She says she knew instinctively from the start Grizabella the Glamour Cat would be a role worth going after, but Buckley didn't know much about Cats -- except that the new show had taken London's West End by storm.
Buckley was preparing her new CD and to go into rehearsals for her September 1997 return to Broadway in an original role in Triumph of Love, the new musical by Susan Birkenhead, Jeffrey Stock, and James Magruder based on Marivaux's classic comedy, co-starring F. Murray Abraham and Susan Egan. Buckley reflected on her 1983 Tony-winning performance as the original Broadway Grizabella.
"I got a call about an audition from my agent about this coveted role in a new show called Cats," said Buckley. "I said, 'Cats' and she said yes. I asked, 'What's it about?' And she replied, 'Cats.' And I went, 'Cats?' And she replied yes. I went out and got the London cast recording and learned Grizabella's big number, 'Memory.'"
Buckley was one of the first women to audition in what became a six month process in New York and Los Angeles. "But they passed on me," reported Buckley. "My agent told me they didn't think I was right for the part, that I radiated health and well-being. They were looking for someone who radiated death and dying. I told her, 'That's ridiculous. I'm an actress. All they have to do is tell me what they want and I can do it.' Just you wait, they'll be back."
And they were, but six months later. "My agent called and said 'Are you sitting down?' I told her yes. She said (director) Trevor Nunn and Andrew Lloyd Webber wanted to see me the very next day. And I replied, 'I told you!'" Buckley said she'd been confident about a call back "because basically it was my turn." And, she added, "I knew the talent pool out there and who was incapable of doing the job."
Buckley was no newcomer to theatre. She made her Broadway debut in 1969 as Martha Jefferson in 1776, starred in the West End produciton of Promises, Promises, for which she received an Evening Standard Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical, had appeared Off-Broadway, and in 1973 played Catherine in Broadway's Pippin. But she was best known at the time for her featured role as Miss Collins, the coach, in the Brian DePalma film Carrie. In 1978 she literally became a household word during four seasons as Abby Bradford, the stepmother, in the top-rated TV sit-com Eight Is Enough, which she joined in its second sesaon.
While in Los Angeles, she portrayed Heather in I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It on the Road and co-starred opposite Robert Duvall as Dixie Scott in 1982's Tender Mercies.
Buckley remembered that at her last audition, Nunn "had me sing 'Memory' over and over again and kept directing me to be more suicidal. I finally said, 'Can I talk to you?' I told him, 'You don't know me, but if you'd just tell me what it is you want, I can deliver it for you. If you want me to be thinner, I'll be thinner. If you want me to be smaller, I'll be smaller. I'm a really good actress. Just tell me what you need."
Buckley, in a statement some might construe as overconfidence or ego, told Nunn, "There are a lot of people who can do this very well, but no one can do it better than I can. And it's my turn!"
By now, said Buckley, Grizabella was a part she wanted very badly and she felt she understood the character and what the production was going for (Grizabella had been edited out of T.S. Eliot's Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats by the poet because he feared she would scare children).
Nunn looked at Buckley very strangely, she recalls. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the stage manager give her a thumbs up sign. Then the rehearsal pianist nodded his head in agreement. But Buckley was dismissed. When she phoned her agent to tell her of what had traspired, the agent scolded her, "When are you going to learn to keep your mouth shut?"
Within a half-hour, however, her phone rang and Buckley was offered the role.
Grizabella and her haunting renditions of "Memory" put Buckley back on the theatrical map. "I hadn't been on Broadway in 10 years," said Buckley, "and, in spite of my work in musicals, no one seemed to know I could sing."
Cats was nominated for 11 Tony Awards in 1983 and won seven, including Best Musical, Score, Book (T.S. Eliot), Director, Costumes, and Buckley for Featured Actress.
"We were the show of the season," said Buckley, "and pretty much were a shoo-in for the Best Musical Tony." Though Buckley recalls the reviews being quite good, the show actually received mixed to negative press.
"Gossip!," replied Buckley flippantly. "People were very excited. It had a great mystique. It was one of the biggest things I've ever been a part of. Totally exciting. It was a tremendous ensemble cast of the most talented people available on both coasts. And certainly one of the richest and most rewarding work experiences I've ever been a part of."