To play the title character in the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!,” Betty Buckley lost more than 30 pounds, left behind the beloved horses on her Texas ranch and set aside anxieties about going on the road for the first time at 71.
She did all that to gain a part she’d never expected to take.
“I never had a hankering to do it,” says Buckley, who turned 72 six days before her July 9 opening at Belk Theater. “I saw a couple of versions as a teenager in Texas, I saw Pearl Bailey on Broadway on a college vacation, and the show didn’t make a deep impression. It was a beautiful piece of entertainment, but I never understood why everyone was so excited about this woman flouncing around in pretty costumes and hats.
“Then I saw the (2017) version directed by Jerry Zaks and produced by Scott Rudin with a phenomenal design team. They’d loved ‘Dolly’ as boys and stressed the writing by Michael Stewart, who did such a faithful adaptation of (Thornton Wilder’s) ‘The Matchmaker.’ It was one of the most glorious things I have witnessed in musical theater. I started crying at ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes’ and wept all the way to the end. I was in a state of pure joyous rapture.”
Buckley herself reached Broadway in 1969, five years after “Dolly” opened. The old-fashioned Golden Age was ending, after “Hair” rocked and shocked audiences in 1968.
But the girl who had performed “Steam Heat” at her high school talent show — complete with Bob Fosse moves copied from “The Pajama Game” — landed the role of Martha Jefferson in the Tony-winning production of “1776.”
She then made a career of taking over (and often improving) roles other actresses had created: the female lead in “Pippin,” the matriarchal figure in TV’s “Eight is Enough,” and a trifecta of good parts in Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals: her Tony-winning Grizabella in “Cats,” the lovelorn narrator of the one-woman “Song and Dance,” and mad Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”
So stepping into Dolly Levi’s high-buttoned shoes held no terrors, even on the heels of Bette Midler’s Tony for the revival. Buckley was shooting “Preacher,” the AMC series where she plays the title character’s dangerous grandmother, when her agent relayed the offer.
“I remember pacing my hotel room in New Orleans and thinking, ‘Oh God, I’ll be compared to Carol Channing and Bette Midler and all these great ladies.’ But what a gift to be the quarterback on a team this amazing! I have never done antic comedy – except maybe as a teenaged Ado Annie in ‘Oklahoma!’ – so I got to study farce with Jerry Zaks, a comic genius. I learned a whole new skill at my age.”
A show stopper
Her Broadway musicals range from one immortal flop – the 1988 “Carrie,” which ran for one week with her as Carrie’s mom – to a Tony-nominated role as an 18th-century philosopher in “Triumph of Love” to a dual male-female part in “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” But those who saw her tragic Grizabella have that feline locked in “Memory.”
Says Buckley, “My job assignment was ‘Stop the show.’ I had stopped shows before without knowing why, and this was perplexing and brought a lot of pressure. I was a young singer, a little cocky, and suddenly nothing I was doing in previews was working.
“I had studied for 13 years with Paul Gavert, a voice teacher who said, ‘Beautiful singing is about beautiful focus. One breath becomes the next; one vowel becomes the next.’ He had this caramel-colored Steinway in his apartment at 54th and Seventh, I’d go over on lunch breaks, and he helped me find the key to that song. Everything I’d gathered in my mental computer suddenly lined up.”
She doesn’t hand students “Zen and the Art of Archery,” which Gavert gave her, but she uses some of his ideas when teaching song interpretation to college-age performers. She imparts technique, but “I mostly use meditation as the means of focusing your mind. I teach how to do that over five intense days, in such a way that you have a soul connection with your audience.”
Actress and cowgirl
A conversation with her comes back repeatedly to storytelling, whether via the broad canvas of “Dolly” or in vignettes from her night club act and jazz-influenced recordings for Palmetto Records. After watching Sarah Vaughan and Keith Jarrett, Buckley decided to create that same intimacy with singer-songwriter and musical theater repertoires.
“My custom is to create a new body of music every year. It’s almost like being a painter: I paint all year and then have a presentation of my work. One of the great joys of life is standing onstage listening to great musicians play, being swept away by them.”
Her Twitter feed describes her as “actress/singer/cowgirl/teacher.” Three are obvious, but the Big Spring, Tex., native has always had a horse-drawn side, too.
At home in Texas
She traces her roots to a grandfather who drove cattle in the 1800s and a grandmother who homesteaded her own ranch in South Dakota at 18. After Buckley recovered from the shock of the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, she bought property back in Texas.
She’d once been a barrel rider, “the only rodeo sport open to girls then.” At 55, she began to raise cutting horses and compete in American Cutting Horse Association events, “the only sport where horses think for themselves.” (Riders guide horses with leg pressure, as mounts cull cattle from a herd.)
“My cutting horse, Purple Badger, was 5 years old and a champion. A brilliant creature, my teacher and soulmate. I’d give him the wrong cue, and he’d put his ears back to say, ‘I know what you’re telling me, but I will do the right thing for you instead.’
“I bought another couple of horses for my ranchette, which is what they call anything under 100 acres in Texas. Then came numerous dogs and cats, which I rescued with my assistant. (They took four on the “Dolly” tour, whose cast and crew travel with a dozen canines.)
“The Catch-22 of owning a little ranch is that you have to work all the time to support the whole operation,” Buckley said. “So my life, which had always been practice-practice-work-work-study-study, now became all about rescuing animals!”
When: July 9-14 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 1:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Belk Theater, 130 N. Tryon St.
Details: 704-372-1000 or blumenthalarts.org.
This story is part of an Observer underwriting project with the Thrive Campaign for the Arts, supporting arts journalism in Charlotte..
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