Betty Buckley on ‘Ghostlight,’ ‘Pretty Little Liars’ and Kissing Laurie Metcalf

By Carey Purcell,
October 8, 2014

Tony Award winner Betty Buckley, known for her triumphant renditions of 11 o’clock numbers, returns to New York to celebrate her new album “Ghostlight.”

“I think this album, more than any other, is a very pure reflection of my soul,” Betty Buckley said of her latest recording, titled “Ghostlight.”

A collection of songs Buckley and collaborator T Bone Burnett describe as “crime jazz,” the album features “Blue Skies” and “Lazy Afternoon” as well as renditions of “This Nearly Was Mine” and “Dreamsville,” with Buckley singing, accompanied by a five-piece jazz band.

Buckley is currently taking the stage at Joe’s Pub through Oct. 11, offering seven performances of songs from “Ghostlight.” The concerts mark her first solo performance at the venue, which she said is “perfect for the music.”

Buckley, a Tony Award winner for her performance as Grizabella in Cats, also counts 1776, Pippin, Song and Dance, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Carrie, Sunset Boulevard and Triumph of Love among her Broadway credits. Along with her stage work, she has recorded more than a dozen albums; “Ghostlight” marks her 16th solo recording.

The album’s name follows a conversation between Buckley and Burnett, when Burnett imagined the music taking place in a 1950s LA club that was frequented by dangerous men and glamorous women. “He said something really apocalyptic is coming from outside, and you guys are the band and singer, and the music really soothes the soul,” Buckley said. “The theatre is dark. I said, ‘Like the ghostlight. That’s the tradition in the theatre when they place the lightbulb on the stand to keep the spirits in the theatre company.’ He said, ‘That’s a great title. Let’s use that.'”

Buckley explained she has grown from being the featured 11 o’clock number singer to something different.

“As I’ve matured and grown, some of that longing and that cry of the heart changes,” she said. “People change. They grow and evolve, and I used to have a voice teacher for 19 ½ years named Paul Gavert. He was a brilliant teacher, and he used to say to me, ‘The voice follows. The voice follows who you are. If you take care of yourself and sing wisely, you’ll be able to sing all your life. And your voice will reflect the colors of your experience.’ And I think that’s a really good description. My voice continues to evolve and change as I evolve and change. My voice, everyone’s voice follows who they are. You can hear who they are in the sound of their voice.”

Buckley credits “all the great lady singers,” including Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Della Reese and Judy Garland, as influences. She worked for 20 years with a jazz ensemble, releasing several albums that featured new interpretations of Broadway showtunes.

“I’ve always been really attracted to good songs that tell good stories or are very beautiful lyrically and invoke really beautiful images,” she continued. “It’s almost like they’re paintings. And that’s how I would approach those arrangements that we did for years and years together — that band and I.”

Working on “Ghostlight” was a reunion for Burnett and Buckley, who first collaborated on a recording of Buckley singing at the age of 19. The album, “Betty Buckley 1967,” was released in 2007 by Playbill Records.

“T Bone and I stayed in touch over the years,” Buckley said. “He was very moved when he heard what we’d accomplished at age 19. Through the years he’d say we need to do another record, and I’d say, ‘Sure. That would be great.’ He called me seriously and said, ‘We need to make that record. My summer’s clear. Let’s do it.’

“He knew my longings as a musician were born of the 60s,” Buckley continued. “We’re both children of the 60s. I desperately wanted to go to Berkeley when I was in college and be a part of the whole music scene in the late 1960s, and my dad was like, ‘No way we’ll let you out of town. You will go to Texas Christian University, and you will like it.'”

The album reflects the musical influences of both Buckley and Burnett’s youth. Tracks include Marty Balin’s “Coming Back to Me,” which she used to play in her dorm at TCU, as well as “Lazy Afternoon,” which she described as psychedelic. The songs also include Henry Mancini’s “Dreamsville.” Buckley recalled watching “The Peter Gunn Show,” which Mancini wrote for, and dreaming of life in New York in a beautiful apartment with floor-to-ceiling glass windows. Laughing, she said she was surprised when she moved to New York that not everyone lived like that.

Buckley was last seen on the New York stage in Horton Foote’s The Old Friends at the Signature Theatre, a performance she reprised in Houston, TX, at the Alley Theater. When asked if she would return to Broadway in the future, she said, “You never know. Things come, things go. There’s talk of this. To be honest, over the past four years, there have been possibly five different projects that were supposed to go to Broadway — one thing or another — and they all fell apart. You just never know what’s going to happen. I sure hope so. I think I have one or two other Broadway pieces in me before my time is done here. I hope so. You just never know.”

Following her Joe’s Pub concerts, Buckley will be part of <em>The Lyricist</em> at the Bay Street Theater and the Tilles Center and will teach a song interpretation workshop at the T. Schreiber Studios and perform <em>The Lyricist</em> at Feinstein’s @ The Nikko Hotel in San Francisco. She will also appear on a November episode of the HBO dark comedy “Getting On,” where she shares her first on-screen female kiss with Laurie Metcalf.

“I was like, ‘Laurie, I’ve never kissed a girl on camera,’ and she said, ‘Me either,'” Buckley said of filming the scene. “I said, ‘I’m really grateful it’s you.’ She said, ‘I’m really grateful it’s you!’ It was hilarious. We were both so nervous. She’s unbelievable. I love her. I was so thrilled to get to work with her.”

Buckley’s TV credits also include “Eight Is Enough” and “Oz,” as well as the ABC Family drama “Pretty Little Liars,” where she plays one of the main character’s grandmother. When asked if she was the mysterious villain known only as “A,” she said, laughing, “No, I’m not A. I wish I were!”

Buckley hopes the release of “Ghostlight” will reveal a new side of herself to her fans. In fact, during the recording sessions of “Ghostlight,” Burnett said to her, “I want people to realize they have no idea who Betty Buckley is.”

“What I love about the record and what I’ve said to dear friends of mine is it really is the environment of my soul and it reflects who I am,” she said, “I think more precisely than anything I’ve done.”