Betty Buckley: A Deep Look Into the Dark Blue Eyes
By Steve Schonberg
June 1, 2015
The name Betty Buckley can elicit a fascinating range of responses. Depending on a person’s age and preferred art form, you’ll hear, “Of course, Betty Buckley! Who can forget, ‘Eight is Enough,’ from the ‘70s” “Grizabella – wow, in Cats. Her version of ‘Memory’ is my favorite.” “She was fantastic on HBO’s prison show, ‘Oz,’” or “Yes! We saw her unbelievable concert at [insert any number of the world’s famed venues, here],” among others. It’s a reflection of an incredible talent that she so adeptly transforms for each type of media, making her name pervasive in arts and culture.
My memory I’ve since shared with Buckley was her as Norma Desmond in Broadway’s Sunset Boulevard. Even at the age of 14, I knew I was watching a powerhouse performer and was captivated by her portrayal as Desmond. Then came the showstopper in Act II, “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Done with incredible vocal control, power, nuance and range of emotion, the audience leapt to its feet mid-show to give her a standing ovation. Every word was perfect, down to the line “I don’t want to be alone, that’s all in the past. This world’s waited long enough, I’ve come home at last,” in which she conveyed a precise, raw sense of loneliness balanced with pure denial of reality—together revealing deep psychosis. That is Norma Desmond in one flawlessly interpreted sentence. The applause grew so intense, she broke character in order for the show to go on, and stepped out past the footlights to take a bow. Moments like that are transcendent, and that one in particular has remained my favorite from the theater for twenty years.
uckily, Buckley has gifted us with her talents for decades, and done so in a range of mediums: TV, film, Broadway, concerts and a total of sixteen solo albums including her most recent, “Ghostlight,” produced by T Bone Burnett. Recently though, Buckley has put more emphasis on smaller, intimate performances including her latest string of performances at Joe’s Pub in New York City, concluding tomorrow night (May 31).
Titled, “Dark Blue-Eyed Blues,” the show features what Buckley has described as “musings of a chanteuse,” with standards and songs by contemporary writers for “some glamour, torch and comedy.” About this, Buckley shared that ever since she was a little girl, she’s been fascinated by the concept of the “chanteuse.” “I’m a real fan of the great lady singers,” adding that she “really learned to sing listening to them,” including one of her favorites, the little sparrow, Edith Piaf.
However, having already covered a prolific range of material in her extraordinary career, Buckley said that it’s taken her time to get to this point, because “I’ve avoided singing torch [songs, a form often associated with the idea of a chanteuse],” even though she loved this style of performer, “because those songs about men ‘who done me wrong’ just kind of made me mad… I was like, ‘why does the lady singer have to suffer? Why does she have to have a sad path in life?’ That used to really trouble me when I was young because I wanted to be that singer, but I didn’t want to have to live a tortured existence in order to do it.” But, Buckley added with insight that reflects her wisdom and the perspective of a seasoned performer, “then I grew up and realized that love was very complicated and had all these kinds of aspects to it—that’s why those ladies sang those songs.”
Her maturity, however, is not just reflected through wisdom, but like any performer as they age, in her voice. Now 67, Buckley’s voice has undoubtedly changed. Still beautiful, her fluttering vibrato (like a moth in a cloche jar) has softened but her tone has grown richer, warmer, and deeper with a soulful edge. These natural changes can often be the downfall of even great singers, who strain to give audiences the exact same performances year after year. Buckley on the other hand, has adapted and used her physical development to benefit her professional development as well, in the material she selects for performances and recordings.
“As you mature, your voice does change. It’s still the same voice, I still have all the same notes,” Buckley said. “But, one could say the tone is the same, but the timbre is different. It’s an interesting evolution being a professional singer and how your instrument changes over time. We’re very hard on ourselves in our culture about aging and that’s too bad because it is an interesting process, certainly, this process of maturity,” she added.
“I studied for 19 and a half years with this great teacher, who had prepared me to do Cats and taught me “Memory.” It was because of him that I even learned how to do that song properly. He used to say to me, ‘if you take care of yourself, Betty, you’ll be able to sing all of your life. The voice follows who you are.’” Right there, Buckley added an interesting spin on how to look at the changing nature of the voice as an instrument. That it’s not just physical, but it follows your life’s path and personal journey. “I think that’s the explanation for the colors that change in the human voice because you have more information, more knowledge, more experience as time goes by and your voice reflects that, which is a lovely experience.”
“The other issue has been the selection of the material,” she added. “Songs that I sang when I was 45 or 35 or 25. They don’t make sense anymore because I don’t have that same spectrum of emotional longing for things as I become older, but I do have other things to say. Then it’s about finding the material that allows me to express those things.”
This point struck me, as one song she sings during the show at Joe’s Pub is “I’m Still Here,” from Stephen’s Sondheim’s Follies, which is most associated with one of Buckley’s mentors, the late, great Elaine Stritch. It’s a song that requires its performer be past a certain stage in life to be believable as a character, but also somewhat tongue-in-cheek, reflecting their own tireless efforts to remain relevant in their art form. Similarly, in her second to last engagement at the Café Carlyle, Stritch added the song, “Every Day a Little Death,” from another Sondheim classic, A Little Night Music. A song that represents marriage in A Little Night Music, with Stritch it shared an unspoken truth between her and her devoted audience that these special evenings together might soon come to an end. And they did.
Raising this example with Buckley, she picked up on the analogy quickly about selecting material that reflects not just talent, but identity as a performer at various stages of a career. “I always feel that, Steve. It’s hard. The quest to find the songs that reflect who you are in the present is not an easy task, but I’m always keeping lists,” she said. “Wherever I am, if I’m watching television, if I’m listening to the radio … I listen to music a lot, other people’s music, young artists, all kinds of artists. If I’m really touched by something, I write it down and keep those lists in sight. I meditate on certain tunes. It’s how you tell the story [that] is everything. That’s what I teach [via master classes]. I teach meditation as the means for my students or people that are seeking my counsel about their performing.”
She’s right, and bringing it full circle back to what has helped establish Buckley as a legendary performer, especially on stage, is that the voice and the incredible actress are one-in-the-same. Her voice is a tool that helps her connect with the audience, as is her way of conveying emotion and tapping into those of her audience. Beyond the music, an observation from this latest show at Joe’s Pub is how Buckley cries during emotional songs, with a true sense of authenticity. Or how she stares off blankly, allowing us to see her retract into her own mind, pensive as the character in the song, processing the emotions that person would be so desperately trying to convey. Or, how she makes prolonged eye-contact with audience members, gifting them with a deeper look into the piece, as well as her careful use of elegant and elongated hand gestures, and of course how she artfully ties words, consonants and syllables together. She’s a singer, and an actress, but larger than that, Buckley is a master storyteller.
“Exquisite singing, exquisite storytelling is about exquisite focus,” one of her teachers once said. “’You must learn to focus the mind in a one-pointed way. You have to be completely focused,’” he told her about a skill she’s now become an expert on. “When he broke that down,” she added, it’s that “beautiful singing is about line. It’s how one vowel becomes the next vowel becomes the next vowel. Then he explained the different vowels, diphthongs, and the useful consonants and the ones that you drop and all that, to get this pure line. He drilled me in that for years. I would bring material in, I’d be really excited to perform it for him, and he’d say, ‘Okay, that was good but it needs more line,’ and I’d want to kill myself, I’d be like, ‘No! Don’t say that! More line? I thought I was doing that!’ He was like, ‘No, it has to be more.’ I’m like, ‘what do you mean? I don’t know what you’re talking about?’ It was hard to learn.”
“It’s very scrupulous, tedious work, sorting all this out,” she added, but as the phrase goes that “the student becomes the master,” Buckley’s taken her study further and said she “learned through meditation, it’s beyond vowel. How does one’s thought become the next thought becomes the next thought, so that it’s all a really seamless thing… I learned, from the psychological level, that you have to really personalize everything you’re singing about. Through meditation I learned about how words are just symbols and the symbols must have experience behind them or they mean nothing. It’s quite a process learning to sing a song.”
It’s undoubtedly tireless work, but like any great artist, this effort translates into the deep emotional connection and visualization we experience as an audience. It’s rare to find a performer like Buckley, who can elicits such an extraordinarily wide range of responses from fans and the industry—who together hold her body of work in incredibly high regard.