Written for men. Sung by a lady. One of the great ladies of the Great White Way.
“I just always wanted to sing them, so I said, ‘Well, I’m going to do it,’” says Betty Buckley. “It’s a fun, lighthearted, but also tender evening.”
You know her voice that immortalized the lyrics, Memory/ All alone in the moonlight. (FYI, for those of you from Mars: It’s from Cats.) You know her face from when she played step-mom to a brood that could almost field a baseball team in the TV show Eight Is Enough (1977-81).
Musical gender-switching is her newest project as she brings Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway, a show based on her new album, to The Smith Center for the Performing Arts.
Among the classic show tunes she takes out of male mouths to make her own: “Luck Be a Lady” from Guys and Dolls, “Come Back to Me” from On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, “Hymn to Her” from My Fair Lady and “Maria” from West Side Story.
Here, Buckley discusses putting a woman’s spin on music tailored for men, and her differences growing up with her strict father, a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force.
What inspired this concept?
Years ago I was in The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and I played a male impersonator in a British music hall. It got me thinking how it would be so much fun if there was genderless casting. It’s songs I’ve always loved but never could do them in normal circumstance because they were meant to be sung by men. Most of the time I change the gender but on certain songs I’m singing as the characters.
The one character I would love to play one day is Sweeney Todd. That music is so amazingly beautiful and passionate and glorious. We do what we call “The Sweeney Todd Suite,” where I play three characters. I do “My Friends,” sung in the show by Sweeney to his razors.
Have you been frustrated in your stage career by not being able to sing these songs?
I’ve been privileged to play some of the great women’s roles in the musical theater. But I always loved West Side Story, and I fell madly in love with the character of Riff as portrayed by the wonderful Russ Tamblyn. I would sing “The Jet Song” and “Maria.” Riff was the coolest guy I’d ever seen, growing up in Fort Worth, Texas. But it went beyond wanting to marry him. I wanted to be him. I wanted to dance and dress like him.
You’ve said publicly your dad opposed you performing. Did that motivate you wanting to do what men do onstage?
I had to work hard to give myself permission, both in therapy and spiritually, to claim my talent and love for art and performance. Did you ever see The Great Santini, with Robert Duvall? It wasn’t far off from my dad. In his defense, he taught me to sing and play guitar and taught me to paint. But he thought show business was a frivolous profession.
You pursued it anyway. Did you feel you were defying him?
We went to war when I was a teenager, despite the support of my mother—she’d sneak me out of the house for my performance opportunities. We discovered I had a unique voice when I was 11. I’ve performed professionally since I was 15. He was so opposed to it. If my mother and the entire community of Fort Worth hadn’t been so enthusiastic about my talent, I wouldn’t have had the courage to do what I’ve done.
Did he ever come around after you succeeded?
After I was on Eight Is Enough for several years, I was doing my show, Getting My Act Together, and he came. I was driving him back to his hotel afterward, and he said, “I know this has been a bone of contention between us, but I always thought you had such a fine mind and you would be wasting it. But I can see from your performance tonight that you really care about people and use this form to communicate with people. I want to tell you I am proud of you.’”