Time catches everyone by surprise. For Betty Buckley, the rude awakening happened when director Michael Wilson called to say he was planning a revival of the musical “Grey Gardens.”
She had assumed he was offering her the part of middle-aged Little Edie. But instead he was calling about Big Edie, who deep into her dotage in the second act bickers with her eccentric daughter amid the genteel squalor of the family’s crumbling estate in the Hamptons.
In the same year, Buckley was offered a guest role on the HBO comedy “Getting On” as a ghostly alcoholic in a hospital hospice ward who finds ways of getting around doctor’s orders. It was a choice part — for a veteran character actress unafraid of showing her mileage.
Though proud to have played these parts, Buckley, 71, waggishly described this period as a “shocking coming of age.”
“I didn’t realize I had transitioned into an older actress. Fortunately, I always knew my best work would be in my later years.”
Her intuition is turning out to be correct. Buckley was still riding high from playing Gran'ma on Season 3 of the AMC series “Preacher.” (“The character is a voodoo sorceress with major skills, a really complicated evil character, right within my bailiwick,” she said.) She touted the box office success of M. Night Shyamalan’s 2016 thriller “Split,” in which she earned plaudits for her portrayal of a therapist treating a dangerous patient with multiple personality disorder.
And then of course there’s the reason the two of us were in Scottsdale, chatting at the Phoenician resort, where Buckley was staying during the Phoenix-area leg of the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!” On the road with this favorite American musical (at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts through Sunday before starting at the Hollywood Pantages on Jan. 29), she called the production “a gift” and showered praise on producer Scott Rudin and director Jerry Zaks for a revival she described as “an ice cream shop of color, beauty and joy.”
It was late morning, and Buckley, wearing exercise clothes that are part of the regimen that led to her recent 38-pound weight loss, needed caffeine to get into gear. The bar area wasn’t open, so she marched over to the concierge desk to see about getting us a pot of coffee.
Are you a guest at the hotel? “Yes.” Your name? “Buckley.” First name? “Betty.”
The coffee arrived minutes later with assurances from the staff that her every whim would be their command. Buckley seemed amused at this snapshot of the diva’s life — skepticism one minute, adulation the next.
The word “diva” actually never came up during our hours of conversation that started the night before when I went backstage at Arizona State University’s Gammage after being thrilled by her interpretation of Dolly Levi. The portrayal is vastly different from the vaudevillian turn that brought Bette Midler a deserved Tony Award, though it’s true to the spirit of Zaks’ blissful revival.
As a critic, I avoid backstage encounters, but it was easy to fire off superlatives for a performance that was in song, in shtick and in sentiment wholly rooted in character. Buckley’s talent is unique. She’s a musical theater virtuoso who burrows deep into the psychology of whatever part she is playing.
Some will be surprised to discover that she’s also a spry comedian, able to shift between farce and feeling with impressive agility. And what a pleasure to listen to her command of Jerry Herman’s indelible score. She might have the best all-around voice of any Broadway belter of her generation.
Like many Americans, I first became aware of Buckley through the television series “Eight Is Enough.” She had by then already established herself on the stage, landing a role in the Broadway musical “1776” immediately after arriving in New York from Fort Worth. After starring in the London production of “Promises, Promises,” she replaced Jill Clayburgh in “Pippin.” But it was as the understanding stepmother Abby, a character introduced in the second season after Diana Hyland (who played Dick Van Patten’s wife on the first season) died, that a wider public came to know an actress whose naturalness can be as striking as her formidable showmanship.
Buckley said her 1976 feature film debut as the gym teacher in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” opened the door to “Eight Is Enough.” Playing a country and western star in the 1983 Bruce Beresford film “Tender Mercies” allowed her to show both sides of her talent. But it’s on stage where her gifts have been most potently deployed.
Buckley’s luminous rendition of “Memory” in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” enshrined a place for her in musical theater history. (She won a featured actor Tony for her performance as Grizabella, the feline whose faded glamour is recalled in soaring song.) Replacing Patti LuPone in London and then Glenn Close in New York as Norma Desmond in the Lloyd Webber musical “Sunset Boulevard” was another of her triumphs — and a testament to the way she makes every part her own
Buckley, who studied theater and dance as a girl despite her strict father’s disapproval, recounted her journey through showbiz in two parts. While giving me a lift back to the hotel from the theater the night before, she told anecdotes she has told many times before about her beginnings under the supervision of her stage mother — the choir teacher shouting at her “blend in, Betty Lynn, blend in!”; her show-stopping moment doing “Steam Heat” in authentic Fosse-style at the school talent show that revealed her future as an 11 o’clock number specialist; her landing in New York and being immediately cast as Martha Jefferson in “1776,” a magical moment that felt as though her life were being scripted by a Broadway-besotted screenwriter.
The next day at the hotel, she was more forthcoming about the vicissitudes of her professional career. She was candid about her reputation for being “difficult” and remarkably candid about the agonizing struggles she endured with the producers of “Eight Is Enough.” But she was also cautious as she answered questions about her Broadway history, fearful that her words would be taken out of context and that diva wars would be reignited by a media culture that enjoys nothing more than pitting actresses against one another.
Buckley said she’s proud of her “eclectic” résumé and wants to keep working. (She called Angela Lansbury and Ellen Burstyn role modes in this regard and said she often asks herself, “What would Angela do?”) When I expressed surprise at learning that she hasn’t been back on Broadway since “Triumph of Love” ended in 1998, she ticked off some of the stage work she’s done around the country, including “Gypsy” at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse, Horton Foote’s “The Old Friends” at New York’s Signature Theatre and “Grey Gardens,” first at the Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, N.Y., and then at the Ahmanson Theatre.
“I love Broadway, but just because a show is not on Broadway doesn’t mean that it’s not as important or that I’m not as invested,” Buckley said with sincere conviction. She spoke enthusiastically about her many recordings marrying “jazz interpretation with musical theater storytelling,” but her absence from Broadway is curious. Musical theater divas who rely on an extensive team to get the best out of themselves typically crave the biggest spotlights.
But Buckley’s geography has changed. After 9/11, she sold her New York apartment and bought a small ranch in Texas, where she rides horses and rescues animals. (A couple of her dogs are traveling with her on the “Hello, Dolly!” tour, transported with company help during air travel so that all can arrive comfortably together.)
“Till I moved to the ranch 15 years ago, it was study, study, study,” she said. “When work comes, train, train, train. That was my life until I gave myself the gift of this ranch and these horses. My work now is actually to support that. It’s given me a different point of view. I don’t feel like I have anything to prove.”
This last remark was in response to my asking whether she felt she had any unfinished stage business. “Gypsy” is to musical theater divas of a certain age what “King Lear” is to graying thespians of a serious bent. When Buckley played Rose at the Paper Mill Playhouse in 1998, the New York Times’ Ben Brantley wrote in his review, “It is, of course, Ms. Buckley who makes the production essential viewing for 'Gypsy' aficionados." But Arthur Laurents, the book writer who held tight control of the rights, didn’t think she was right and so Broadway never saw her performance.
Was Dolly one of those iconic roles she wanted to conquer before it was too late? Buckley, less averse to talking about age than ambition, sidestepped the question. She is an older Dolly, but the character has been famously performed by actors as young as Barbra Streisand in the 1969 movie and as old as Carol Channing during her last tour. Something else was making her uncomfortable.
Experienced as she is with replacing another actor, Buckley knew that in this case she’d have to deal with questions not only about Midler (“who’s so singularly herself”) but also about all the many incomparable talents who have done the role before her.
“The idea of being compared to all these famous Dollys wasn’t particularly appealing to consider,” she admitted. “But fortunately Jerry gave me the flexibility to bring what I could while staying true to what he created, and hopefully I’m delivering on that.”
Buckley is nothing if not respectful of Broadway tradition. She paid tribute to Channing, the original Broadway Dolly who died this month, in a heartfelt curtain speech when the tour moved to San Diego. But she acknowledged that the highly public casting travails of “Sunset Boulevard,” centered on Close and LuPone, left a few scars.
Part of a Broadway triumvirate with LuPone and Bernadette Peters, Buckley said the comparisons with her peers used to get to her even though she knew they were “meritless, because in the arts, unlike in athletic competition, there’s not a standard by which you can calculate a score.” Getting older has allowed her to let go of some of that.
“I watched Patti in ‘Penny Dreadful.’ She was … phenomenal,” she said, punctuating her point with an expletive. “So I started emailing her. Her skill set is remarkable. I went backstage to see her at ‘War Paint.’ We’ve grown up together. And we’ve been compared — her version of [the song] ‘Meadowlark,’ my version of ‘Meadowlark.’ It’s crazy. I’ve been determined that she knows that I love her. And with Glenn it’s the same thing, mainly because of ‘Sunset.’ I went to see this new version they did on Broadway and was blown away. It was very human, very different from what she did the first time, and she sang it beautifully. I went backstage and said to Glenn, ‘That was amazing.’ I was really happy for her, because she’s so good. I refuse this thing of treating us competitively like quarterbacks, but it’s taken a lot of work.”
Any big regrets? Buckley named one: missing out on the opportunity to originate on Broadway the role of the witch in “Into the Woods” after participating in some of the early workshops. (The role went to Peters.)
“I was working in a different style that was very realistic, and that was uncomfortable,” she said. “There were issues we couldn’t negotiate, so I decided to let it go, which was unfortunate. I made the wrong decision. But when I saw the show, I was really complimented because they kept some of my staging.”
Therapy, meditation and the study of comparative religions have been integral to Buckley’s personal and professional evolution. She relies on an analyst not only to psychologically break down her scripts but also to get guidance on how to communicate during the collaborative process.
She admitted that in the past she could come off as brash. (“I’m from Texas and Texas women are very outspoken. It just goes with who we are.”) Early on in her career, when working with some of the giants in the theater, she had mistakenly assumed that her intensity would be welcomed.
“I thought these men were secure because they were great artists,” she said. “It was shocking to me that they could have so much trouble with a young actress asking a lot of questions. I learned through therapy how to keep my own counsel, but I made some huge faux pas along the way.”
Social media has provided a platform for Buckley to air her political views, and she has been especially outspoken on Twitter since President Trump took office. Her brother Norman Buckley, a successful television director, urged her to curtail her commentary while touring polarized America with “Hello, Dolly!” She said she cut back for a while, but “it’s horrible what’s happening.”
Buckley teaches acting workshops periodically in New York and has evolved an approach to her work that prioritizes audience connection. (Her rapport with theatergoers at the ASU Gammage, electric from the moment her Dolly bustled on stage, threatened to take down the power grid when she sashayed down the staircase of Harmonia Gardens.) She refers to herself as a storyteller and always asks herself when considering a script, “Why tell this story now?”
For Buckley, the question has a spiritual basis: Art reminds us of our shared humanity. This mission, she said, makes being away from her ranch and horses worth it.
The role of Dolly has been, to her surprise, the most exhausting of her career. Working closely with a trainer to get into shape, she has dropped so much weight since she started performing that she’s had to have her costumes refitted. “I haven’t sung with this Broadway belt voice in years,” she added. “That’s another whole thing — going back into that body of training.”
She thrives on the discipline, however. “Left to my own devices, I’m a couch potato,” she said. “I love reading books and drinking good coffee and sleeping in clean sheets and riding horses. But I’m so grateful to be taking this joyous, rapturous production across America,” she said. “At a time that is so fraught, we’re delivering a message of joy and hope to the people.”
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In Costa Mesa: Segerstrom Center for the Arts, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sunday. $29 and up (subject to change). (714) 556-2787 or SCFTA.org