Betty Buckley has graced the London stage periodically for more than 40 years, and the Broadway diva, now 65, returns this season to play Countess Aurelia in Jerry Herman’s little-seen 1969 musical Dear World, based on the Jean Giraudoux play The Madwoman of Chaillot. Newly installed into New York's Theatre Hall of Fame, Buckley is revered by Broadway audiences as the Tony-winning star of Cats, Sunset Boulevard and the original Mystery of Edwin Drood and, more recently, for her cabaret evenings and recordings, including Ah, Men! After a long day’s rehearsal for Dear World, which begins previews on February 4 at the Charing Cross Theatre, Buckley settled in for a wide-ranging chat with Broadway.com.
It’s great to hear you sounding well: I gather you had a cold over New Year’s?
Yes, it really had me, and I haven’t been sick in forever. But I feel great now.
Well, we’re glad to have you back in London, in what by my reckoning is your fourth stage appearance in 40 years.
I love London; I just love it. I had to have lived here in a former life [laughs].
What prompted your appearance in Dear World, which is getting its UK premiere with this production?
People had been telling me about it for years and years. They were always saying what a great part [the Countess Aurelia] was for me, and at one point some people who were considering a production sent me the original script. Then two years ago, I got a call from Gillian [Lynne, the director/choreographer], who I had stayed in touch with since we did Cats, and she said, “We’re going to do Dear World!” She asked me to fly into New York to discuss it, and it all moved on from there.
Although not a Broadway success in 1969, the show did win Angela Lansbury the second of her five Tony Awards. Did you see it at the time?
No, I didn’t. But I have great admiration and love for Angela. I have met her in passing throughout the years, and she has always been extremely kind and fabulous to me. It’s amazing to get to play a role associated with her.
Do you have any thoughts as to why the show closed after only a few months the first time around?
Well, in those days, [Broadway] did the shows that Jerry Herman was known for— which, for want of a better word, were the “presentational,” show biz musicals like Mame and Hello, Dolly! But Dear World is something different. It’s very ethereal, very delicate; we’re calling it a “musical fable.” So I can only imagine that the show didn’t really fit with the context of Jerry Herman’s work as it was understood at the time. Our version will come closer to the heart of what [the composer] had in mind, perhaps.
Do you know Jerry Herman?
I met him in passing years and years ago. I don’t even remember the occasion; I was very young. But I hope he likes what I’m doing.
The role of the Countess Aurelia certainly seems a juicy one.
Oh yes, it’s a brilliant part! I mean, first of all, it’s huge. And I’m doing it with a British accent—we all are—so I’ve been working with a dialect coach. Gillian and the cast are keeping me on track in rehearsal; they’re on my case constantly [laughs]. Today we stumbled through the first act, and I felt a lot of frustration with myself because there’s still so much to get through and I hate it when I make mistakes. But I look around at my director and my cast and I think, “This is such a precious time, and it’s going to go by so quickly. Don’t waste time being hard on yourself. Be grateful that you’re here.”
You certainly mastered an English accent for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Have you been to see the current Broadway revival?
I haven’t had time. But it is kind of a funny moment when you realize you’ve been around the block long enough for a show you originated to be in revival mode!
Should we be surprised that, at this point in your life and career, you still want to commit to a theater run?
I think I have a couple more long runs in me, and when a show is successful, I do like the structure of doing eight shows a week—it’s a very ritualized and disciplined existence in which everything basically has to be done every day in terms of maintaining those eight performances. I like it when life affords me the opportunity to make those demands on myself. I enjoy the in-between times, as well; I love concert work, travelling around the country singing for people. I lead a very blessed existence.
What are the demands of the Countess compared to, say, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard?
This is a different kind of part from Norma Desmond. That was hard, too—it was a big job—but I’m singing a lot more in this than I did as Norma, and there is a lot of dancing, as well. Norma was demanding physically, running up and down those stairs 12 times a night. I remember, too, my little dressing team with the various people doing the changes and all of us beside ourselves with the speed with which that all had to be done. Eventually, we got to a place where it happened like clockwork.
But something like this must require a degree of upheaval.
It does! I live in Texas, where we have 17 animals, and it is really hard to leave them—the many cats and dogs and horses and a donkey; it’s a lot! But I have a caretaker who stays at the ranch when I’m not there, my brother checks things out and a housekeeper comes in once a week. My mother is taking care of our little dog: She’s 80-something and is coming to London to see me in the show, along with my godmother.
Presumably the hope is for a longer run beyond March 30.
All of us are hoping the show will be successful and move to a larger theater in the West End and then come to Broadway. It would be divine if that were to happen. We are working with that hope held high in our hearts.
It hardly seems possible that more than 40 years have passed since you first came to London to do Promises, Promises.
I had opened on Broadway in 1776 in the winter of 1969, and I was hired by David Merrick to come here that summer. Every time I’ve come to London since I can’t help but remember how vulnerable and alone I was then; it was a very strange time period. I was delighted to be starring in the show, but it was definitely a challenge to be as young as I was and working so far away from home.
London itself must seem a very different place now.
It doesn’t feel all that different, though the food is pretty great now, that’s true [laughs]. It actually feels more as if I have changed than as if London has. I can see where I lived who I was then, and, later on, where I lived when I was in Sunset Boulevard and who I was then, and all that is a kind of marker of growth, which is fascinating for me.
You’re not the only American musical star here at the moment. We’ve got Heather Headley in The Bodyguard and Gavin Creel and Jared Gertner in The Book of Mormon.
So I gather, though I haven’t had time to do anything but come home at night, study, get up, work out, and go back to work. As soon as I have this show under my belt and can breathe a little more easily, it would be great to see who else is around. I’m a huge Heather Headley fan, and I can’t wait to see her!
On your Twitter page, you describe yourself as actress/singer/cowgirl/teacher. Does one of those four self-definitions take precedence?
Oh, yes: Cowgirl!