Betty Buckley Is Not Wedded to the Same Old Songs

On her 35-acre ranch in Texas, the actor-singer Betty Buckley has been dreaming of playing a Western heroine at last — ideally in something by Taylor Sheridan, the “Yellowstone” creator, who shoots nearby.

“I have literally contemplated going to his ranch and just knocking on the door,” Buckley, 76, said the other afternoon, and laughed.

This week, though, she is slated to perform in Manhattan, Thursday through Saturday at Joe’s Pub, with songs and arrangements new to her show. After a year and a half of physical challenges including long Covid and compression fractures in her spine, she has worked her way back into concert mode.

A veteran of the 1976 movie “Carrie” and the musical adaptation — a cult favorite that was a Broadway flop in 1988 — she is also back on-screen as an unsettling neighbor in the horror movie “Imaginary,” released in March, and with an animated short that she wrote and narrates, “The Mayfly,” scheduled for the Tribeca Festival in June.

A 1983 Tony Award winner for playing Grizabella in “Cats,” and famed for her trans-Atlantic 1990s turn as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” Buckley spoke from her ranch by video call. These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

Was this run of shows a goal as you were healing?

Just to be able to do it. [Laughs.] I’m doing this new material with my incredible band. Especially as I’ve gotten older, people are like, “Oh, sing this song,” “Sing that song” that was perfect in my 20s or 30s or even early 40s. But who I am now is a completely different person than who I was at 35. I sang “Memory” [in concert recently], and people were so lovely. But I was like, oh my God, I’ve been singing this song for 41 years. The other one I sang recently is “As If We Never Said Goodbye” from “Sunset Boulevard,” which was also [from] that time in my life.

Have you seen Jamie Lloyd’s “Sunset Boulevard”?

Not yet. I worship in the shrine of Jamie Lloyd. I went to see James McAvoy in [Lloyd’s] “Cyrano” in Brooklyn. I can’t wait to see “Sunset.” I think that girl [Nicole Scherzinger] is an amazing singer. Shows as good as that, if a visionary director like Jamie Lloyd comes in and sees it a different way, great! Let’s see what he has to say.

How have things for women changed over your career?

God. My early days in the business, there was a lot of “be seen but not heard.” I used to have this agent that would say, “Betty Lynn, he’s a British director. He doesn’t want to hear you talk.” Things like that. I was in analysis for like 10 years, four times a week, to try to learn what was wrong with me in terms of my ability to communicate with some of the powers that be in show business.

What is with you and the horror genre? Did it start with “Carrie”?

Yeah. It was a wonderful feature film debut. What I like about horror movies is that the characters that I am asked to play, fortunately, are complicated. There’s subterfuge going on and camouflage to the personality. It’s a challenge, acting-wise.

How did your experience of “Carrie” the musical compare to the movie?

I had so much fun on that show. I came out at the top of the Aztec staircase, and I was supposed to be coming down in my former prom dress, singing this lullaby to Carrie, who’s in such a tragic state, having massacred her high school companions. [Laughs.] I had this butcher knife behind my back. While I’m singing to her, I stab her in the back and she stops my heart with her telekinesis. The audience was rabid, and they would talk to me during the show: “Betty Buckley, come on down!” It was insane.

With “The Mayfly,” you’ve made the opposite of a horror movie: a joyous short.

Right before Covid hit, I went to see Judy Collins at the Café Carlyle. Through the whole concert, there was this beautiful little golden creature flying over her head. How did she get to the Carlyle? I looked up mayflies and found out that they live for maybe three days and they’re born in water. [I imagined that] she must have been born in the lake in Central Park. She hears all that percussion of the park, and she realizes she can dance. She confronts her little family, which is basically like my little family was; my father was very resistant to my being a performer. And she decides that she’s going to dedicate her life to music and dance instead of doing what’s expected of her, which is to breed more mayflies.

Is there anything else that you’re dying to try artistically?

I’d like to go back to Broadway in a really good play. Musicals are pretty tough. Showing up and doing that full-tilt boogie eight times a week is like, I just don’t know. But yeah, I think a play would be fun.

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