Betty Buckley on the Joy of Collaboration and Her Joe’s Pub Concert Dark Blue-Eyed Blues

By Beth Rickwald

May 21, 2015

Tony winner Betty Buckley will soon return to the New York stage in her all-new cabaret Dark Blue-Eyed Blues. The concert, which runs from May 28-31 at Joe’s Pub, is named for a song Buckley herself wrote half her lifetime ago following “probably the worst love affair I’ve ever had.” A highly personal tune about tempestuous passion is the perfect namesake for the new cabaret, which is billed as featuring the “musings of a chanteuse”: the romantic, French word for what Buckley describes as “a lady that sings in the clubs — a singer of the earthy songs about life and love and torch.”

Buckley’s new collection of songs follows in a beloved annual tradition. “I’ve created a new show every year,” she explains. According to Buckley, crafting each show is an intensive, multi-month process involving not only the performer herself, but also a team of collaborators including longtime music director Christian Jacobs, bass player Tony Marino, who has worked with Buckley for close to 30 years, and writer Eric Kornfeld. Buckley discusses why her cabarets are worth the effort every single year, how her team puts each show together, and why she continues to share her knowledge through teaching.

Is the idea of the chanteuse something you’re particularly drawn to?
I describe [during the show] how that happened when I was a kid. It’s a funny story. My first encounter with what a chanteuse was, was in the third grade.

The name of the show comes from a song you wrote?
Yeah, “Dark Blue-Eyed Blues.” I wrote the song in my mid-thirties. [When the song was written], it was a particularly low moment in my life…and of course the only thing to do was to write a song. I’ve always liked the song so I’m bringing it back.

What other songs can audiences look forward to?
I may do— I can’t ever nail myself down to these things. It’s still a work in process.

Is it a work in process right up until you go onstage?
Yes. The very last minute. Like, when concert presenters want my set list for a program, we always just say, “Miss Buckley will announce her repertoire from the stage.” Because it has to be something I want to sing in the moment. It can’t be something I feel compelled to sing.

Why keep returning to the cabaret format?
It’s fun! It’s like a puzzle finding the right material. As life goes by you keep changing because life keeps changing you, so finding the songs that reflect who you are in the present moment, that’s always a quest. And it’s very interesting, that process of just finding the material. It takes about six months to create one of these shows. You try things on like you try on clothes, almost. Some things fit, some things don’t. And then you have to tailor the things that you think fit. And then you create the arrangements with your collaborator and the link of how the songs fit together.

My pianist Christian Jacobs came out to my ranch for a weekend and we went through all kinds of material, and then I went to his house in L.A. and worked in his studio with him…And then my writer Eric Kornfeld comes in and helps me verbalize why I want to sing the song, which is not always the easiest thing to do. I tell him stories from my life and why this song is important to me and he helps me put it together…And then finally I get a body of songs that I think might work.

You’re also currently leading a master class at T. Schreiber Studio. What is it like for you to teach?
Well, I’ve been teaching for over forty years, and I teach meditation as a means for the actor, storyteller, singer to focus their minds. And then I teach communication work, communication with audiences and how to concentrate so that you can achieve that connection. Then by the end of the second day of the class people start putting their songs or monologues up and then I critique those and we continue to work on them for the rest of the workshop.

What about teaching appeals to you?
My great teachers have really saved my life and taught me everything good that I know, and I just feel like it’s my responsibility to pass along those tools. I enjoy it too. I have a facility or a gift, if you will, for seeing another person’s potential. I was taught this by my own teacher, Paul Gavert…From him I learned how to see into people and what they could do that they’re not even aware of themselves. It’s really gratifying to see people step into their potential and really become the artists that they had perhaps hoped, but didn’t know for sure, that they could be.

What would coax you back to Broadway?
A great project with great collaborators because I’m always on the lookout for that. You’re only as good in every case as the weakest link on the team. The team never rises to the strongest element…It’s very collaborative. You’re only as good as the material. You can’t do better than that. [It] all [has] to come together. And that’s what’s so beautiful about theater, it takes so many elements and so many people to make one perfect moment of theater. It’s a real team endeavor, and it’s so gratifying to be a part of a team like that.