North Texas native (and marriage equality advocate) Betty Buckley has been a Broadway powerhouse for more than 40 years. This month, she returns to the New York stage, but she’s still a Texas girl at heart
MARK LOWRY | Special Contributor
Many Americans whose opinions about marriage equality have evolved into the “for” column can credit being effected by a gay family member. But for Broadway star Betty Buckley, it goes back to before her brother Norman and his partner, artist Davyd Whaley, wed in California in 2008. It even goes back before her early days as a star of the Broadway stage, in the 1970s and ’80s, when the AIDS crisis decimated the community of people she worked with and loved.
It starts when Buckley was a teenager in Fort Worth, when she regularly performed at Casa Mañana and studied dance from a couple, Ed Holleman and Larry Howard.
“Back then I didn’t have a definition system for it,” Buckley says in a phone call from her ranch west of Fort Worth, just before taking off to New York, where she’s rehearsing the Horton Foote play The Old Friends for the Signature Theatre. “They were my first dance teachers, they were my mentors and friends. When I went to New York City and got my first job on the first day in town [as Martha Jefferson in 1776], they had me ready for that. I studied with them since I was 11. Those two guys are two of the brightest lights in my life.”
Holleman and Howard were just part of the equation that created one of the great musical theater talents of the latter half of the 20th century. Buckley certainly owes much to voice and acting coaches, too, and to the gods for that heavenly mezzo soprano voice that can go from whisper-soft to roof-shaking belt in a split second.
That talent has led to an illustrious career on the screen, from her turns in the original Carrie (a remake is due out in the fall) and Tender Mercies to her last big feature film, a cameo in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening. On TV, a whole generation remembers Buckley for her role as the mom in Eight is Enough, as well as frequent guest spots, most recently in ABC Family’s Pretty Little Liars, on which her brother Norman is a lead director.
But of course the stage is where she feels most at home, from her Tony Award-winning run in Broadway’s Cats to her acclaimed Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, through her recent London turn in a revival of Jerry Herman’s forgotten musical Dear World. (She does non-singing roles, too, such as her 2011 performance with Tovah Feldshuh in the Dallas Theater Center’s Arsenic and Old Lace and her current project, The Old Friends, which co-stars Lois Smith and the author’s daughter, Hallie Foote.)
With The Old Friends, she returns to working on a Horton Foote project (Foote died in 2009, and this play was never produced, until now), who won an Oscar for his screenplays of To Kill a Mockingbird and Tender Mercies. In fact, Buckley was Foote’s choice as a performer whenever he was being honored somewhere or accepting an award. He always requested her to sing the hymn “Amazing Grace.”
“[Foote] was a lovely, lovely guy,” she says, “a sweet human being.”
When she first got to know Foote, it was on the set of Tender Mercies, which filmed in Waxahachie. That’s where she suggested her brother, who had recently graduated from film school and had stayed with her at the Chateau Marmont in L.A. (where she lived during Eight is Enough, and incidentally, rescued a young Rufus Wainwright from drowning in the pool), to be an assistant editor.
It was around that time that Norman started his coming out process. He fell in love with one of Betty’s Cats co-stars, Timothy Scott (he played Mr. Mistoffelees), and then slowly came out to their mother, Betty Bob Buckley, and their other siblings, twin brothers who still live in Texas.
“I think of all my siblings, Norman is the most happily married,” Buckley says. “I admire [Norman and Dayvd’s] love and support of one another, they have a wonderful relationship.”
For her, marriage equality has always been a no-brainer.
“I don’t think it’s anyone else’s business who marries whom,” says Buckley, who was married, for about eight years in her 20s. “The fact that people think it’s their business is absurd to me.”
Something else she doesn’t see as other people’s business is the perception of her, or any woman stage star, as someone who has the reputation of a “diva,” in whatever context people use that term.
“A diva means, to me, a woman who can go onstage who can sing and act at — to use a Janis Joplin expression — a full tilt boogie,” she explains. “I can do that. But my job is not necessarily who I am. It’s fine with me to be called a ‘diva;’ it’s basically the first lady of a musical or opera.
“Projection is really none of my business,” she adds. “For every independent, intelligent, talented, strong woman in our culture, regardless of whether she’s in show business or any kind of business, there’s a lot of projection on that. It’s a very patriarchal system and women with power, we’ve historically been taught that there’s something scary about that. It’s just absurd. I’m not responsible for other people’s projection or gossip; and no one who is successful in this business is exempt. It happens to everyone.”
That certainly hasn’t stopped her keeping her career going strong. In addition to work on stage in musicals and plays, she has built a healthy oeuvre of albums, most recently with last year’s divine recording of her concert Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway, in which she sings songs written for men to sing on stage. Her follow-up stage show, The Vixens of Broadway, has been a hit in New York and on the touring circuit, including in Fort Worth in April.
In 2014, her new album, the T. Bone Burnett-produced Ghostlight, will be released. There’s no word on the tracks yet, but considering her feelings about marriage equality, being labeled a diva and other topics (don’t get her started on the current Texas battle for women’s reproductive rights), maybe she should consider a cover of an American classic made famous by Billie Holiday: “Taint Nobody’s Business If I Do.”
The Old Friends by Horton Foote with Betty Buckley, Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, Signature Theatre in New York City. In previews through Sept. 11, full run Sept. 12–Oct. 20. SignatureTheatre.org.