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Side by Side With Betty Buckley
by Bruce Janiga

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I remember when I was in Into the Woods. I did the first workshop and the pre-Broadway workshop. Well, I sat there in that workshop lusting after those children's songs, the Cinderella song is one of those songs, and the song for Jack. The witch had these rap tunes and that one little perfect melody which Sondheim told me in rehearsals that he wrote for me, the "Stay with me" melody. I was just yearning. Because nobody writes such profound character with such multi-dimensional, psychological complexity and such beautiful melody with such complicated and beautiful dissonance that describes with musical sound the character's emotions and feelings. There are certain chords in the universe that can just open one's soul; they are so darkly, darkly beautiful. And that is one of the things I love more than anything; a sort of dark beauty in music that is the most perfect deep, velvet red, almost to the point of being purplely rose that just opens itself so wide. It's like this kind of beautiful wound. And he writes that and that's one of the things I love most in music.

The other thing is the quest for character. I consider myself first and foremost a storyteller and then an actor-singer and that kind of material is very rare: that beautiful, that clear and that sophisticated all at the same time. I think "Rose's Turn" is one of the most perfect pieces of musical theater, ever. So the opportunity to play that part with a more mature understanding and more psychological perspective was something that I really was very grateful to get to do.

Joan Marcus
Betty Buckley and Lenny Wolpe in Paper Mill's Gypsy

Watching you perform that number on stage was both exhilarating and exhausting.
What I try to do when I have a character who behaves monstrously... See I don't believe there's any human being who is completely good nor is there any human being who is completely bad. I think we're all full of light and dark and infinite shades of gray and I find that fascinating about people. Years ago my favorite actresses were Kim Stanley and Geraldine Paige, later years Gena Rowlands and I wanted to be an actress like that. I wanted to be someone who had the skills to do the complicated, heavy-duty stuff and so I studied and studied and studied and worked and worked and worked and practiced and practiced and practiced to become that kind of actress. So I have that ability now and I interpreted the character accordingly. Just because Ethel Merman played it that way or just because that's the way that we remember the part... it's not written in stone. I feel like it's a large enough piece in terms of its absolute greatness that it can hold the possibility of another angle on it. That's what I wanted to bring to it.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim song?
I have a lot of favorite Sondheim songs. I love "Every Day a Little Death". I love "Move On". I've never sung, but I love "Joanna". I love a lot of the songs he wrote for men. To get back to Into the Woods, I sat there in that workshop thinking I can do this kind of material so well. Give me a chance to do this kind of storytelling. And it didn't exist for me in the context of the show at that point. So it was this sweet torture to sit there and listen to this beautiful music and hear all these wonderful stories and see that they were in the hands of the children. They were all very charming, perfect for the show. I just wanted material like that's so that I could really delve into the depth of the confusion or the deliberation and go on an active, spontaneous journey that one can risk if you have that kind of skill. That's what I love to do and there isn't that much material that lets me do it unless it's written by Stephen Sondheim.

Will we be hearing much Sondheim material at your upcoming concert at the Carlyle?
Probably not. He doesn't like my arrangements and he let me know that when I was in London, which was heartbreaking because it was one of the biggest, one of the most shocking moments of my life. I'd sent him a couple of my CDs because we recorded a lot of his songs and he came backstage and congratulated me and I could tell that he seemed kind of uncomfortable and I said, "Mr. Sondheim, I sent you my CDs and you never responded." He said, "Well I wouldn't have brought it up but since you did, I'll tell you: I don't like what you've done with my songs." And I was just heartbroken. It was shattering to me. And he had some theories as to why I had arranged them that way and I said, "I honestly have been only inspired and only, completely...." I had no words to tell him how much I love his work. I can't even put it into language, how meaningful it is to me and how important his work has been for me.

I remember one time, years ago, some critic in some magazine didn't speak about him in the sacred terms that I felt that they should. I called the magazine when I was a young actress and I spoke with the editor; I was just livid. And he said, "People have a right to write what they..." and I said, "No you don't. Stephen Sondheim is one of our greatest writers in theater and we need to honor him and revere him and how dare you, who do you think you are?" That's the kind of passion I feel about him. So when he said this to me backstage at Sunset Boulevard I was just awestruck; I couldn't believe it. I said, "I feel like this student and the work I've done with these songs was always true to your themes. I just took them as far in that direction as they would go." I thought my work was honoring his and he didn't see it that way. So I swore to him that I would be true to his intent from that moment on and he told me that that's the way he needed it to be. I've seen him in passing since then and he's always been kind. He's such a great artist and a wonderfully complicated person.

Did you get any feedback from him on Gypsy?
Not really, he didn't have much to say about Gypsy.

Have you then gone back to his songs and performed them the way he wants them done?
I did "Send in the Clowns" not long ago at a benefit and it was with the Broadway orchestration. The last time I was at Maxim's I sang a new repertoire. I sang "The Miller's Son" using the original Broadway chart but it was with a trio. Eventually I want to return to the idea of a series of those songs like "Joanna".

How has Broadway and musical theater changed since you started?
I feel it's become much more corporate. The day of the hands-on artistic producer, there are a few of them left but not that many. This corporation-producing thing is somewhat scary. Because the producers are remote and it's about the dollar.

Do you see any new, young composers coming up in the business?
Several. There's Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel, and Jason Robert Brown. They are remarkable. There's also Jeanine Tesori, who wrote Violet; she's brilliant. I'd love to do a show with her, actually all of them.

Joan Marcus
  Deborah Gibson and Betty Buckley in Paper Mill's Gypsy

Do you find it frustrating that there aren't many Mama Rose-type roles for women?
No, I don't find it frustrating. I'm not one of these people who sit around and think, I've got to do this, I've got to do that. In fact to be honest with you, I was glad that Gypsy was only seven weeks long because it's such a difficult part if you do it full out, eight times a week. It's hard to do that, very difficult. Like being a finely tuned marathon runner and running way too many marathons without enough time to recover. I wasn't that upset that the show didn't move forward. I've done some great, wonderful shows and I've been very privileged to get to do so. If some others come along in my life that would just be frosting on the cake and on the other hand as long as I can do music, as long as I can work with the great musicians with whom I work I'll be satisfied. I would like to be able to sing for as much of my life as I can and I hope my voice and my ability to experience music last till the day I die. That would be what I would hope for. If it doesn't happen that way it would be a very difficult thing to have to go through. I can honestly say I love music just about more than anything; it's one of my dearest loves.

Are there any roles that you'd like to play that you haven't had a chance at yet?
No. There are roles I could do, but do I need to do them? No. If they happened, yes, but my feelings about all that have changed. I feel whatever comes is fine. Whatever I can create... I'm starting my own record label this year with my associate Kevin Duncan. He and I co-produced the Carnegie Hall Concert and we're starting our own production company and record label. We're very excited about that. We have several recording projects that we're going to do and I'm really looking forward to doing that. And I love my life; I do concert work all year long, traveling from one place to the next doing concerts with phenomenal musicians. There's no greater privilege than being able to stand on a stage and sing for people. It's amazing.

We look forward to seeing you again on stage. Thank you Betty.
You're welcome.

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