BWW Interview: Betty Buckley Chats About Her New Album, ‘SPLIT,’ and Returning To Broadway
By Leigh Scheps
March 1, 2017
It’s been nothing but ‘memories’ for Betty Buckley this theater season. She won a Tony Award for her portrayal of Grizabella, the glamour cat, in Cats when it opened in 1982 and replaced Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. Both shows are in revival runs right now on Broadway.
“It’s been interesting to see shows I’ve originated coming back for their revival like Mystery of Edwin Drood,” Buckley said over the phone from Texas to Broadway World’s Leigh Scheps. “I can’t believe that much time goes by — if feels like a blink of an eye.”
t’s actually been nearly two decades since Buckley, 69, has performed on Broadway. She was last seen as Hesione in Triumph of Love in 1997-1998 in which she received her second Tony Award nomination. “I’ve turned down about four projects throughout the years,” Buckley recalls. But that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been in any shows. In fact, Buckley’s starred in countless productions from Dear World, Grey Gardens, a Follies concert, The Old Friends and Arsenic & Old Lace.
Most recently, it’s been movies. Buckley is reveling over the success of her latest film, Split, which has been #1 at the box office racking in more than $200 million in ticket sales. “It’s really exciting to be one of the stars of the #1 movie in America,” she says of her role as psychologist, Dr. Fletcher.
Buckley is also gearing up for her new two-disc album, Story Songs, which comes out in April. She collaborated with her long-time pianist Christian Jacob (who wrote the score for Sully) on her 17th record label. “It’s a group of beautiful ‘story songs’ about different characters and situations in life,” the singer explains.
In March, Buckley will perform two concerts in New Jersey followed by holding a five-day Intensive Song Interpretation/Monologue Workshop in New York City. We caught up with Buckley to tell us more about what to expect at her concerts, plus she looks back at her time in Cats.
Tell me about your New Jersey concerts coming up at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood and the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank?
I’ll be doing a combination of songs from my new album, Story Songs, which comes out April 7 and my last album Ghostlight.
Tell me more about the album. This will be your 17th. That’s quite an accomplishment!
It’s fun and the stories are great. It’s a group of beautiful ‘story songs’ about different characters and situations in life. They are live recordings from last October. We did this new show called Story Songs at Joe’s Pub, then in San Francisco and Costa Mesa. We took 12 tracks of the live recordings from the Costa Mesa shows. Then we have a bonus CD of five songs from Joe’s Pub which was recorded in 2015 along with three different personal stories of friends of mine including Elaine Stritch. It also includes a new comedy piece by Joe Iconis called “Old Flame.” There are also songs by Jason Robert Brown and Stephen Schwartz.
How does it feel to be a part of Split — the number one movie at the Box Office right now?
I did the movie, The Happening, for him. I love Night and James McAvoy’s work in the film is remarkable. He gives one of the best performances in “Split” that I’ve ever seen. It was an honor to get to work with him.
Did you get cast because you worked with M. Night Shyamalan before?
He told me he wrote the part for me. It was a huge compliment and a real honor. We became friends and I really love him. We have a good time working together.
Cats is back on Broadway. How does that feel?
It is very nostalgic. When I walked into the theater and saw the set I immediately burst into tears. It was moving and really nice to be back in the junkyard. It had a different feeling, though. I admire the new production. I miss Gillian Lynne’s touch as the original choreographer. I thought Andy Blankenbuehler did a beautiful job of paying tribute to Gillian Lynne but I didn’t quite understand not having her along.
Did you ever see the original Broadway production of Cats at the Winter Garden Theater once you left the show after a year and a half in 1983?
I saw the eighth anniversary of the London production in 1989. That was the first time I’d seen Cats. I saw it in bits and pieces during our dress rehearsals at Winter Garden but I never saw the whole thing as an audience member. I [finally] saw it when they had some big record-breaking anniversary and [my former cast mates and I] were all invited to see the production.
Speaking of records, what do you think about Phantom of the Opera beating Cats for longest running musical on Broadway?
Yes. Phantom has had more than 12,000 performances. Cats had 7,485.
That’s “fake news”. Someone made that up. Cats is ‘now and forever.’
When you were in the show what did you do to pass the time backstage since you’re only onstage for 13 minutes?
[Director] Trevor [Nunn] told me to hang around and watch what was going on. [He said], “I always want to feel your presence in the wings.” I had a beautiful dressing room on the second floor. It was in the corner with windows all the way around which is very rare in Broadway theaters. My dresser and I did a craft project. We got those glow in the dark [stickers] you put in children’s rooms and put them on the ceiling. That made it look really cool.
So you never left the theater?
No. I actually thought I was this huge part of the show. I really did until I saw the eighth anniversary concert. I kept saying to myself: where is Grizabella? Where is she? Finally she came on and I realized I was only on for 13 minutes. It’s funny, isn’t it?
Could you still put on the makeup perfectly today?
Oh yes. When I was doing Grey Gardens last summer in Los Angeles, we wanted to make a happy opening video for the new Cats company and we did our makeup.
Do you realize you haven’t been on Broadway in 19 years?
Is that right? It feels like yesterday.
I don’t know. I guess the right project hasn’t come along. I’ve turned down about four projects throughout the years.
Anything you can reveal?
What would make you take a role on Broadway?
It has to do with the team and the project. It’s about what the part is and what contribution I would be making to the project; who is the director, producers, and writers. Theater, especially musical theater is a collaborative endeavor. The success of the venture is about the team. You have to really know it’s going to be fun.
With Cats and Sunset Boulevard both back on Broadway — if someone called you to fill in would you do it?
It would be an absolute honor and a huge compliment if Andrew [Lloyd Webber] asked me to come back to Cats. Both jobs would have a unique set of challenges and I’d have to feel like I was up to it. I’ll tell you something: I am such an admirer of Glenn Close. She is a mighty warrior actress to take that part on. That’s probably the hardest part ever written except for maybe Mama Rose in Gypsy. To take this part on 23 years later — that’s amazing. More power to her. She’s a brave and mighty soul.
Betty Buckley will be performing at the Bergen Performing Arts Center at 8:00pm Thursday, March 9 followed by the Count Basie Theater in Red Bank at 8:00pm on Friday, March 10.
She will also be teaching upcoming Song/Monologue Interpretation Workshops March 12-17 at the T. Schreiber Studio. For more information, visit: http://tschreiber.org/the-studio/acting-classes-nyc/special-classes/song-interpretation-monologue-master-class/