Let me sing you a story
By Arnold Wayne Jones
April 7, 2017
Tony-winning Fort Worth native Betty Buckley has a hit film and a new CD — both thrills for her devoted fans
I pop Story Songs, the new CD by Broadway legend (and Fort Worth gal) Betty Buckley, into my disc player, and the album starts out as expected. The first cut, “Carefully Taught,” is a classic Rodgers & Hammerstein number from South Pacific, and while I don’t recognize the second cut, “Cassandra,” it is clearly a theater song — something maybe I didn’t recognize from Sondheim (I later learn it’s by Jason Robert Brown). But then, the third cut begins, and I pause. “Wait,” I think, “the arrangement is different, but… could that be… Radiohead?!?!”
It is indeed. Betty Buckley — the Tony Award-winning actress and singer who introduced Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Memory” to the American stage — was offering up a rendition of “High and Dry.”
And it is awesome.
We tend to think of Buckley — who at age 69 has been a certifiable star for nearly 50 of those years — as a master interpreter of showtunes, of jazz, of standards out of the Great American Songbook. She’s more likely to sing Tom Kitt, or Tom Lehrer, than Thom Yorke. But that’s just narrow-mindedness. Buckley is a connoisseur of all music.
“I love Radiohead — have all their records,” she gushes from her ranch outside Fort Worth. “I’m a fan of their hypnotic quality. I love Moby, lots of [modern pop music]. I just never thought to look for their songs for me.”
It was her friend, actress Martha Plimpton, who first suggested she sing “High and Dry.” At first, she didn’t see the connection. “Maybe it was because it was boy-singer material,” she wonders. “Even when I read the lyric [the first time], I didn’t get it. But the more I worked on it, the more personal resonance I found.”
That is how it usually works for her: Not an instantaneous “Let’s do this!” but a more measured thoughtful “What can I bring to this?”
“I like songs that are very visual,” Buckley explains. “Without sounding stupid or pretentious, I think of myself as a kind of painter. For ‘High and Dry,’ I didn’t know I had anything to say until I started rehearsing it. I loved the combination of the lyrics and the visuals enhanced by the musical element.”
The process, she says, is one of “trying on” a song. To compile the line-up of 17 cuts for Story Songs, she sat down with her accompanist Christian Jacob last summer — locking themselves in a rehearsal studio by day while she performed in Grey Gardens at night.
“I would rehearse tons of material,” she says, “but to be worth performing, it had to intrigue us both.”
That happened on “Don’t Give Up,” the pop song recorded by Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush. “We both loved the song, but it was a duet. But we said, ‘let’s see how we make it work.’ And then I realized, ‘Oh, right, this can be two voices in one person’s mind — the inner experience. When we started to do it in concert, we add our sound person [to create an ethereal tone on the second voice]. It adds clarity to the story.”
Radiohead, Peter Gabriel, Sting, Joni Mitchell — it’s no wonder Buckley’s tastes are more diverse that showtunes. Because even though it was seeing a production of The Pajama Game at Casa Manana that led her to want to be in show business, her love of music runs deeper.
“When I was a kid, I always wanted to be Janis Joplin, and my mom always wanted me to be Judy Garland,” she says. “My mother had a very extensive record collection, and I would listen to all these great lady singers, from Della Reese to Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald, plus all those Broadway cast albums, and I would imitate them. But we also had Record Town at Ridglea where they had every kind of music. I was exposed to great world music at an early age — Brazilian and Dave Brubeck and Andre Previn and Cannonball Adderley. They spoke to me about places in the world that were different than Forth Worth, Texas, and I would go there some day.”
She studied dance and voice and quickly learned “there was a purpose for girls with loud voices.” She made her professional debut at Casa as Dainty June in Gypsy, got an agent after performing as a guest entertainer on the TV broadcast of the Miss America Pageant and, legendarily, got cast in her first Broadway show — as Martha Jefferson in the original production of 1776 — her first day in New York City.
Buckley is enjoying a nice career bump at an age when many performers consider retirement. In addition to the exquisite new CD, she just co-starred in an international blockbuster, playing the psychiatrist of James McAvoy’s schizophrenic sociopath in Split. It was her second time working with writer-director M. Night Shyamalan — he wrote the role with her in mind.
“Yeah, it’s pretty great!” she grins. “I don’t even think of it as a renaissance — it’s just the continuation of the journey, working on yourself to hone your craft.”
And work she does. Even after 1776, she continued studying voice and acting, which she does to this day.
“My entire life and career is a product of brilliant teachers and mentors who have guided me,” she says. “A lot of performers who don’t still study are naïve. It’s like being a professional athlete — you need to train and have an outside eye. It’s all a process.”
So how does she approach a song different now that she did in the past?
“I don’t approach it differently,” Buckley says, “I just have more information.”