There’s more than a hint of bemused irony in Betty Buckley’s voice as she takes note of the recent anniversary of “Cats,” the show for that earned her a Tony, and which opened on Broadway on October 7, 1982.
“I was just like… ‘What? It was 37 years ago? Time just goes by in the blink of an eye!” She chuckles, “Of course, you don’t know that when you’re a younger person. It seems like forever, but one of the things that happens as you get older is that every day just goes by – like ‘vroom, vroom!’”
The celebrated actress and singer, who is about to returns to Los Angeles for a series of appearances at the Segerstrom Arts Center (Oct. 17-19) and the Saban Theatre (Nov. 2), reflects back on her career since that momentous opening night. “I always knew that my best work would be in my later life,” she says, wryly. “Then I woke up about three years ago and realized I was at my later life – and I was shocked!”
She says the revelation came when her friend, director Michael Wilson, called her up “out of the blue” to ask her if she would be in his planned production of “Grey Gardens.” She assumed he was asking her to play the younger, lead role of Little Edie – but he actually wanted her to play BIG Edie, that character’s irascible, elderly mother.
“I started laughing hysterically,” she recalls, “and I said, ‘Oh my God, the time is here, isn’t it!’”
Awkward as it may have been, that phone conversation was the beginning of a new phase in Buckley’s already-storied career. Her performance in “Grey Gardens” won her raves, and from there a role in filmmaker M. Night Shyamalan’s “Split” earned her further accolades.
It was as the title character in the national tour of Broadway’s acclaimed “Hello, Dolly” revival, however, that the renaissance of Betty Buckley seemed to fully bloom – something of a surprise, considering it was a show she had never really felt a connection with.
“It was never a role I imagined for myself or had a desire to play,” she says, “and it was daunting. I mean, the icon that is Carol Channing set the standard for all time, and so many gifted women have played the role. I had no clue what my particular contribution could be, whereas, with other things that I have replaced in – most particularly ‘Sunset Boulevard’ – I knew what my purpose was, who I was going to be in the role. That was a bit confusing, at the beginning.”
There were other challenges, too. Though she had plenty of experience with comedic acting, the role of Dolly calls for a style known as “antic comedy,” which she had never done. Then there was the question of getting into the kind of shape that would permit her to endure the grueling eight-show-a-week performance schedule demanded by a Broadway tour – something she accomplished with the help of her longtime trainer, Pat Manocchia, who put her on a regimen that helped her lose 40 pounds and got her into the kind of shape she “didn’t think was possible, at my age.”
“It was thrilling,” she says, “at age 71, to be learning a whole new skill set. I discovered that I was capable of so much more than I had thought, at this point of my life – and I was really inspired by this character’s commitment to joy and love. I was grateful to take that message out across America in a time period when we so sorely need to be reminded of it. It was an incredible gift.”
It’s telling that Buckley would value a role for the challenges it offered, rather than from any acclaim it may have brought her. It’s also notable that she seems as excited by her twisted character arc as a guest star on the third season of “Preacher” – a TV show of which she calls herself “an ardent fan and devotee” – as she was by her work on “Dolly.”
“I love dark, perverse, aberrated characters,” she gleefully exclaims. “That’s what I spent years in acting school trying to do. I always wanted to be one of those kinds of actors, like Geraldine Page or Kim Stanley or Gena Rowlands. I wanted to be able to bring that kind of emotional rawness to my work, so of course I was excited to do this incredible part.”
This passion for the work itself reflects a refreshing lack of ego from someone who has achieved, by anyone’s reckoning, the status of a Broadway diva.
“At a certain point,” she reflects, “hopefully, you reach a level of knowing about yourself, and what your purpose is as a storyteller – a singer, actress, communicator – and you realize it’s about serving the audience. I made that commitment a long time ago, when I found meditation and spiritual philosophy in my late twenties, and I started to bring it into my work. Before that, what I did was for the audience’s response, for the applause, but it didn’t feel like that was enough. That’s hardly a purpose.”
“Now I teach it in my workshops,” she continues, “how to meditate and use a universal spiritual philosophy as the foundation of making choices as a storyteller, to communicate with audiences at the most essential, universal level.”
That endeavor to communicate is behind her work with longtime collaborator Christian Jacob, who is her pianist, arranger, and music director, and with whom she has worked on a whole series of albums. The latest of these, “Hope” came out in 2018, and its songs will be among the material she performs at her upcoming shows in Southern California, accompanied by Jacob and a quartet of musicians she describes as “incredible.”
It’s at shows like these that Buckley gets to connect on a more intimate level with audiences – including the large LGBT fan base which she has long embraced.
“That gift, the support of that community, is everything to me,” she says. “They’ve been there for me my whole career, and I want to be there for them, to the best of my ability – especially in a time when our human rights are being so thoroughly attacked, by such insanity. That’s my purpose as a communicator and storyteller, to remind people that we are all connected at this essential level of heart. In truth, we’re all one being, as a humanity, and we all deserve to be treated with respect and equality. I’ll continue to fight the good fight, alongside my friends.”
No doubt that fight will be part of her ongoing efforts as a storyteller and communicator, something for which her passion seems only to have been renewed by the late-life resurgence in her career.
“It’s been a great two or three years,” she sighs, contentedly. “I’ve just been really blasting. It’s wonderful to wake up in your later years and be able to say, ‘Shit! I know how to do this!’”
“And some other people know I know how to do it, too, and that’s pretty great!”