The Heart-Bursting Brilliance of Betty Buckley

By Alan Ilagan
February 5, 2017

Betty Buckley has always held a special place in my heart, and as her career has progressed she’s maintained that place with every role she’s taken. When I was a little kid, one of my favorite television shows was ‘Eight is Enough’. I wasn’t even old enough to talk that much, and all I could do was fuss and point at the TV, screaming “Nicholas” until my parents finally figured out I was talking about ‘Eight is Enough.’ (Which I knew solely by the name of their youngest character.) Ms. Buckley was Abby Bradford, the mother figure of the show, and after every episode I went to bed comforted by her displays of patience and love.

She tucked me in at night just as I was starting to become aware of the world (or enough aware to know that the kid’s name was Nicholas). That role as America’s Mother stuck with her, despite a theatrical prowess that went largely unnoticed by my small upstate New York upbringing. It wasn’t until she clawed her way through the role of Grizabella in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s ‘Cats’ that the world became aware of her incredible voice and command of stage.

Originating the role that culminated with an electrifying rendition of Lloyd Webber’s most famous song (‘Memory’) cemented her status as Broadway royalty, and despite turns on television and film it has been on the stage where she has most moved me. Even shrouded in feline fur and heavy make-up, Buckley managed to emit the shredded-soul of a cat, both wounded and fierce, stealing the show every night. A decade later, she wore a different kind of glamour in one of the modern-day marathons of musical theater roles: Norma Desmond.

Following in the footsteps of Glenn Close is no mean feat, but Buckley’s soaring voice and drastically different take on that tragic yet noble figure of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ imbued the production with new life – glorious life too, as her vocal instrument performed death-defying acts nightly in the Minskoff Theatre. I remember watching her studied take on the role, transfixed by the manners in which she managed to be beguiling, brittle, and brilliant in a single scene. She brought audiences to their feet with her stunning interpretation of ‘As If We Never Said Goodbye’ – the way she held onto ‘home’ in the climactic declaration of ‘I’ve come home at last!’ sent shivers down my spine. Her voice was spellbinding, reaching the furthest rafters of that immense theatre, and when she brought it delicately down to a wounded coo, it was even more transfixing. I’d always admired and marveled at Norma Desmond on stage, but Ms. Buckley made me love her a little more as well.

While her portrayal of Ms. Desmond ignited my fan status, it was the musical wizardry of her albums, where her divine voice was barely contained by the recordings, that completely captivated me. Hers was a talent that could never be fettered or bound by traditional artistic means – she demanded more, and she delivered. Her criminally-short EP of ‘Sunset Boulevard’ selections (available at the Minskoff) only left us wanting more, and her stripped-down and spare ‘With One Look’ CD was an essay in how to deliver a story through a few piano chords and a richly nuanced voice.

That album got me through a couple of trying semesters at Brandeis, when I’d go to bed practically in tears, but I listened to the hymn-like ‘My Love and I’ and things were made achingly but bearably beautiful. When pain becomes art, and longing finds form in music, there is healing. On her jazz-inflected ‘Much More’ she embraced her playful side, while giving such standards as ‘The Man That Got Away’ and ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ magically transformative touches. The exquisite collection that is ‘Heart to Heart’ with Kenny Werner offers delicate renderings of ‘Just the Way You Look Tonight’, ‘I Am A Town’, and ‘Danny Boy’. Taken together, they are a glorious map of an artist’s journey.

I had third-row tickets to see her joyous appearance in ‘Triumph of Love’ but it closed a few weeks prior; thankfully she’s on the cast recording of the woefully under-appreciated show. It just goes to prove that Ms. Buckley doesn’t play it safe – she challenges herself and her audience with material that’s not guaranteed. It’s the mark of a true artist who finds supreme joy in her craft.

Her live recordings, particularly ‘The London Concert’ and ‘An Evening at Carnegie Hall’, almost manage to capture the enchantment that she holds over an audience, and much of her powerhouse voice, but to truly get the full experience of her magic, you need to see her as well. She manages to make each song a story, where every note paints a different shade to a fully-fleshed out work of art. See any of her renditions of ‘Meadowlark’ as evidence of such brilliance.

Those wonderfully expressive hands that so framed her face in Norma Desmond’s ‘With One Look’, tell another story in her most recent role, the sympathetic doctor in M. Night Shyamalan’s film ‘Split’. Buckley is the emotional heart and psychological brain of the movie, giving weight and pathos when needed, as well as lighter touches in an otherwise sinister landscape. The way she brings her fingers to her forehead says more in a single touching gesture than any amount of words could convey. As tears fill her eyes, she once again reminds me how she’s managed to connect in the most human way to all of her roles, and, as a result, to her audience. That memory will never fade.