsky on drums & percussion.
Buckley recently starred as “Big Edie” Beale in the celebrated Los Angeles production of the musical Grey Gardens, which she first performed at Sag Harbor, NY’s Bay Street Theater last summer. She co-stars in the upcoming M. Night Shayamalan film Split opposite James McAvoy, which will premiere in January 2017.
Buckley will also present Story Songs in Philadelphia, PA (September 18), Port Washington, NY (September 30), San Francisco, CA (October 21-22) and Costa Mesa, CA (October 27–29). She will perform Ghostlight, based on her recent album with T Bone Burnett at NJPAC in Newark, NJ (September 17).
In addition, Buckley will offer Five Day Intensive Song Interpretation Workshop at New York’s T. Schreiber Studio from September 19-29. Auditors are welcome.
Betty Buckley, in an award-winning career that has encompassed TV, film, stage and concert work around the globe, is probably best known as one of theater’s most respected and legendary leading ladies. She won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s CATS. Buckley received her second Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a musical for her performance as Hesione in Triumph of Love, and an Olivier Award nomination for her critically-acclaimed interpretation of Norma Desmond in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Sunset Boulevard, which she repeated to more rave reviews on Broadway. She is a 2012 Theatre Hall of Fame inductee.
Buckley tours in concert worldwide with her ensemble of musicians and recently was featured in the Royal Albert Hall concert of Follies in celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 85th birthday. She has recorded 16 CDs, most recently Ghostlight produced by T Bone Burnett released in 2014.
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.
Trumbull's "Signing of the Declaration of Independence". Image via Google.
The musical 1776 has the best non-musical moment in a musical. Ever. Gauntlet thrown.
I don’t say this because it’s the day before the Fourth of July (though it did make me think of it) or because I was a strangely Thomas Jefferson-obsessed child (though I was; where others had Sesame Street on their wall, I had Monticello). I say it because the final scene of the musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence gets me every time. And there’s not a song in sight.
Think about all the things working against Peter Stone and his genius book–most importantly that it’s history 101 and we all know how it ends. And yet, we genuinely wonder, as the final moment draws near, if these guys can get it together to make history. The effect is truly suspenseful and moving, whatever your political leanings or interest in a bunch of powdered wigs.
But don’t think music isn’t important. The choice to NOT have a song is just as important as writing a song. In this case, it focuses our attention and keeps us in a state of tension so that, when the final bells toll over the votes, they land like a full orchestra and a chorus in harmony. Good, risky, smart stuff.