One Is Enough

Mention Betty Buckley to a half-dozen people and you'll hear about six different performers. When I told a colleague that Buckley was bringing her one-woman show to town this weekend, he remarked, "Oh, right, that lady from Eight Is Enough." The doorman in my building knows her as the star of Broadway's Cats and Sunset Boulevard, but my next-door neighbor remembers her as Harrison Ford's kidnapped wife in Frantic and the jealous divorcée in Woody Allen's Another Woman. Another friend said, "She's one of my favorite recording artists; I have all her albums." And my visiting aunt had the most perplexing response of all: "Ah, yes, Betty Buckley! That great British lady of the stage."

In fact, Buckley is a native of Texas, but the rest is true: While she's best known for her Tony-winning turn as Grizabella in the original Cats and the London version of Sunset Boulevard (she replaced Patti Lupone, who flounced off after a row with composer Andrew Lloyd Webber), Buckley enjoys an active film and television career. Highlights include 1983's Tender Mercies opposite Robert Duvall and a supporting role in 1976's Carrie (Buckley later took on the role of Carrie's mother in the infamous and ill-fated Broadway musical version in 1988). And her recording career is booming: She's just released a new album and is recording her next, a collection of Christmas standards.

"I never think about all those different personae," she says during a cell-phone interview between tour dates. "I like to work, and I'm fortunate that I get to work in a lot of different arenas."

Buckley owes a good part of that fortune to her mother, who pushed her to "be Julie Andrews back when I wanted to be Janis Joplin."

"My mother refuses to acknowledge that she was a stage mother," Buckley says. "But she used to sneak me out of the house -- my dad was opposed to my being in show business -- and enter me in beauty pageants and talent contests, which I loathed. She wasn't Mama Rose, but she was determined that I was going to be a performer."

Buckley's distinctive vocal talents are best displayed in the sort of woozy ballads that turn to mush in the hands of other cabaret singers. She devotes a good part of her program to new works by young musical theater writers, and says she doesn't like to sing songs that aren't relevant to how she's feeling. Still, she toughs it out for her fans, reprising "Memory" from Cats night after night.

Buckley admits she was surprised at her response when Cats ended its 18-year run last month. "I was trying to make up clever things to say about how I felt about it, but nothing came close. The truth is, I was overwhelmed with melancholy. Even though I did the show for 18 months back in 1984, part of my continuity as a theater performer was connected to Cats. Nothing has changed about the quality of my existence, but it's strange to be in New York and not see that marquee. It's like an umbilical cord has been cut from me and musical theater."

In Cats, Gus the Theater Cat observes that "the theater is not what it once was," a sentiment echoed in recent reports of the death of the Broadway musical. Buckley isn't concerned.

"I've been hearing that one ever since I've been on Broadway -- and I did my first Broadway show when I was 21. Every year, it's, 'Musical theater is dying!' Then, in short order, there's a fleet of new musicals, unlike anything we've seen before. Musical theater has been around since the beginning of man -- it began with a bunch of cave men banging on drums. It's an eternal form; it's not going anywhere."

Buckley eschews the sniffy drivel that stage divas usually deliver during chats about their careers; she's less interested in talking about herself than she is about larger issues. She graciously answers questions about her career and achievements, but she'd rather discuss spiritual philosophies.

"I'm a student of comparative world religion," she explains with no trace of irony. "So you can talk about awards and achievements, but the real greatness is in finding out that we're all essentially alike. Part of one larger spirit."

Buckley's isn't the usual blather one hears from actors eager to convince a reporter of their depth. She's devoted three decades to untangling spirituality from religion and cites historical and philosophical examples of theological evolution. In her spare time, she takes pilgrimages to India and meditates on a Tibetan mantra that goes, "I am that and thou art highest."

"It's about living well, honorably and ethically," she says. "Not getting caught up in comparisons, because one human being, one artist, doesn't compare to another."

Tell that to the press, which wants to contrast Buckley with other performers, usually those with whom she has little in common. Like the British critic who wrote that "Betty is Elaine Page meets Shirley Bassey meets Ute Lemper."

"It drives me friggin' nuts!" Buckley says. "The Sturm und Drang that we all go through equating one artist with another! Singing isn't an athletic competition; it's a very sweet thing. Meant to make people feel good. People get so crazed talking about music, they forget to listen. It's just music."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela