Betty Buckley, Storyteller

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Thursday April 27, 2017
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Betty Buckley: "I'm grateful that I even have a signature song."
Betty Buckley: "I'm grateful that I even have a signature song."

Though best-known for her work in musical theater, Betty Buckley is a performer with a diverse fan base. She's fondly remembered as a TV mom in the long-running series "Eight Is Enough," and known as a "scream queen," having starred with Sissy Spacek in the classic horror film "Carrie" (1976). More recently Buckley has worked with filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan in a pair of chillers, "The Happening" (2008) and "Split" (2016).

"I'm a huge Night fan," Buckley told the B.A.R., speaking from her home in Texas. "He's one of our great storytellers, I've seen every film he's made. It's so much fun to work with Night. It's a very loving atmosphere."

In "Split," just released on DVD and BluRay, Buckley plays Dr. Karen Fletcher, a psychiatrist whose patient (James McAvoy) has 23 distinct personalities. The doctor gradually comes to the realization that one of those personalities has kidnapped three teenaged girls. A 24th personality, called "The Beast," emerges, displaying terrifying superhuman strength.

Buckley was delighted to be told by Shyamalan that he had written Dr. Fletcher especially for her. She's been honored for her work in "Split" with a Best Featured Actress nomination at this year's Saturn Awards, the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films. "It was awesome," she said of making the film. "It was a thrill to work with Night again. James McAvoy should be remembered at Oscar time."

Buckley has known the joy of winning awards. In 1982 she starred as Grizabella in the original Broadway production of the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Cats." For 18 months she brought down the house with her powerful rendition of the show-stopping ballad "Memory," and she won a Tony Award for the role.

"I was so relieved when they called my name," she recalls. " 'Cats' had been nominated for so many Tonys that night, and I was very concerned that I would be the only one not to win and let the team down. It was such a kick, and a really wild experience! I thanked everybody and couldn't remember my twin brothers' names [Pat & Mike], so I referred to them as 'my other brothers.'"

Buckley's many other credits include Webber's "Sunset Boulevard," in which she starred as the faded silent-screen siren Norma Desmond. In 2006 she reprised "Memory" at the Kennedy Center Honors tribute to Webber.

"Andrew is one of the all-time great theatrical impresarios," she said. "Besides being an incredible composer, he is a brilliant producer. Everyone who works for him in every job category is an expert at what they do. It is a blessed thing to get to work for him."

"Memory" has since become a standard, and Buckley is delighted to have introduced the song to Broadway audiences. "I am most grateful for the gift of the song 'Memory' in my life, which I am honored to say is my signature song," she said. "I'm grateful that I even have a signature song."

Buckley has performed extensively as a solo act, appearing in concerts across the country. She has recorded many CDs, the most recent of which, "Story Songs," is now available. In "Story Songs," Buckley performs a wide array of musical genres. From the Great American Songbook (George Gershwin) to musical theater greats (Rodgers & Hammerstein, Stephen Schwartz) to contemporary singer-songwriters (Leonard Cohen, Joni Mitchell), Buckley puts her own emotional stamp on each song.

"Story Songs" opens with two tunes that take on a whole new meaning during the Trump presidency. In the haunting "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" from the musical "South Pacific," Buckley sings plaintively about bigotry, often a learned trait that children pick up from their elders. And in "Cassandra," a new piece by theatre composer-lyricist Jason Robert Brown, Buckley notes how women are often silenced by men.

"'Carefully Taught' has a tremendous resonance," she said. "It was written right after WWII. It's about prejudice. That a song written in the early 1950s is still so resonant today is extremely poignant. 'Cassandra' and 'Carefully Taught' seem to go together musically."

Stephen Sondheim's "I'm Still Here," from the musical "Follies," is another standout selection. In "I'm Still Here" an actress looks back on her life while making sharp observations about how the entertainment industry treats female performers. "Incredible lyrics," Buckley says of the song. "It's a history of the 20th century through one woman's story, a great accomplishment. I sing it as an homage to [Broadway legend] Elaine Stritch. I was so honored to be part of Follies in Concert."

She continues to tour and perform regularly, and hopes for a return engagement at Feinstein's at the Nikko in the near-future. "I love singing at Feinstein's, it's a wonderful room," she said. "And I love being in San Francisco."

Now a show-business legend in her own right, Buckley embraces the many facets of her career, as well as the fan-bases she enjoys from different worlds. "I'm just a working girl," she said. "I'm happy to continue working with great people."

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