navselect features

Side by Side With Betty Buckley

On March 12, Betty Buckley spoke with the Sondheim Stage about her experiences in musical theater, especially as they relate to Stephen Sondheim. Her Broadway credits include 1776, Pippin, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Song and Dance, Sunset Boulevard, Carrie and Triumph of Love. She was also cast as the witch in the early workshops of Into the Woods and gave a triumphant performance as Mama Rose in the Paper Mill Playhouse's 1998 production of Gypsy. She has also been cast in many television and movie roles and regularly performs in concert. For more information about her life and career you may visit the Official Betty Buckley Website.

SSS: How did you come to play in "Gypsy"?

Betty Buckley: Well I had heard about the project for a while and people made inquiries as to whether I was interested and of course I was interested and really wanted to do it. And at the last minute they came to me.

SSS: So you had wanted to do this for a while?

Betty Buckley: Yes. Whenever people asked what role I wanted to do - it was always Rose in "Gypsy".

SSS: What did you do to prepare for the role?

Betty Buckley: My first exposure to "Gypsy" was when I was fifteen. I played Dainty June at a regional theater in Fort Worth, Texas called Casa Maqana. I remember watching our Mama Rose every night and thinking, I'll play this part someday. I just set my cap towards it at that point. It was six years ago that I did it at the Southern Arizona Light Opera Company. We learned it in two weeks and I did about eight performances. It was really short and I didn't really feel I did it very well. And I also felt that I was too young for it at that point. I know age is really relative and I was old enough chronologically but I didn't feel that I was mature enough to do it properly.

This time around I felt that I had the maturity to play the part. I had a different kind of take on it than when I did it six years ago. I knew better how to do it.

SSS: What does that mean? Did you know Rose better?

Betty Buckley: I just had more knowledge in every way, more security. In six years I had grown that much and I knew better what I was doing and how to do it. There's no comparison. It is quite extraordinary that one can grow that much in six years. Also, I had done "Sunset Boulevard" in between and that was a great growth experience for me.

SSS: I don't know whether you read reviews or not...

Betty Buckley: I always read reviews.

SSS: The New York Times was glowing.

Betty Buckley: Yes, it was really nice.

SSS: They called you the Mama Rose of the century.

Betty Buckley: All the reviews were just wonderful. It was a complete gift. I owe all those guys flowers.

SSS: Does that energize you for your performance?

Betty Buckley: Well it's better than having them say they didn't like it. It's very wonderful to have what you're trying to do be acknowledged.

SSS: Did you feel any sense of intimidation going into a role like that with Merman and Lansbury having played it earlier?

Betty Buckley: I don't think I could ever feel more pressure than I did in "Sunset Boulevard". That was one of the most stressful experiences I've had: to come, in in two situations, to replace somebody in London in such a controversial way, and then to replace somebody with the persona that Glenn Close has was really very tough. It was a tremendous exercise for me to stay really centered and focused and do my work and let the results go and hope that people would see it and appreciate it, and see its value. Fortunately for me they did. It could have so easily gone the other way, but fortunately the critics embraced my work and so did the audience and that was hugely gratifying. The acknowledgement of that, the affirmation of things that I had felt about my own commitment to my work for many years, the studying I had done and the practice, really paid off in that situation. So that kind of acknowledgement can't help but make you feel endorsed for all the hard work you've put in. So after that I felt ready to take on "Gypsy" and I felt that I had something individual to say in the role. Having never seen Merman, I can only get an impression of her. And I'm quite a fan of Angela Lansbury. She's one of our great ladies of the Musical Theater.

But I have my own feelings about ladies as legendary as Ethel Merman and Mary Martin. In those days I was a child. People compared me to them; I was "this little Ethel Merman" because I had this big voice. I had very strong feelings about being a musician and wanting to be very musical. And I never felt that I was an Ethel Merman. I appreciated what she did but I never felt that that was what I was as a singer, nor as a performer. I had seen her in films and she was very unique, but I always felt that I was different than that.

There are interpretations or roles that I feel, "Well, there's nothing else to say here." But there are parts that I look at and say, "That's really nice. That's interesting, that lady's interpretation, but I can also see it in this way." And when I think I have something specific to offer I want to try, and it's not that I'm in competition or should even be compared to other actresses. It's just a different interpretation.

I think "Gypsy" is one of the two greatest musicals in the collection of American Musical Theater along with "West Side Story". And they happened to be the first two musicals I got to do when I was fifteen that summer. I was Dainty June in "Gypsy" and I played Baby John's Girl in "West Side Story". I can sing the entire score of "West Side Story"; I can sing every single character. But there's no part for me. Once at a dinner party I sang it; it was a spontaneous experience. I sang the whole "West Side Story" score. So those were the two great musicals that I've loved from my youth and I've always wanted to do.

So now my life has brought me to a certain point of psychological awareness from the studies I've done and I felt it was alright to reinterpret Mama Rose so I did.

SSS: Would you talk just a bit about how you see your reinterpretation of her character?

Betty Buckley: That's so hard to put into words. I don't think there are any such things as "monsters". I think it's my job as an actress if I play a person who behaves "monstrously" to illuminate the person's humanity and bring psychological perspective as to why they behave monstrously. I feel that's my job as an actor and a storyteller. But of course Mama Rose is one of the great sacred monsters in musical theater.

At my Carnegie hall Concert in 1996 for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, I did a section called "the Sacred Monsters". I did it back to back, changing the costume on stage in front of the audience , Norma Desmond then Margaret White in "Carrie" and I ended with Rose doing "Rose's Turn". I think "Rose's Turn" is one of the greatest character songs ever written. The moment contains a kind of a nervous breakdown. It is remarkably structured. It's remarkable writing. I can't believe that Sondheim wrote that when he was so young. Sondheim is like... I'm such a complete devotee. I hold him in such high esteem. I think that what he writes is beautiful. What's startling is what he wrote at such a young age. It's remarkable what he knows about people and character. His capacity to write a character's dilemma, what I call a monologue song, when the character comes forward and proposes a dilemma before the audience and then consciously works through the alternatives and arrives at a new perspective by the end experientially so that it is an actual visceral experience that the storyteller or the character goes through; no one writes that better than he does.

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.

SSS: Watching you perform that number on stage was both exhilarating and exhausting.

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Do you have a favorite Sondheim song?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Will we be hearing much Sondheim material at your upcoming concert at the Carlyle?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Did you get any feedback from him on "Gypsy"?

Betty Buckley: Not really, he didn't have much to say about "Gypsy".

SSS: Have you then gone back to his songs and performed them the way he wants them done?

Betty Buckley: 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".

SSS: How has Broadway and musical theater changed since you started?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Do you see any new, young composers coming up in the business?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Do you find it frustrating that there aren't many Mama Rose-type roles for women?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: Are there any roles that you'd like to play that you haven't had a chance at yet?

Betty Buckley: 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.

SSS: We look forward to seeing you again on stage. Thank you Betty.

Betty Buckley: You're welcome.

[ © 1998 hijinks design | [ Talk to the SSS | Mark Bakalor ]