It’s more than ‘Memory’ that keeps Buckley going on stage

By John Patrick
March 6, 2017

Tony Award winner from “Cats” and star of hit film “Split” talks about keeping things fresh

You’re starring in a long-running Broadway blockbuster like “Cats” or “Sunset Boulevard.” It’s, say, a Wednesday night performance. You’ve been in the show for months now. You’re belting out the big show-stopping number – again. Is it possible that instead of thinking about what you’re singing, your mind wanders to other places? Like, what you might have for dinner, later? Or whether you remembered to unplug the iron before you left your apartment?

“It’s challenging,” says star of stage and screen Betty Buckley, who will perform a concert 8 p.m. Thursday at the Bergen Performing Arts Center in Englewood. It would seem almost unnatural to do the exact same thing over and over again without eventually losing focus. But to the Tony Award-winning Buckley, being in a long running show is more like a lesson in how to live life.

“When I was younger, I’d go crazy. It was just repeating the same thing over and over,” she says by phone from her native Texas. “Then, I discovered meditation. Meditation is about the immediate present and being in the moment. It will never be like that again. That audience will never be there again.

“Repetition becomes a ritual in live performance. It’s the same story you are telling — but the way you tell it every night is new. How you get from A to B to C to E to F is always different and always fresh,” she says. “And there is great joy in that.”

Living your life in the moment is equally important, she says. Especially when you’re in show business. It’s a piece of advice she tries to pass down to her musical theater students, who she teaches intermittently both in master classes across the country and at T. Schreiber Studios in New York City.

“People would come to me, hopeful, aspiring, professional actors, with big dreams. They came to New York and started getting beaten up and didn’t realize how tough the journey would be. Or they thought they would be a TV star by their early 20s … Or they’re older actors who just lost their passion for their work,” she says. Many of those people are more focused on results than on the process, she adds.

You should be in the theater because “you love acting and singing. For the love of the craft of it. Doing it because it’s your calling, and because it’s something you love. But if you do it out of expectation, you’re going to be disappointed,” she says.

“Even if you are successful,” she adds, “the very nature of show business — of life — is that there are ups and downs. It is always cyclical. When you can hold onto that, then the ride gets a lot easier.”

Buckley won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” singing “Memory.” Her other Broadway credits include “1776,” “Pippin,” “Song and Dance,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Carrie.”

She received her second Tony Award nomination for best actress in a musical for her performance as Hesione in “Triumph of Love,” and an Olivier Award nomination for her critically acclaimed interpretation of Norma Desmond in the London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” She repeated that performance to more rave reviews on Broadway, replacing Glenn Close.

Twenty years later, Close recently returned to Broadway for a revival of “Sunset Boulevard” in what is billed as a limited engagement. Dare we ask — might history repeat itself, with Buckley once again replacing Close in the role of silent film star Norma Desmond?

“I haven’t been asked,” she says, laughing a bit coyly. And if she was? She doesn’t say yes. But she doesn’t say no, either. Instead she rattles off a busy few months ahead of her that include a gala at the Roundabout Theater Company, solo concerts in Englewood and Red Bank, and teaching a master class in New York. All that, when she isn’t taking care of her horses and other animals back on the Texas ranch she now calls home. At this point, she says, she’ll be glad if she can just get to see Close do it, before the run ends.

“I’m in awe that she’s taking this on after 22 years. She is a champion, that’s for sure,” she says of Close. “That is one of the hardest parts ever written in musical theater. I loved the opportunity to do it. Andrew’s score is sensational. That she is taking this on again in her life is very brave.”

Buckley can currently be seen as the psychiatrist in the new M. Night Shyamalan film “Split,” a psychological thriller co-starring James McAvoy as a man with multiple personalities, which has drawn critical acclaim and big box office.

I think Night is a brave storyteller. A master storyteller,” she says. She revisited the film a few days after its premiere with her mom and some other relatives.

“Each time I’ve seen the movie, I see different aspects of what he was doing as filmmaker,” she says. “He’s a brilliant guy. I feel grateful to be able to call him a friend. He said he wrote the part for me.”

As for why audiences invariably respond to the film: “I think there is a lot of anger and pain and suffering and confusion in the world right now,” Buckley says. “There is a wonderful subliminal message of hope.”

Buckley’s other films include her debut in Brian de Palma’s screen version of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies,” Roman Polanski’s “Frantic” and Woody Allen’s “Another Woman.”

On television, she starred as Abby Bradford in the hit series “Eight is Enough”. She has appeared as a guest star in numerous television series, miniseries and films for television.

Buckley has recorded 16 solo albums, and performs in concert across the U.S. each year. Buckley’s album, “Bootleg: Boardmixes From the Road,” was released in 2010, and her recording of her hit show at Feinstein’s at the Regency with her long-time musical director and arranger, jazz pianist Christian Jacob, titled “Ah, Men: The Boys of Broadway” debuted in 2012. Her most recent album, “Ghostlight,” was produced by the legendary T. Bone Burnett and was released in 2014.

Her forthcoming CD, “Story Songs”, will be released April 7. The first disc is a live recording from Buckley’s concert in Cosa Mesa, California, last October. The second CD includes five bonus tracks from her 2015 show at Joe’s Pub at the Public Theater in New York City. The eclectic mix includes everything from Emmylou Harris and Radiohead covers, to the classic Sondheim tune “I’m Still Here” from “Follies.”

Her current solo show, in which Jacob will accompany her and who collaborated with her on the arrangements, is equally eclectic, with selections from the forthcoming CD, and from “Ghostlight.” Included in the set will be her own unique interpretations of classics by such pop/rock luminaries as Joni Mitchell and Peter Gabriel, to name a few. “I was influenced by some of the psychedelic rock bands of the 1960s,” she says. While one shouldn’t expect a lot of show tunes, not to worry, she says. “Memory,” at the very least, will be the curtain call.

Doing concerts year after year, and creating new and meaningful set lists, is all part of the keeping things fresh.

“I think of myself as a painter,” she says. “And every time I do a new collection of songs, it’s the painting I’ve been working on the past year.”