Theater News

Betty Buckley… Unbuckled!

Betty Buckley discusses her new album, the hazards of inertia addiction, and finding her musical language.

“There are occasional moments when I feel like a real songwriter. One of those moments was when Betty Buckley sang my song ‘Stars and the Moon’ at the Carlyle. Sometimes, I get scared when people do a different take on one of my songs, but her take on it was thrilling, smart and classy.” Thus speaks composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown of the lady who’s giving a concert at Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall on September 19 and who has a new CD out on the Concord label: Stars and the Moon–Betty Buckley Live at the Donmar. I recently chatted with Ms. B. about these projects, and more.


JIM CARUSO: It sounds like you have a new voice on your new CD. How did you decide on the material for this recording?

BETTY BUCKLEY: I’ve been doing some of these songs for a few years. Then, a few months before my concert at the Donmar in London, I called Ricky Ian Gordon, Jason Robert Brown, and Adam Guettel. They all sent over songs. Ricky and I played through all of them and we picked.

JC: You always choose songs that tell great stories.

BB: I look for songs that either have a great visual image, where I can see what I’m singing about, or have a sense of story to them; a beginning, a middle and an end. The character speaking has to have a clarified vantage point. “Stars and the Moon” is a perfect story song: It lays itself out so beautifully and each vignette is clear as a bell. The character thinks she’s singing from one place and, at the end, what’s revealed is something else. There’s a scope to it and a surprise. The emotional turn at the end is really great.

JC: How did you come up with a process for arranging your material?

BB: When I was in Cats, I worked with [musical director] Keith Herman. I learned how to work on music doing “Memory” with him. We were alone together in a room for two hours a day, doing that one song. That’s where I started to develop a system of how to approach material: I kind of deconstruct it, then reconstruct it. Keith had an affinity for certain really beautiful chords and different sounds that I loved. With my meditation and world religion studies, I was listening to Indian music and how certain chords affect the listener very specifically and universally.

JC: Your association with your current musical director-arranger-pianist, Kenny Werner, is one of the great musical pairings. How did you meet?

BB: Well, Keith Herman started to spend more time on his own shows, like Romance, Romance, and wasn’t able to do concert or cabaret gigs with me as much. I was offered an important booking at Rainbow & Stars; in searching around for musicians, I met David Sanborn, the great sax player. He recommended Tony Marino and Jamey Haddad, who are now my bass player and percussionist. Jamey gave me Kenny’s name. I called him, he came over and started playing, and I started crying! That was a good sign.

JC: I’m so interested to know how you explain to him how you want your arrangements to sound.

BB: We get together and I show him paintings. I say, “I think this song should sound like this painting looks.” My musical language has a certain limitation to it, but what he got me to understand was that I was a capable musician even though I didn’t have a technical language. It takes longer, but I describe with colors and settings.

JC: I think it would be fascinating for a musician to work like that.

BB: It was frustrating for both of us, but Kenny was so patient. The arrangements
are like needlepoint work–so precise in terms of the detail.

JC: The material on your new CD is such an eclectic mix. There are lyrics by Sondheim, Dorothy Fields, James Taylor, Dorothy Parker, on and on. Are people still shocked that you’re not serving up basic Broadway show tunes?

BB: Of course! I didn’t want to do that, because everyone had already heard it. That wasn’t interesting to me. We have such a need to pigeonhole and categorize, all for the sake of being able to catalogue things. Life and people are so much more complicated than that! None of us are simply one thing; we’re all a rainbow of colors and all the shades in between. Songs are like that. I wanted to interpret. I’m also a composer, and I have definite ideas on how sounds affect people emotionally. The use of dissonance and resolution moves me a lot. Kenny is a jazz genius but didn’t know from Broadway; he had very specific notions about show tunes. From working with me, though, all my musicians have changed their opinion. Now, we have a shared resonance for Sondheim and some other great theater composers. I’m very lucky to work with the players I do. They’re jazz musicians but can also play theater music, have respect and work with a singer, and have a feel for Brazilian and World music. Not every musician
has that wide base. I love having an eclectic repertoire.

JC: There’s a huge Celtic influence in what you do, too.

BB: I’m Irish, and the essential way I sing is that of a Celtic balladeer. It’s the roots of where my particular voice comes from. I started singing in the Methodist church; so, basically, I’m a kid who sang in a choir. I think about my music like I think about my feelings for God.

JC: I remember a New York magazine article that came out while you were
doing Sunset Boulevard. It chronicled your day. You work yourself
very hard! What drives you to that?

BB: Fundamentally, it’s this, Jim: I have a huge desire to drink coffee, read books, and hang out with friends. That’s my truest calling. To do what I do for a living, I have to work really hard to overcome my desire to sit back. I really just want to contemplate my navel. So, I have to work out and go to voice lessons in an almost ritualistic way. Otherwise, I would sit and atrophy. I have to counter these tendencies towards inertia. It’s the truth! Some people are driven workaholics, but I’m not. I’m a driven inertia addict! If I didn’t have a disciplined life, I’d just sit and look at the river. [laughing] Many times, I think that wouldn’t be so bad after all!


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