Betty Buckley at NJPAC
September 15, 2016
Ask a group of theater aficionados who their favorite Broadway stars are and you’ll almost certainly find Betty Buckley at the top of their list. She is the “Voice of Broadway” after all, the show-stopper whose rendition of “Memory” in the original 1982 production of “Cats” made her an instant legend. She is the Tony winner whose ability to belt out a song with both awe-inspiring power and heart-wrenching emotion has been emulated by generations of young actresses, all looking to follow in her footsteps.
Yet Buckley’s latest album “Ghostlight,” which she will perform selections from at the New Jersey Performing Arts on Sept. 17, is unlike anything she has done before. Forgoing her powerful vocals, the Broadway icon sings in intimate, dreamlike tones. And while most of the songs have been in her repertoire for years, her nuanced interpretations make even the most familiar standards like “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and “Dreamsville” sound new, with meanings never before recognized.
It may all be a departure for Buckley, but she is proud of the result.
“I think it’s a very beautiful, haunting album,” Buckley told BroadwayWorld.com. “I’m very pleased with it. It really has this wide sense of atmosphere and expanse.”
“Ghostlight,” which takes its name from the tradition of leaving a lightbulb on in an empty theater to keep the ghosts company, is the second collaboration between Buckley and prolific music producer T Bone Burnett. Their first occurred in 1967 when they were both 19-year-olds growing up in Fort Worth, Texas – Buckley an aspiring singer and Burnett already the owner of a music studio. As Buckley recalled, their mothers were good friends, and her mother suggested that Burnett make an archive recording of Buckley’s voice. So they did, with the finished product eventually being released by Playbill Records/Sony BMG under the title “1967” 40 years later.
Ever since that recording – or “the first album I never had,” as Buckley calls it – the two remained close friends always promising to work with each other one day. That day finally came when Burnett invited Buckley to work with him in Los Angeles, and the two thereafter set about picking songs. Many were Buckley favorites from the worlds of Broadway, contemporary singer-songwriters and the 1960s, with Burnett also suggesting classics like “Blue Skies.”
But as Buckley pointed out, they did not want to record the songs as they are typically heard.
“They’re just all songs that he and I both love, but interpreted the way” we wanted, Buckley said. “I think all those influences musically are who T Bone and I are as people and as musicians and as artists.”
The end result is what Burnett has described as “crime jazz,” or music one would hear in a smoky 1950s club populated by the types one would find in a noir film. Fans will be able to experience it for themselves at NJPAC, where she will be accompanied by Christian Jacob fresh off of his work scoring Clint Eastwood’s “Sully.” But it is not the only thing Buckley will perform.
Aside from the songs of “Ghostlight,” Buckley said she is also planning to sing pieces from her album “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway” and some of the musical interpretations she will be doing at Joe’s Pub in New York City from Sept. 22-25. She said she is also likely to perform “Memory,” her signature for decades.
Buckley credited the success of that song and her performance as Grizabella to the time she spent following homeless people around the streets of New York, basing the character particularly on two women who she found had the “essence” of the part. But even though her rendition of “Memory” has become so iconic, and even though she has performed it numerous times in the years since, she said she does not view the number the same way as she once did.
“Songs that have been in your life for a long time, like ‘Memory,’ continue to evolve as you continue to evolve,” Buckley said. “I couldn’t say how that’s different, but obviously I’m a different person than when I was 35 when I first did that song.”
Of course, Buckley’s success extends beyond the theater. The star of the popular series “Eight is Enough” and classic films such as “Carrie” and “Tender Mercies” is currently filming a guest stint on “Chicago Med.” In January she can then be seen in M. Night Shyamalan’s new movie “Split,” a psychological horror film in which James McAvoy plays a man with multiple personalities who abducts three teenage girls. Buckley could not say much about the movie, though she promised it was “very exciting.” And she said it was wonderful working with Shyamalan again after previously starring in his 2008 movie “The Happening.”
But will the “Voice of Broadway” ever return to the Great White Way? Believe it or not, Buckley has not appeared on Broadway since 1997’s “Triumph of Love,” though she has done plenty of theater work since then. Most recently, she starred as Big Edie in “Grey Gardens” at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor and the Ahmanson Theater in Los Angeles. And she would love to take the show to where she made a name for herself.
“We have high hopes for that,” Buckley said. “So we’ll see what happens. You never know. Certainly, I would love to be back on Broadway.”