Betty Buckley is special. Otherwise she wouldn’t have been dubbed “The Voice of Broadway.” Her extensive theatre resume reads like a list of some of the best loved productions of the last fifty years, including Cats, Sunset Boulevard, Promises, Promises, Pippin, and more. In addition to winning the Tony Award for her role as Grizabella in the original Broadway production of Cats, she’s been nominated numerous other times for a Tony, Grammy and Drama Desk Award.
However, her work doesn’t stop at the stage door. She is also a successful television and film actress, with such film credits as Miss Collins in Carrie and Dixie in Tender Mercies, and numerous TV credits, most famously playing Abby in Eight Is Enough and Suzanne Fitzgerald in Oz. Take into account her recent work on M. Night Shymalan’s films The Happening and Split, and her sixteen solo albums, it becomes obvious that the congenial Texan has never let the dust settle.
Westport magazine spoke with the American Theater Hall of Fame inductee about her greatest achievements, what she’s up to now, and what roles she’s been longing to play. See her locally at Betty Buckley, Live in Concert, May 7, 8 p.m.; ridgefieldplayhouse.org.
WM: How do you choose what characters you play?
BB: Well, there’s always an element of choice when looking at roles. It has to be the right person, the right director, the right team to get on board. And, of course, if you have an affinity for the character you’d be portraying. Later on in life, it’s about who you have formed relationships with. My most recent film, Split, is directed by M. Night Shyamalan. I worked with him on The Happening, so when he called me up about Split, he said he basically wrote the role for me and asked if I would accept the role. It’s such a pleasure to work with him again.
WW: In addition to your work in theatre, you have a significant body of television and movie work. In what ways are these art forms different from live theatre? How are they similar?
BB: It’s essentially the same process of creating a character, except the rehearsal time for a movie is much shorter. For Split we had one week of rehearsal before we started shooting, as opposed to theatre, which requires many months of rehearsal. Also, concepts and ideas evolve as you’re shooting a movie. But again, the processes are very similar, it’s storytelling and working with the director to create his or her vision.
WM: You originated the role of Grizabella on Broadway. What’s it like to have sung “Memory,” one of the defining songs of musical theatre?
BB: Well Cats originated in London, so I was playing a role that Elaine Page started out in. When the show came to Broadway, they told me to “stop the show.” I went through quite a process making the song into a show stopper, I didn’t know how to do that on purpose! I really had to step up my game, but through that song, I discovered my true potential. And, of course, my vocal coach Paul Gavert played a role in that.
WM: Looking back at you career, what are you most proud of?
BB: All of it! I feel blessed to have had such an eclectic career, from television and film, to theatre (both musical and straight plays) and making records. I feel grateful for the career I’ve had and that I’m still working! If I had to pinpoint the most important moments of my career, they would include Cats, Sunset Boulevard, and Tender Mercies. I say that because those were that roles that allowed me to come into my full potential as an actress.
WM: Let’s talk about what you’re doing these days; Split is coming out in 2017, you’re hosting a master class in New York and singing in a benefit concert, and you’re preparing to star in Grey Gardens in LA. Amongst all of this, you’ve found the time to perform at the Ridgefield Playhouse. What drives you to stay so busy?
BB: I just love what I do so much. I love working with these artists and creating the characters. It’s a wonderful life. I live on a ranch, with horses and the whole deal, and each morning I wake up and it’s such a gift.
WM: You’ve said that you love many different musical genres; this is particularly evident in the varied material of your many records. What kind of mix can we expect at your Ridgefield Playhouse performance?
BB: I’ll be singing selections from several of my recordings, namely Ghostlight and Ah, Men! Both “No Time at All” and “This Nearly Was Mine” will likely make an appearance. There are also a few new arrangements by Stephen Schwartz that I’ll be performing!
WM: Every song you sing has a character informing your performance. Is there a challenge with a live concert like this, where you have the switch “characters” every few minutes?
BB: For concerts, I pick songs where the characters are very defined or the lyrics are clear about what is going on in the song. If a Broadway musical is a “novel,” the songs in a live concert are like “short stories.”
WM: You’re a huge inspiration to many in the theatre world. How does that make you feel?
BB: Thank you, it’s very nice that you say that. I certainly hope that’s true! I’m just grateful that people are inspired by my work. It’s part of the privilege of theatre, that it inspires people.
WM: Are there any roles that didn’t work out?
BB: There are no missed roles, but maybe missed opportunities. When I read The Silence of the Lambs many years ago, I thought that it would become a huge movie. I brought the book to an agent and told him so, and he dismissed it. When I heard later that it was being adapted into a film, I told my agent I wanted the role of the senator (I had aged out of the role of Clarice) and I was offered the role. Due to complicated negotiations, my agent recommended that I turn it down, so I actually volunteered to do it for free. Then they told me they had cast another actress.
Something similar happened when I read True Grit. I brought the book to an agent (the same one as The Silence of the Lambs) and asked him to keep track of it for me. Well, then it was made into a movie and I was frustrated because I’m the real thing! I’m a real cowgirl! I would love to play a lady outlaw, riding and shooting. I would love to be in an action movie.
I also want to voice a character in an animated feature. There was this little duck character I was working on, with the cutest voice. I recorded a rehearsal tape and my agent took that and accidentally sent it in as an audition tape! Obviously, I didn’t get that one.
WM: Do you have a favorite role? If so, why is that role your favorite?
BB: All of them, really, but the definitive roles were Grizabella, Norma Desmond, and Dixie from Tender Mercies. They represent the kind of parts that I really wanted to do and the actress I wanted to be. I wanted to show what I had learned after all my years studying. I was working with such inspiring and talented people and these were the kind of projects I dreamed of doing.
WM: What current Broadway show would you like to see?
BB: Oh, I’d have to sit down with the Times and make a checklist. I did just see Hamilton; it swept me away. It really was amazing.