Broadway Star Betty Buckley on Hard-Earned Wisdom and Singing the Songs that Kill

Broadway Star Betty Buckley on Hard-Earned Wisdom and Singing the Songs that Kill
American actress and singer Betty Buckley
(Courtesy O&M Co.)

When one thinks of Betty Buckley, Little Red Riding Hood doesn’t immediately spring to mind. The sophisticated Broadway star and nightclub chanteuse has won legions of fans as an eminent interpreter of the American songbook, torch ballads of  loss and longing such as “Memory” which catapulted her to a Tony Award as the original Grizabella in “Cats.” But a leitmotif of her new nightclub act, “The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway” — which begins a month-long run at Feinstein’s at the Regency today — is the unusual twists and turns that one’s path from innocence to enlightenment can take. And that is pointedly encapsulated in the song, “I Know Things Now,” which Little Red Riding Hood sings in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.” Buckley wasn’t at first sure that she could pull it off. “I thought nobody’s going to get me as Little Red Riding Hood,” she said. “But the song’s such a metaphor for a woman coming into her own, for her emergence from youthful naivete to maturity but retaining her joy as she discovers what love is really about.” Her new club act coincides with the release of a new CD, “Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway” on the Palmetto label, in which she looks at love from the male perspective. She sings such songs as “Maria” in order to express, as she puts it, “This is the way a woman thinks a man should speak to a woman.” In town from her ranch outside Fort Worth, Texas, Buckley spoke candidly to ARTINFO about her own journey from a rigid '50s morality through the sexual revolution of the '60s to an amused, if rueful, acceptance that being a woman of a certain age has some unexpected rewards.

Some of the songs you’re singing like “When You’re Good to Mama” from “Chicago” or “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No” from “Oklahoma!” are the province of the “second banana,” the supporting act in a Broadway show. What made you choose those?

For me, those ladies have supplied some of the most show-stopping moments in theater history. When I went to see “Mame,” I loved Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur, but the character who made the biggest impression on me was Gooch [the timid nanny who learns to live large]. Her song was memorable and hilarious. And even Grizabella is on for a total of 13 minutes and has just that one song, “Memory.” But these are songs that just kill, like “The Miller’s Son” from “A Little Night Music.”

The humor in those songs are something of a switch for you, aren’t they?

Well, maybe. My favorite songs are the darkly beautiful and psychologically layered ones.  But I do appreciate the lighthearted nature of these other songs, and I’m pretty lighthearted girl these days.

What’s made you that way?

Living on my ranch in Texas surrounded by horses and dogs for one. That big change. Plus getting older. We’re really messed up in our culture about aging. It’s a great thing. Sure there are levels of difficulties -- let’s face it, my body can’t do some of the things I’d like it to -- but there are levels of difficulty in all age groups. The teenage years are fraught. Having to prove yourself and navigating the complexity of love and passion. The potential of getting older is that you don’t have to prove yourself. You get to the point where you go, “Hey, there’s not that much time life.” Let’s enjoy it.  You can’t afford to be a drama queen!

Is this what you meant about a song like “I Know Things Now” having special resonance?

Exactly! I love the awareness that comes with experience. And that’s true of a lot of these second leads in Broadway shows. They are in some kind of sexual dilemma that they either solve or they don’t or they’re in the midst of trying to figure it out. And that’s always fascinating and entertaining.  Singing these songs has caused me to think a lot of my own past and reflect on my own experiences.

What comes to mind?

Well “I’m Just A Girl Who Can’t Say No.” I was raised to be this prim, proper virginal girl who had to get married before having intimacy with a man. My father said that the sum total of my value was as a wife and mother, and my virginity was a priceless commodity which could not be lost.  And I learned that the rules he handed down to me had no basis in real life.  And when I came to New York and met my first lover -- not my first love but my first lover -- and the guy turned out to be what he was, then there was a betrayal and a very different experience from what I’d been raised to think would be my path. And that was confusing. Like poor Little Red Riding Hood.

Were you glad to have lived through the sexual revolution?

I’m incredibly grateful to have been a child of the '60s. I’ve been thinking a lot about that lately, given this whole political scene. This notion of trying to take us back to the dark ages in our thinking and perceptions is just crazy. Unless you’ve lived in the dark ages you don’t realize how important it is that we stay in the light.

What were some of the cons?

Well, I feel privileged to exercise my right to experience life on my own open terms as opposed to the narrow code which my father was intent upon. On the other hand, having had that experience, the one thing that I’m not entirely sure was the best in the world, but it’s just the way I am, and that is, I’m not going to settle.  I haven’t thus far and I see no reason to.

You were married once, right?

Yeah. In my twenties. To a great guy. Peter Flood.  I think of him when I sing “In A Very Unusual Way” from “Nine.”  He’s still one of my best friends, but we really weren’t ready to marry.  We had family situations that we thought we had to honor….my father’s ultimatums. But the marriage set us on our respective paths. I discovered myself and thought I’d get married again down the road.  But I never was. Never met the guy who made me want to be married. Peter re-married, had a lovely daughter, divorced, and re-married again to a wonderful woman.

If you had a daughter what would want her to know as she embarked on her own path?

I would try to teach her what I know by singing all these songs to her.  There is such wisdom, a  hard-earned wisdom, in these songs.