Dynamic vocalist Betty Buckley, whose career in stage, film, music and television includes a Tony Award for her portrayal of the glamorously weathered Grizabella in “Cats,” will sing her signature tune “Memory” and a host of other Broadway favorites Friday, January 21 at the Clark State Performing Arts Center in Springfield.
Buckley, 63, has been an icon among musical theater devotees for decades. The Forth Worth, Texas native made her Broadway debut in 1969 as Martha Jefferson in “1776” (her powerful rendition of “He Plays The Violin” is a hallmark of the cast recording), appeared as Catherine in “Pippin” in the 1970s, and drew more acclaim in the 1980s with legendary turns in the aforementioned “Cats” as well as “Song and Dance,” “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” and “Carrie.” She also received a Tony nomination for “Triumph of Love,” appeared off-Broadway in “Elegies: A Song Cycle,” scored raves as Rose in “Gypsy” at New Jersey’s Papermill Playhouse, and garnered an Olivier nomination (London’s equivalent of the Tony) as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” (which she marvelously reprised on Broadway to spine-tingling degrees).
“I really love Andrew Lloyd Webber,” admitted Buckley, speaking by phone last week from Dallas. “He’s a tremendous impresario and composer. He writes beautiful music, and working for him has been one of the greatest pleasures of my life. Grizabella, while it was a role centered around one song, was still a powerful role. ‘Memory’ is really universal. Learning to sing that song and deliver it the way it’s meant to be was a transforming experience for me. I kind of came into my full potential as a singer-storyteller with that material. ‘Sunset Boulevard’ was great too. Norma Desmond was the kind of role I had been training for a long time to do. I finally had the opportunity to use everything I knew how to do and it required even more of me.”
Buckley’s repertoire includes some of Lloyd Webber’s finest songs, but she also holds a deep appreciation for more complex composers such as Jason Robert Brown (“Songs for a New World,” “Parade,” “The Last 5 Years,” “13”) and Stephen Sondheim.
“‘Memory’ is the jewel of my collection and one of the most beautiful musical theater songs, but I’m a huge Sondheim fan,” she said. “He is a great genius. His character songs are so rich, multi-layered and complicated. I love Sondheim’s music and his capacity to really tell great stories. It’s very profound. But I’m also a fan of young composers like Jason Robert Brown and Ricky Ian Gordon. I also love Adam Guettel’s ‘The Light in the Piazza,” which is beautiful and one of the best new shows by a young composer I have ever seen. I was absolutely enchanted by it.”
Although Buckley regards her involvement in “Cats” and “Sunset Boulevard” as her most challenging and rewarding experiences, she says the one role that took her by surprise was portraying fanatical mom Margaret White in the 1988 flop “Carrie,” based on the 1976 film of the same name in which she appeared as the gym teacher. The show, which ran for only 16 previews and five performances, divided critics and audiences, but is considered a cult classic with an underrated score.
“When my friends Dean Pitchford, Michael Gore and Larry Cohen called to tell me they made a musical version of ‘Carrie,’ I just didn’t think it would lend itself to musicality,” she said. “When I did the role, it was a blast. It was a great show. I was very surprised how much fun it was to play a complete psycho, a singing psycho.”
In a welcomed and highly anticipated turn of events, off-Broadway’s MCC Theater will stage the first New York revival of “Carrie” next season. Buckley couldn’t be more thrilled for she feels the underappreciated musical is long overdue for a second look.
“‘Carrie’ did not get a fair shake at the very beginning,” she said. “It has very powerful, dramatic, operatic material. I think it was originally misconceived directorially and stylistically. It was inconsistent. But I think everybody involved with the revival knows that, and with the right director, the right cast, and the right approach it could be a huge hit.”
Theater aside, Buckley memorably starred as Abby Bradford in the ABC dramedy “Eight is Enough.” In addition to “Carrie,” her film credits include “Tender Mercies,” “The Happening” and “Wyatt Earp.” Among her solo recordings are “Bootlegs: Boardmixes from the Road,” “Children Will Listen,” “Stars and the Moon,” “The Doorway” and “Quintessence.” She received a Grammy nomination in 2002 for “Betty Buckley Live At The Donmar,” recorded at London’s famed Donmar Warehouse, and is currently finalizing her latest CD “Ghostlight,” an eclectic mix of standards, show tunes and contemporary songs (produced by her longtime friend T-Bone Burnett) which will be available in the fall. The Academy and Grammy Award-winning Burnett (“O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” “Crazy Heart”) also produced “Betty Buckley 1967,” which was released in 2007 and recorded when both were 19 years old.
“T-Bone is a great artiste,” she said. “He owned his own recording studio from the time he was 17 years old.”
Buckley’s schedule remains consumed with concert appearances, workshops and regional theater engagements. She will soon co-star opposite Tovah Feldshuh in “Arsenic and Old Lace” at the Dallas Theater Center, and is in negotiations to join the next stage of the new musical version of Armistad Maupin’s “Tales of the City,” which is co-written by Tony-winning librettist Jeff Whitty (“Avenue Q”) and will have its first full-scale production this spring at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. At present, she is excited to bring her “Broadway By Request” concert to Springfield alongside her frequently funny collaborator/accompanist Seth Rudetsky of Sirius/XM Radio.
“I will tell stories from some of the songs I’ve sung on Broadway and pianist/comedian Seth Rudetsky will offer some great deconstructions and comedy,” she said. “It’s a fun, light show and includes some of the great, beautiful songs I’ve been so privileged to sing like ‘Stars and the Moon’ and ‘Meadowlark.’ I like songs with a beginning, middle and end, songs that have a character coming to a new awareness and (ultimately) transformed in that awareness to a new place.”
Betty Buckley will perform Broadway By Request, accompanied by Seth Rudetsky, Friday, January 21 at 8 p.m. in the Kuss Auditorium of the Clark State Performing Arts Center, 300 S. Fountain Ave., Springfield. Tickets are $20-$50. For tickets or more information, call (937) 328-3874 or visit online at www.springfieldartscouncil.org