Stage Legend Betty Buckley on Living With Her Signature Song, “Memory”

Music Features Betty Buckley
Stage Legend Betty Buckley on Living With Her Signature Song, “Memory”

At tonight’s Saturn Awards in Los Angeles, the great Betty Buckley is a nominee for Best Supporting Actress for her role in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. It’s yet another honor in a long career that has seen Buckley move effortlessly from stage to screen to recording studio. She played the doomed Miss Collins in 1976’s Carrie, starred in TV’s Eight Is Enough from 1977 to 1981, won a 1983 Tony Award for her part in the original Broadway production of Cats, and has recorded 18 solo albums along the way. In April, Buckley released Story Songs, a live double-album taken from her 2015 one-woman show. She spoke with Paste recently about making the record and what it’s like to have one historic song follow you throughout your career. The conversation has been edited and condensed.

Paste: Time famously called you “THE voice of Broadway,” and yet the very first track of Story Songs begins with a full two and a half minutes of solo piano introduction. Tell me about developing that and choosing to open the whole album with two and a half minutes of this wondrous playing.

Betty Buckley: Well, I really think that the work we do together in concert, [pianist/arranger] Christian [Jacob] and my incredible band, it’s a collaborative thing. It’s intended to take the audience on a journey. I just think that the live recording—and maybe we wouldn’t have done that in a studio recording—but it’s to take people on this experience of the concert itself. That’s how we do it in the concert. It’s so beautiful. I’ve just been blessed to be able to work with musicians of this quality, I’ve only been able to do the work that I’ve done in the world because of incredibly gifted and ridiculously expert musicians. The musicianship leads me, you know, inspires me, to the interpretation that I am able to give.

Paste: You grew up in Fort Worth, Texas—a long way from Broadway and it probably seemed even farther. What stoked the fires in you to even think that path was possible?

“I always knew I had a big voice, but they always put me in the back row of the choir or the all-city chorus in elementary school, trying to make me blend in, and I didn’t understand why my voice didn’t blend in.”

Buckley: My mother had been a singer-dancer and my aunt had been a dancer, a professional dancer, and even was a dance teacher. I studied ballet, tap, jazz, and then my mother took me to see my first piece of musical theatre when I was 11, which was Pajama Game, with the original Bob Fosse choreography, and I was really smitten by that. And I had an epiphany. I didn’t have the words to know that’s what it was, but during that show, when I saw “Steam Heat” with the vintage Fosse choreography, I just knew what I would be doing for the rest of my life. And then when I was in the seventh grade, I came home—I was very small forever, and it took me like, until I was 15, almost 16, to grow and I grew all at once in one summer, but prior to that I was really short. I was very, very tiny, and kind of this late bloomer. And so I wanted to be in the junior-high talent show, but it consisted of these girls doing line dances from different age groups and I knew that I wouldn’t be invited to be in any of those line dances where they are all showing off their prepubescent and pubescent bodies. I was like, “This is not happening.” So, I came home from school and told my mother that I wanted to do “Steam Heat.” And coincidentally, the guys who had been the lead dancer and choreographer for that show had just opened—they had toured in several productions for Fosse and so they knew about everything Fosse, you know? My mother called them—they had just opened a studio—and said, “My daughter wants to learn ‘Steam Heat.’” So she took me into meet them and, you know, kind of helped me discover that I had this big voice. I always knew I had a big voice, but they always put me in the back row of the choir or the all-city chorus in elementary school, trying to make me blend in, and I didn’t understand why my voice didn’t blend in, you know? So I was pretty self-conscious about it, but these guys just kind of set me free, and I realized there was a place in the world for girls with big voices.

Paste: You’d already accomplished plenty by the time you starred in Cats, but it changed the game for you. At what point did you realize that this was going to be one of the biggest Broadway shows of all time?

Buckley: Yeah, well they said it was “now and forever,” so I think we all assumed that was the truth (laughs). That was the advertising slogan. Yeah, I had been studying for quite a few years to become a better actress and I had a particular vision of becoming a quality of actress like my role models, like Geraldine Page and Kim Stanley and, later on, Gena Rowlands. They all really inspired me and I wanted to become that kind of naturalistic, realistic actress, if you will. And I then kind of envisioned bringing that quality of truth telling to dramatic singing on Broadway. I thought that would be particularly cool if that could happen. And it wasn’t until “Memory” that I had that quality of material to bring all of those aspects together—the storytelling aspects, the dramatic singing aspects—with that kind of character who had lived such a hard life and had that quality of message.

Paste: You had just made a pretty big leap from the television world.

Buckley: I was on Broadway in Pippin for two years and eight months, and then from Pippin, I left the show and did my first film, Carrie. And my performance in Carrie led to Eight Is Enough. Now, on Eight Is Enough, I was in Hollywood for four years and that was a really difficult work situation for me; it was like working in a factory. And I’d never done anything like that; it was all-consuming. But I was still going to acting classes, Stella Adler’s Script Analysis class and acting classes as an observer while I was in LA. And I was flying back to New York every six weeks for voice lessons with my brilliant teacher, Paul Gaver. So when I finished Eight Is Enough the first job I did was [the 1983 film] Tender Mercies. And that was an incredible gift—again, it was a wonderful character, she’s a raging alcoholic, a contemptuous country-western star. And I of course got to work with Robert Duvall, who is one of the world’s greatest actors. That was a real gift from the universe to me. And then shortly following that, I got Cats and it was the same thing. And they both came out the same year. And I felt like those two projects were kind of like my master’s thesis.

Paste: You’ve sung a lot of songs in your career, but none bigger than “Memory,” from Cats. Has its appeal, its edge, dulled for you over the years having performed it so much, having heard it so much, having so many people know you for it?

Buckley: Well, “Memory” has been the jewel of my collection of music. You know, it took a long time to learn how to do it right—like three months, the eight weeks of rehearsal and then the weeks of our preview performances. And it wasn’t until like three performances before the opening night that it actually came together. It was quite a process to learn how to really play Grizabella and connect with the audience through a piece of material like that, that is so strong. So it is a treasure to me, like I said a jewel, and it’s also my signature song. I mean I feel really honored to even have a signature song, but that is mine. I’ve never grown tired of it. It’s not even a song to me, it’s more like a place. Grizabella herself is one of my great teachers, and I even think of her as a soulmate or a beloved friend and I get to visit with her every time I enter the place of her song. And it’s always the same place and it’s always an incredibly beautiful dreamscape, if you will. And Grizabella herself has continued to teach me so many things through the years. I’ve been singing her song and representing her soul through sharing my soul with her since 1982. So it’s evolved, while it’s the same place and the same dreamscape, the experience—her experience—she keeps teaching me new things about life and humanity and how to see most especially, how to really witness and see and love this world, you know. She moves me very much so I’ve never really ever tired of her at all. I treasure the opportunity to enter there and as soon as I hear the opening chords of the music, I’m immediately there.

Paste: Is there a particular performance of “Memory” that pops out to you?

Buckley: Yeah, the first time it all came together, because I had been singing it in the preview performances and it wasn’t working, so they were calling these special rehearsals with me, and they were trying to the best of their ability to help me and just nothing was working. So I went to my voice teacher, Paul Gaver, and I had a real breakthrough session with him. I mean I was in a constant state of prayer and meditation, asking for guidance about how to do this and suddenly all of this guidance came from my inner self, you know, just started instructing me as to where to go and how to find inspiration. I encountered these homeless women on the streets on New York that really changed my point of view about it all and what I needed to bring to the circumstances of the choreography and to the direction that [director] Trevor [Nunn] had given me. I began to understand something different at a deeper level of what he was trying to take me to. And when it all started to coalesce, the night that I walked onstage and it all came together, that moment when I finished singing was a breathless silence from the audience and then the place just went nuts. And I was like, Oh okay! You know? But it took weeks and weeks—seriously three months of work before that connection happened and, you know, a lot of commitment to a deeper level of experience than I’d ever experienced before in the material or onstage, and that’s what I was hoping for, praying for. But the journey to get there had a lot of steps.

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