The Tony®-winner and Theater Hall-of-Famer is back where it started.
When Betty Buckley isn't in a major musical, like the revival of Grey Gardens now at the Ahmanson Theatre, or performing her cabaret act, as she will be in late October at Segerstrom Center's Samueli Theater, she is back in the saddle in the land of her birth.
At 69, she claims shared title to "Voice of Broadway," based on her association with the "eleven o'clock number" from some of the Great White Way's greatest hits, most notably "Memory" from Cats. Others include Sunset Blvd., which she managed to connect with despite the previous digging in of two divas – Glenn Close and Patti Lupone. It was New York magazine's critique brutale, John Simon, who found Buckley's "third and best Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard" the reason "we finally have a show on which the sun also rises."
Buckley continues to appear in film (Split, her second film with M. Night Shyamalan, arrives in January) and television, release recordings, and both study and teach.
What has her focus now, however, is her cutting horses, which she raises on her property in Fort Worth. She rides competitively in the equine sport based on the cowboy maneuver of separating a steer or calf from their herd. In May we spoke by telephone as background for two articles I wrote for the Segerstrom Center. The hour-plus interview provided a wealth of her insight into her personal history and philosophy about her art.–Cristofer Gross
GOING OFFSTAGE RIGHT
Theatertimes I read about your decision to move back to Fort Worth, where you were born and lived as a teenager, and to be own horses as you reclaimed your homeland and realized a long-held dream. It was coincidental that you did it at age 55, because that was the same age I moved to a home in the mountains and began a more modest, but similar, pursuit.
Buckley Yeah, I was exactly 55. It was a year after 9/11 and I realized I had wanted to ride cutting horses since I was 12. And so I went on a cutting horse quest and connected with one of the top trainers in the sport to get help finding my horse. I was commuting for about another year before I realized I needed to live where my horse lived. So I changed my life and, two years after 9/11 moved back to Texas. And it's just been a wonderful gift that I've given myself.
Theatertimes And you have said that being back in Texas worked its way into your 2014 release?
Buckley Yes. Ghostlight, which was produced by the the multi-Grammy and Oscar-winning T Bone Burnett really does reflect that.
Theatertimes You knew each other in school?
Buckley We've known each other since we were teenagers and because we're both from Texas I think there's something he knows about me that's essential to who I am as an artist. And because he produces recordings like a filmmaker, very image-oriented, there's a breadth and sense of expanse to the record that feels like Texas to me. Within that expanse you hear this girl storyteller singing about love and heartbreak, and with all the masculinity around me in the musicians there's this kind of light and dark to the record that's so beautiful.
Theatertimes How did you pick the songs?
Buckley We sat down in his house and I played him tapes of about 70 songs I had sung in concert through the years but never recorded. We boiled that down to 12 for Ghostlight, but then there were another eight that could be released as they were recorded live, and we released those first as Bootleg: Boardmixes from the Road.
Theatertimes I was transported by your version of the old Marty Balin tune, "Comin' Back to Me," which was the opening track on Jefferson Airplane's groundbreaking Surrealistic Pillow.
Buckley Oh yeah, that's my favorite track. We picked that one pretty quickly for the record. I just love that song and I used to play their album over and over until I wore it out and had to buy a new one. And that song in particular had a certain mesmerizing, hypnotic quality to it. It was very visual too, like I experienced it as a teenager and I was just like, 'Oh God, this world …' And T Bone plays on the track, too, with Bill Frisell, and with the guitars, it has such a hypnotic groove. I just love that.
Theatertimes It occurred to me that the 'coming back to me' has a parallel resonance for you, because of your move back to Texas. The song is also about an individual returning to his or her own essence as they get older and allow the searching to relax and find their personal wellspring.
Buckley Wow that's very insightful, Cris. Thank you.
THROUGH AN OPEN WINDOW
Theatertimes Tell me about that childhood.
Buckley My dad was in the Air Force, and though I was born in Fort Worth, we traveled a lot when I was a kid. I started school in Morocco and was in Maine for fourth grade. We settled back in Fort Worth when I was in fifth grade. My dad retired from the Air Force and became a college professor and an engineer at General Dynamics and he wrote books on construction management.
Theatertimes Was your mother a professional person?
Buckley My mom was a singer-dancer who was forced to give that up when she got married. My aunt was a dance teacher and so I studied dance with her from the time I was 3, and I loved it. I was just obsessed with music. I grew up singing in churches. The Methodist Church is a great place to grow up: It's pretty loose and they have good hymns. I had this very spiritual fire in me from music and so I studied all the great lady singers and imitated them and that was really how I learned to sing.
Also, my mother had this huge record collection of Broadway cast albums and great lady singers. When I was 11 she took me to see my first musical, Pajama Game, with the original Bob Fosse choreography. I had an epiphany watching "Steam Heat." The girl and two guys wore black bow ties, little derby hats and dance shoes and it was the coolest looking thing. And this energy just rose up and went to the top of my head and turned back to me [to say] "That's it! That's what you're going to be doing for the rest of your life."
Theatertimes What was school like? Did you perform?
Buckley It was a very cliquish Junior High School, and they had a talent show. I told my mother, "I want to learn 'Steam Heat.'" And she said "Well that's really uncanny Betty Lynn, because Ed Holleman and Larry Howard just opened a dance school in Fort Worth." They were the choreographer and lead dancer of Pajama Game in the production I'd seen at Casa Manana, and had danced and toured for Fosse in several of his shows.
They took me on as a student and taught me "Steam Heat" with the original hat tricks and choreography and my mother had this little suit made for me with the bow tie and the little bowler hat. I got into the talent show and they put me on right before the senior girls did their version of "Can Can," which only the coolest girls were invited to be in. So I did my number and when I finished, there was breathless silence. Then the place went crazy! And as I ran offstage, our principle stopped me and, he later told me, I said, "Boy we're having fun tonight!" He sent me back out for another bow.
From that moment I was notorious and they called me "Little Bitty Betty Buckley with the Big Voice." I did a new number each year in the junior high talent show and then went to high school and continued performing and studied journalism and was the editor of the school paper and on the yearbook staff. My father didn't want me to be an actress singer. He thought that was an illegitimate profession. My mother became a journalist after giving up performing. He thought journalism was more compatible with the life I would have with my future husband.
Theatertimes But wasn't the reason he was attracted to your mother that she was a performer?
Buckley Yes. Exactly. He was contradictory about a lot of things, actually. But my mother's passion really helped me. She would literally sneak me out of the house for my dance classes and stuff against his wishes.
When I was 13 I had this vision. I was listening on my bedroom balcony in the house my father had built on an old cattle ranch. Through the window I listened to the singer on my record player and looked up to where the pastures met the horizon, past the windmill and all the cows. And I was feeling that expanse and beauty of the Texas plane and I just had this vision of who I was as a singer and that I was definitely going to sing on Broadway and that I knew what my voice would sound like and I knew how it would affect people.
Photos: Betty Buckley in a current publicity photo (top); with one of her horses a few years ago (second); in a cutting horse event in Fort Worth (third photo, by Don Shugart); and Buckley with Rachel York in Grey Gardens.
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'OUR EYES ARE OPEN …'
Credit where it's overdue
In 1979, United Artists released Milos Forman's film version of the 1968 Broadway musical Hair, "The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical."
Though some contemporary and latter-day critics, including the composer-creators, had issues with the adaptation, its funk-infused arrangements by composer Galt MacDermot, driven by the great bassist Wilbur Bascomb, have made the film's soundtrack a longtime personal favorite. Although there were decades after my cassette tape lost its juju that I was Hair-less, once streaming services and Youtube arrived, the soundtrack was back, highlighted by the transcendent "Walking in Space."
Imagine my surprise to discover, after interviewing Betty Buckley for advance articles on her upcoming Segerstrom Center shows, that it was her celestial voice I'd been listening to all these years, and not that of the Vietnamese woman (Linda Surh, pictured below) who appears to sing these lines in the middle of the song:
My body is walking in space
My soul is in orbit, with God face to face
Floating, flipping … flying, tripping
Tripping from Potsville to Starlight …
Tripping from Starlight to Moonville
Most of those who know the movie and the song have long assumed that the woman who appears to be singing actually is the singer. Not only because it's a great lip-syncing job, but because Buckley did not receive any credit in the film or on the soundtrack.
"They were supposed to credit me and they just didn't," Buckley said in the follow-up interview she generously granted. "So that was a drag. A lot of people don't know it's me. But …," she thought for a moment, "that's okay. It's a beautiful score. I'd worked for Galt MacDermot in some workshops in the past, and I'm a huge fan of his, and I loved the musical Hair. So I was thrilled to get to be involved."
She went on to explain how she became connected with the project.
"Tom Pierson was the music director and he was subletting my apartment in New York while he was working on the film. They were looking for someone to play the voice of the 15-year-old Vietnamese girl and he suggested me. So I went in one afternoon and just sang those four lines in 'Walking in Space.'
"I actually think it's the best recording of my voice that anyone's ever done," she said. "It really was the engineer. Certain engineers really know how to give the singer the right mix in their earphones. My voice isn't easy to capture in a recording because it has a really wide dynamic spread. And he was able to give me the perfect reverb pocket so I felt like I could sing on and on … I'm really grateful to the guy."
And she got it in just one take.
"Yeah," she said. "And it was really funny. When I was in Cats, one of the guys in the show said that was his favorite thing in the film. He had been looking to discover who that little girl was and then someone said, 'You know that's Betty's voice.' He started bowing down and was like 'Oh my God! You're the girl!'"
I know exactly how he felt.
Photo: Linda Surh in the film, lip-synced Buckley's vocal.