Betty Buckley: An American Character

Story by Jeff Kaluzny | Photos by Scogin Mayo

Betty Buckley has been a part of my life, my entire life.  If you were a child of the late 70’s, early 80’s she was most likely a part of yours as well.  Please allow me to apologize in advance should the first lines of this article come off as a bit self-indulgent.  I understand that it goes against journalistic decorum to personalize a story but to be quite honest, there is no other way.

She was my first TV mom.  Her role of Abby Abbot, the step-mother to eight kids in Eight Is Enough (1978-81) knew how to nurture and discipline her new husband’s children exactly the same way as my own mother: Youthful, loving, firm, and still playful.  I saw myself as the youngest child, Nicholas and she was my surrogate mother for an hour every week.

She was in the first horror movie that I ever saw as the nurturing gym teacher, Miss Collins, in the 1976 classic Carrie.  I still get the occasional chill thinking about the Stephen King thriller 30 years after stealing a copy of the VHS tape from my best friend Stefanie’s house.

She was the centerpiece of the first Broadway soundtrack I ever owned.  Her Tony winning turn as Grizabella, The Glamour Cat in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s long running blockbuster Cats in 1982 was my gateway drug to a lifelong obsession with all things musical.  “Memory” was my jam and the neighborhood families didn’t know what to make of me belting out “Touch me.  It’s so easy to leave me” as I threw my baton high into air in front of my parent’s home.  Clearly, it was no surprise to my parents when I came out of the closet a decade later.

I recently had the pleasure (i.e., fangirl moment) to speak with Ms. Buckley about her upcoming two-night run of her new show Story Songs at Feinstein’s at the Nikko on October 21 & 22.

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Betty Buckley in Grey Gardens, Los Angeles.

I was just reading some of the reviews from your New York shows at Joe’s Pub and it appears as though we are in for something really special with your show Story Songs.  As you were creating the show and curating the set list where did you begin?  Was there a particular song you wanted to perform or an overriding theme you wanted to tell?  <Ms. Buckley>  This wonderful composer who’s a part of the younger generation of musical theater, a gentleman by the name of Joe Iconis, I’m his fan so I wrote him a fan letter on Facebook.  He wrote back and invited me to be a part of his evening called “The Joe Iconis Family”, which was done at Feinstein’s at 54 Below in New York.  He sent me several of his songs and none of those really fit so he said he would write me a new song.  He wrote me this wonderful song called “Old Flame”, a terrific story song about this really interesting character.  It just fit me like a glove.  It’s just a wonderful, kind of film noir, very funny piece.  I’ve been encouraging him and requesting of him that he and I do a whole evening of American characters which are reflective of this time period on our planet.  It started with that.  I also wrote Jason Robert Brown who’s a friend and also one of the great Broadway composer/lyricists.  He sent me three songs, all of which I loved including a new song called, “Cassandra” that’s really powerful so we put that together.  It’s just kind of a quest.  They all kind of thematically resonate.  It’s a truly beautiful collection and we are really proud of it.  We’re very happy with how the audience received it here on the East Coast.

It sounds like it was a little bit more of an organic, kind of falling in your lap, scenario.  <Ms. Buckley>  <laughing>It’s not as easy as that.  It takes about 6 to 8 months to put one of the shows together.  It starts with ideas of songs that resonate in my life at that particular moment in time.  Then I send them to my brilliant collaborator Christian Jacob.  He lives in LA and I live in Texas.  We go back and forth and we both have to really feel strongly about the songs.  Sometimes the very first thing he sends I love and other times I make him go back to the drawing board <laughing>.  We had a couple of weeks where we got together and tried tons and tons of material and listened to lots of stuff together.  Then it starts to clarify itself as we go along.  There is an aspect of synchronicity to it, definitely but you really have to go on a quest.  It’s fun.  It’s actually something I like to do every year.  Thankfully Christian is my collaborator and that makes it more fun.  Then when it all gels like this show did, we’re like, ‘Wow!  That is so cool!’

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Is it fair to say that there is one song in this show that you connect to more than the rest?  
<Ms. Buckley>  I just really love them all with each little vignette.  There’s a lot of different kinds of stories as one flows from one to the next.  I like the structure of the evening that we’ve discovered.  I don’t really think too much in terms of favorites.  I think that’s a really interesting thing that we are raised in our culture to think comparatively.  I’m sure at some level that has some significance.  You know, like I do enjoy eating Tex-Mex and I don’t like to eat meat. <laughing>.  Each thing has its own sweet value.

While you were in New York were you able to stop by the new production of Cats?  <Ms. Buckley>  I’m going tonight.  I’m really excited.  The producers are throwing a reception tonight to say goodbye to (current Grizabella) Leona Lewis and to welcome (incoming Grizabella) Mamie Parris in as well as my being there.  I’m really excited.

Do you have any anticipation as to how it’s going to feel to revisit that familiar environment?  <Ms. Buckley>  I saw the new version that they did in London last year.  I went to see the final performance.  My friend Gillian Lynne (Choreographer of the London production of Cats) and her husband Peter Land invited me to go see it.  I walked into the theater and of course the set by the brilliant designer John Napier who we all love so much, was as it was back when.  I just burst into tears.  It was such an important time period of my life.  It was such an honor to get to work with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Trevor Nunn and Gillian Lynne and John Napier and all of the collaborators.  It was an amazing group of artists to be in the presence of and to learn from.  Outside of the theater in the lobby was this great gallery of all the productions internationally.  Of course, the New York company was prominently represented there.  It was really sweet.  I really enjoyed that.

When you aren’t busy recording or touring or performing in a residence show, what do you enjoy doing?  What does your down time look like?  <Ms. Buckley>  I live on a ranch and I ride horses.  It’s been a wonderful life.  It will be 15 years this November and it’s been a great gift that I’ve given myself.  I moved there the year following 9/11 because I’ve always wanted to have a ranch and live with horses.  I had just gotten too busy to fulfill that dream.  After 9/11, as life changing as that was for all of us, I just felt I really need to do that because how much time might any of us have?  I have 2 beautiful cutting horses and a donkey.  My assistant, Cathy Brighenti has worked with me for 16 years and she lives in a guest house on the ranch.  Between us we have an animal rescue endeavor.  We rescue dogs and cats.  We’ve rescued many that have lived at the ranch.  That’s where I spend my time between engagements.  It’s a very sweet life.  I really am very grateful I get to live there.

Make sure not to miss Betty Buckley and her collection of American characters in Story Songs on Friday and Saturday, October 21-22 at Feinstein’s at the Nikko.


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