by Patricia Grandjean
Aug 2, 2012
11:19 AMBox Office
Front Row Q&A: Betty Buckley
Is it true women singers have more fun? Well, maybe if you’re Betty Buckley, 65, who gets to explore men’s roles— musical theater roles, that is—in “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway.” She originally developed the show for her annual engagement at Feinstein’s in New York last October, but she’d actually been pondering the idea ever since starring (as a male impersonator) in the Tony-winning 1985 musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood, based on Charles Dickens’ unfinished novel. She's bringing "Ah, Men!" to the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook on Aug. 2. For info, call (877) 503-1286 or visit katharinehepburntheater.org.
Tell us about "Ah, Men!"
I created this show for Feinstein's nightclub in New York City last October—since I moved back to Texas in 2003, every year they invite me to do a month-long engagement. It's really great of them. So, we created the show for them; then Palmetto Records came and saw it and really wanted us to make a record of it. That will be released in August, and we'll have some early copies of the disc on sale at The Kate show. I'm very excited about that.
What spurred your interest in this theme? Made you want to do a show about it?
Years ago, I did a show on Broadway called The Mystery of Edwin Drood. It was produced by Joe Papp through the New York Shakespeare Festival. We did it first in Central Park, which was sensational, then we were a hit when we moved to Broadway. It was a great show, and I played a male impersonator.
In the history of the British theater, the male impersonators in the London musical hall presentations were these young women who put on trousers and played the boys, because boys' voices didn't fit in opera or operetta. They were pre-feminists, really an interesting group of women. George Rose, who co-starred with me in the show, brought in a bunch of research from his theatrical library to help me understand the history of male impersonators in British music hall. I just thought that was so cool, and wondered, "Why can't women play boys' parts now?" And then I just started thinking about the many great, great songs that were written for men.
Drood was the best work experience I ever had; it was just super, super fun. So I've been thinking about that for a long time—some of my favorite shows may not really have parts for me, but they have great parts for guys. One show I can't ever do but I just absolutely adore the score is West Side Story. I really wanted to be a Jet when I was a kid, and I was madly in love with Russ Tamblyn . . . I wanted to be Russ Tamblyn. I wanted to be Riff, to walk like that, dress like that, talk like that, dance like that.
So, obviously I had to do a new show for Feinstein's, and I'd had this in the back of my head for awhile. I decided "Wow, I'll just do all these men's songs that I've always wanted to sing and never had a chance to." It was really fun.
What other songs do you feature in the show?
I love the score of Sweeney Todd. There have been a couple of times when I almost played Mrs. Lovett, but I truly love Sweeney's music the best. I just think it defines the word "passion," the music is so raw and beautiful. Honestly, I think I could play a really good Sweeney Todd. So we do this thing in the show that's also on the record, called "The Sweeney Todd Suite." It's three songs, the first one sung by young Tobias, who loves Mrs. Lovett, the second by Anthony who's in love with the beautiful Johanna, and the third is "My Friends," sung by Sweeney, who's in love with revenge.
We have a beautiful arrangement of "Hey There," from The Pajama Game, which is really quite lovely. And "I Can See It," from The Fantasticks. "Corner of the Sky"— I was in Pippin on Broadway for a long time, and used to stand offstage while that song was being performed every night and think, "God, I really want to sing that song." Michael Rupert, a great gentleman of the theater, was my Pippin. Actually, he was one of three Pippins of mine. My first Pippin was Dean Pitchford, who later wrote Fame and won an Oscar for it. The second was John Rubenstein who was the show's original star; he left shortly after I came in. Then Rupert came in and we did the show together a long time. Years later, he and I were reunited in a show called Elegies which we performed at Lincoln Center for many months. He did a song called "Venice" that I absolutely loved. I'd stand in the wings and listen to him sing it and think, "God, I really want to sing that song." It's about an unlikely friendship between three men.
Are you "role-playing" in any way when you do these songs?
I sing the songs as myself, not as the characters, although I think I touch upon each of the characters in "The Sweeney Todd Suite." Most of them are really beautiful songs about love and passion and feelings interestingly expressed by male composers. So it's not like I actually become boys, although perhaps I become Sweeney for a second. In a woman's voice and hands, so to speak, the songs just have a different feel.
I understand that you've also been working on another album, with T-Bone Burnett . . .
Yes, Ghostlight—that's finished, it'll be out next year. It's a very haunting collection of beautiful, beautiful songs. And really eclectic, from Broadway to standards to a couple of songs from the '60s, and a couple of singer-songwriter songs. They're all very beautiful story songs that T-Bone selected from my repertoire that I've never recorded. It's the kind of record you want to put on with a great bottle of wine in front of a fireplace and just listen and dream.
And this isn't the first recording you've done with him . . .
We both grew up in Fort Worth, Texas and when we were 19, we made the first recording of my voice—which was meant to be an archival recording for my mother, because she knew T-Bone's mother. He had his own recording studio by the time he was 17. So, we just went in one afternoon—I'd been singing at Fort Worth jazz clubs—we went in with a little jazz trio and put 'em down on an out-of-tune piano. There were only two copies of that audiotape. One I gave to my first boyfriend and the other to my first agent. My agent kept it all these years and played it for the publisher at Playbill, who was forming his own record company at the time and said he wanted to release it, as the first record I never had. It's called Betty Buckley: 1967. When it was released, T-Bone was very touched by the remembrance of that time in our lives. He called me and said, "We have to make another record," and I agreed.
What's he like to work with?
Working with T-Bone was one of the greatest experiences of my life; I felt as though I'd moved into another universe. It was such a perfect one, it was amazing. He's just a genius of a guy—he put together the band for Ghostlight, and we recorded it at the Village Studio in Los Angeles. He's just really clear about what he wants and the way he inspires musicians to play and sing, and he speaks in terms of images. It was really great.
Of course, you're well-known for your starring role in the movie Carrie. I hear you attended a cast reunion for it this spring.
I went to Fright Week in Texas and saw P.J. Soles and Nancy Allen. Haven't seen 'em for a while.
Have you seen the movie recently?
No, not at all.
What do you remember about making it?
It was just really fun; there were seven of us making our first film. It was just a blast, and my first time in Los Angeles. We all had the feeling we were doing something modern and groundbreaking. It was a group of people who enjoyed moviemaking and each other's company.
You're aware that there's a remake in the works?
Yes, and I like that director very much, the one who made Boys Don't Cry [Kimberly Pierce]. It will be interesting to see what she does with Carrie, because I loved that movie.
Now, you played the gym teacher in the movie, but you also played Mrs. White in the Broadway musical, which had a very short run.
The musical was a great experience; really fun. It was completely sold out for the length of time it ran. From the previews up through the opening, it was the hottest ticket in New York. I think if the producer had had the funds . . . some money was coming in, but he just panicked. He kind of went way into hock with the off-Broadway production, and took out a second mortgage on his house to keep the budget flowing. It was a show with mixed, not bad, reviews, but the bad reviews were really scathing. Frank Rich liked me, and he liked Linzi Hateley as Carrie, but he said it in such a way that we couldn't lift a quote—he was that determined to kill the show, and he was that powerful a critic. I remember riding home from the opening night party in a limo by myself and stopping to get The New York Times, reading his review and just laughing over it. But we also got raves, and if the producer had had the wherewithal I felt we could have pushed past the reviews.I feel it would have become a "event" kind of show that would have been around a long time.
We also had some directorial stylistic problems; the show wasn't consistent. The mother-daughter scenes were one thing, and the high-school scenes another. It was very campy. I thought it was a worthwhile endeavor—the music was gorgeous. They redid it just recently to everyone's satisfaction; I'm glad they had a chance to do that.
You know, there's something about Carrie that pushes a lot of buttons. People have wildly varying reactions to the subject matter. It's incredibly provocative for some reason—I'm not exactly sure why but I have my theories. Apart from the bullying theme, there's something really wild about it.
I remember reading a review when the book came out, in which the critic said something like the book "was all about the power of menstrual blood."
It has something to do with women and women's power, and the fear of that. The mother is like a kind of witch. It's peculiar, provocative, and hits people at a primal psychological level. The responses to it are very extreme.
When we did the musical, people would be yelling at us from the audience, literally talking to us and addressing us as ourselves, apart from the characters. It was insane, not a normal audience response. At the end of the show, Carrie and I died and then rose in the dark, during the blackout, to take a bow when the lights came up and run off stage before the official curtain calls began. On the night of the first performance—Linzi was 17 and this was her Broadway debut—the audience started booing during the blackout. It wasn't the usual "boo," it was like, crazed. And she looked at me, terrified, and I said, "Get up, we gotta get out of here." So then we got up, and when the lights came up, the booing instantly shifted to a full-house standing ovation, with people yelling and screaming. It reminded me of studying theater and learning that during Ibsen plays and certain Jacobean dramas there were actually riots in the theater.
Our director Terry Hand had directed the original production for the Royal Shakespeare Co., and he really thought he was presenting Jacobean drama. He didn't have a real good feel for Americana and American issues and styles. The joke goes that someone told him the show was like Grease and he thought they meant "Greece." So, accordingly, he put all the high school students in togas—details like that that meant nothing to the audience. And the staircase displayed after the prom was like an Aztec sacrificial staircase, with a red rail down the center of it. No one in America got that reference, but when you think about it its pretty interesting. So it wound up being a fun, outrageous experience that people either loved or hated.
People know you best for the song "Memory." Do you ever tire of singing it?
I still love singing "Memory." It's continued to evolve and grow for me over the years. And I love the character of Grizabella, she's one of my great teachers and soul companions. I get to visit with her every time I sing her song, and she keeps revealing new insights about life. It's always the same place I return to when I sing "Memory," but my experience of it is always different because I'm always different.
I talked to Terrence Mann last month, who told me he had a tough time winning his role in Cats. Was it easier for you?
Getting the part of Grizabella was arduous. I auditioned at the beginning of the casting process, but they told my agent they didn't want me because I radiated health and well-being—they wanted somebody who radiated death and dying. They also thought I was too tall for the part; they wanted a tiny woman with a large voice. I told my agent they'd come back around to me; I just had a really strong feeling about that. Everyone wanted the part, including Cher and Liza Minnelli's half-sister. And they saw everybody who was anybody in New York City and Los Angeles.
Then they returned to New York. They called me back six months after my first audition. The British director Trevor Nunn—who's brilliant, one of the greatest directors in the world—had me sing "Memory" three times. He kept saying, "Make it more suicidal." By the third time, I felt my soul was turned inside out. I couldn't imagine what it was that I was not doing. So I asked Trevor to come down to the stage and speak with me. I told him I felt that no one could do the role better than I could, though many could probably do it as well. And that it was "my turn"—because all of my colleagues had had their defining moment that showed the New York theater community and the world what they could do, and I was still waiting for my opportunity. I said, "I'm a very good actress. If you want me to be smaller, I'll be smaller. If you want me to be thinner, I'll be thinner. Just tell me what you're vision is, and I'll achieve it for you." He kind of looked at me strangely, and I thanked him and left.
I left the audition thinking I had messed up; my agent, who was also British, told me that Nunn "doesn't want an American who talks too much." The general feeling was that I had shot myself in the foot. So I went to lunch, and my agent called me an hour later and said, "You got the part."
So you did the right thing.
It was pretty amazing. It was the right thing to do, and it was the truth. It was my turn, of all those women in my generation. I just knew it was my part.
And then, of course, you starred in Sunset Boulevard.
I did Sunset Boulevard a year in London and a year on Broadway. It was the best experience ever: Before Norma Desmond, I felt like I was this little racehorse. They'd take me out to the track and breathe me, and say, "God, she's so fast." But they would never put me in the big races and let me win. Finally, with Norma Desmond I had the part that required me to give all I had and more. I really, really had to train hard for it and work hard to get it right. It was a blast.
Did you look at the Gloria Swanson version?
I studied the film a lot, and also a lot of other silent film stars, primarily Clara Bow and Louise Brooks. And I read a lot of biographies and autobiographies of silent stars. And I worked with this guy I'd worked with for years—he's a Pilates trainer but also a movement consultant—he went with me and we sat and watched these silent films. The silent film actresses were like dancers, they used their whole physicality to do their roles. It wasn't like contemporary movie acting at all. They were very poetic and beautiful to watch.
There's one other role I wanted to ask you about: playing the stepmom on TV's "Eight Is Enough."
It was a great show; it had something for everybody. But it was tough when I first went out to LA to join the cast. Everyone had loved Diana Hyland who died of cancer; that was a huge loss. The kids were TV stars, who really believed they were the characters they played. I was this young New York actress, age 29, and they expected me to act like a woman in my 40s. They sold me this idea that my character was working on her doctorate, and had become a traveling tutor to make a living. So it took six episodes to marry me into the family as a stepmother. The original character's name was Mitch, who drove a green MG. Then then changed my name to Abbie which was strange, because my full name was Sandra Sue Abbott—and I'd been married before and widowed.
So i went into the whole experience kind of "la-di-da," because I liked a similar show called "Family," and this offered more money than I was making onstage. But I came to realize that doing a TV series was like working in a factory—you're on call all the time whether they use you or not; it's literally draining. And the kids in the cast treated me like a real stepmom—not like an actress named Betty—who they resented because they lost their mother. It was bizarre. So, it took two seasons to work through this friction. We were at the top of the ratings, so these kids were not rooted in reality. Anyway, it was bumpy those first two years, but it got easier after that.
When did you first know you wanted to be an actress? I know your mother was a dancer . . .
She was a singer-dancer. She took me to see my first play at our local regional theater when I was 11, which was Pajama Game. I saw the number "Steam Heat," the original Bob Fosse choreography, and I was really smitten by that. I had this epiphany that that's what I'd be doing the rest of my life. I'd been studying dance with my aunt from the time I was 3, and she'd been a dancer in Billy Rose's original Casa Mañana Theatre in Fort Worth, and at one point—I only found this out recently—she ran off to Los Angeles to dance in the movies. My mother was sent to retrieve her. [laughs]
My mother's brother had been killed in World War II, and my grandmother was widowed when she was quite young. So I grew up with these three women who just loved music, and then when I saw Pajama Game, I became really determined to learn to do the "Steam Heat" number. So my mother facilitated that, and these two guys who had been dancers for Fosse and settled in Fort Worth became my mentors. And then I discovered that this voice I had—which was always placed in the back row of the choir and told to blend in—was unique and made for the theater. I did "Steam Heat" in the 7th grade talent show and it brought the house down. People went crazy. That was it, from there, my mother had me performing and competing all the time. I didn't like competing, I thought that was dumb. But I was recruited to be in the Miss Fort Worth pageant when I was a junior in college. I didn't like beauty pageants, but I got scholaships out of that and was invited as a guest entertainer at the Miss America pageant. An agent in new York saw me and signed me; then got me my first Broadway show, which was 1776.
I started performing all the time when I was 11, and then went professional at age 15, at our local theater. But when I was 13, I had a vision about what I would do on Broadway, in the Broadway musical theater, and how my voice would sound and how it would affect people. Then when I was 35, and doing Cats at the Wintergarden Theater, they brought me the cast album for me to hear. I hadn't thought I'd done a very good job when I recorded "Memory" for the album; I was deflated. But when they brought me the album and I listened to it in the dressing room, I flashed on that vision of when I was 13 and standing on the balcony at the back of our house looking over this West Texas plain, envisioning how my voice would sound on Broadway. I had forgotten about that. It took me from age 13 to 35, but things had manifested the way I knew they would.
You're teachings some workshops now . . .
I've taught for 40 years actually, since I was in my 20s. But yeah, I do workshops on song interpretation and monologues. I have a facility for seeing people's potential, and I know how to help them if they want to do that. And I've been taught by brilliant, brilliant teachers an incredible methodology that works in a foolproof way. I feel it's my responsibility to keep passing these tools along.
What do you try to impart?
I use and teach meditation to try to focus the mind. And I teach a universal spiritual philosophy as the foundation for making your choices as an actor/storyteller. It's a very, very powerful technique that really connects with audiences. It's what I use.
Sounds like these workshops employ strategies that are useful for people outside the performing arts, too.
Yes. I've taught investment bankers, athletic coaches, people like that.
I understand you're training in horse-cutting?
I went back to Texas—it will be nine years this Thanksgiving—to ride cutting horses. It's a sport in the tradition of the Old West where a horse and its rider separate one cow from a herd of cows, and work to keep that cow from running back into the herd. It's like one-on-one basketball, and it's the only equine sport where the horse has to think for itself. I've been in love with it since I was 12; I used to ride and show my own horse when I was a kid. I realized after 9-11 that I had neglected to do this, and it had always been a dream of mine to learn it. So I connected with a top trainer who took me on as a student at age 55.
Tell us about your home in Fort Worth.
I bought a pretty little place where I have two cutting horses and a baby-horse-in-training. It's a comforting, beautiful life for me.
What are the names of your horses?
My horses' names are Wild Man Bill, Smart Skat Kat, Pat's Sandia—and her baby, Bit O'Honey Boone. Her father's name was Boone a Little. I also have Rosie O'Donkey, who was the nanny to the baby horse, and two dogs I rescued from the side of the highway, as well as a shih tzu, Madison. Between me and my assistant, there are four house cats, all rescues, and four barn cats. It's quite a menagerie.
What's up for you in the future?
I'll be touring this show in August, November and December and doing a new show at Feinstein's in October. Then, in the new year, I'll be flying off to London to do a new show, which we'll announce in August if all goes well.