She won a Tony Award for her role of Grizabella (singing the song “Memory”) in the 1983 musical “Cats” and has been dubbed the “Voice of Broadway,” but the Great White Way was not Betty Buckley’s initial calling.
“I originally wanted to be a rock and roll singer like Janis Joplin,” Buckley confided during a recent phone interview from her home in Texas. “I performed in regional theater shows when I was 15 in Fort Worth, but I wanted to be a rock singer. I wanted to go to college in Berkley during the 1960s music scene, but my father said ‘Over my dead body.’ My mother wanted me to be Julie Andrews, so part of me is a Julie Andrews actress and the other is a wannabe Janis Joplin.”
So what do you get when Julie and Janis collide? You get Buckley’s cabaret show, which she is bringing to the Samueli Theater at Segerstrom Center for the Arts Oct. 17–19. Buckley’s headline concert officially kicks off the Segerstrom Center’s 2019–20 cabaret series.
Buckley is no stranger to Segerstrom Center. She starred in the title role in the national Broadway tour of “Hello Dolly” that came to the Center earlier this year, and she has held audiences spellbound during two previous cabaret shows in the Samueli Theater. She also recorded part of her album “Story Songs” in the theater several years ago.
“Segerstrom is one of my favorite arts centers in the world, it’s so beautiful,” said Buckley, who noted that she missed several performances of “Hello Dolly” due to bronchitis but rallied and completed the rest of the run of the show. “Hopefully anyone that did not see me in ‘Dolly’ can come to this show. We are doing three of the songs from ‘Dolly’ but new arrangements, cool arrangements. I am excited about them.”
And anyone who has been to a Buckley cabaret show or listened to her recent recordings such as “Story Songs” or her most recent album, “Hope,” will be excited about the Samueli concerts. One review of a previous Buckley cabaret show observed that “she gave everything she sang the shape and depth of a personal confession.”
“As an artist, I pick songs, and stories, that people will resonate with,” she said. “I am just the guide, I lay the stories out for them, and the musicians are companions on these journeys and help the audience go on this ride. It’s more than just a cabaret show. People have expectations — is this a Broadway show, or a pop show? It’s not categorizable, it is between genres. It is its own thing. I am trying to provide people with a personal experience.”
Buckley’s road to cabaret began soon after her stint in “Cats.” She began performing in small clubs and recording her shows, which at first were Broadway heavy but began to morph into something all its own.
“I began to add singer-songwriter pieces to the show, but people did not get what I was doing,” Buckley recalled. “They were not conventional Broadway arrangements. I had a core following, and people started to get what I was doing, which was creating paintings with music, creating a character, telling a story as an actress. At the time no one had done anything quite like that. People started to catch on.”
“I am a storyteller,” she continued, “and I work with musicians that create an environment of sound that enhances the beauty of the story I am telling.”
Her quartet of musicians for the Samueli shows include her longtime pianist and arranger Christian Jacob. In addition to a trio of songs from “Hello Dolly,” Buckley said she will be doing material by Jason Robert Brown as well as several numbers from her previous cabaret-themed albums.
She’s been in countless Broadway musicals, starred in numerous films and TV shows (including “Eight is Enough”), but it’s her cabaret show that has a special connection for Buckley.
“It’s something that personally resonates with me,” she said. “I have a song list that I’ve been collecting for years, more than we need for this show.”
They went through them and ended up with about 25 songs, which they will hone down to 15 pieces. The team will rehearse for three days before the Samueli concerts.
“They joy is that it takes on a life of its own,” stated Buckley. “The show reveals itself to me, which is fascinating. I start with these ideas, have no idea how it will all go together, but then if clarifies itself to me.”
Clarity and creativity will indeed take center stage for Buckley’s cabaret shows at Segerstrom Center.
For more information, visit SCFTA.org.