DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner Betty Buckley

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Tony Award winner Betty Buckley is back at the Carlyle
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley is back at the Carlyle

BETTY BUCKLEY

There’s still snow on the ground, but it might as well be spring now that Betty Buckley’s back in town, bringing a breath of fresh air to good ol’ New York.

The Tony-winning actress, who relocated to Texas about two years ago, is currently entrancing audiences at the Café Carlyle, where she will reside through April 9. Buckley has put together an all-new program for her six-week engagement, which features long-time musical director Kenny Werner on piano with Jamey Haddad on drums and percussion and Tony Marino on bass.

Buckley, Werner, Haddad and Marino are an unbeatable quartet whose friendship and musicianship spans more than a decade. I spoke with Buckley the day after her Carlyle opening, and she said that Werner told her that “it was one of the strongest first nights with all new material that we’ve had.” “It’s really different,” Buckley added about her current collection of songs, “so I have to get used to it. It’s a different environment of music than what I’ve been doing over the past three or four years. Today, I’m actually making some changes and shifting things around, and I may make a couple of cuts.”

The actress, whose most recent Broadway outing in Triumph of Love brought her a second Tony nomination, explained the genesis of the show’s title, which was announced to the press as A Time for Love but was changed earlier this week to, simply, Smoke. “Smoke was what I wanted to call the show originally, but everyone talked me out of it. My musicians liked it, but all my advisors didn’t think that anybody would get it. So, I let them retitle it A Time for Love, which is one of the songs from the show that I was doing.” Neither she nor Werner felt that title truly embraced the feelings of the songs, so “when I got to New York and saw that the title of the show wasn’t in the ads or on the posters, I asked to change it back to my first idea. “Smoke was the original title, and that really expresses the show the best. The songs all have these very sensual, beautiful lyrics. They describe those moments of magic, of being in love that eventually evaporate — those moments of life that are kind of perfect and then dissolve. Plus,” Buckley adds with a laugh, “they’re smokey!” And, one can rest assured that in a Buckley evening, where’s there’s Smoke, there will definitely be fire. In fact, among the songs cabaretgoers can expect the actress to bring her laserlike emotional intensity to — as well as her rich, nuanced voice — are Johnny Mercer and Rube Bloom’s “Day In Day Out,” James Taylor’s “On the 4th of July,” Lionel Hampton’s “Midnight Sun,” Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel,” Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s “Out of This World,” Tom Waits’ “New Coat of Paint,” Julie Gold’s “Goodnight New York,” and Randy Newman's "I Think It's Going To Rain Today" and "Sail Away," to name but a few.

Buckley’s legion of fans may wonder where are the powerful theatre tunes that have become so identified with the singing actress — her Tony-winning, signature tune “Memory” or her thrilling renditions of Sunset Boulevard’s “With One Look” and “As If We Never Said Goodbye.” Buckley admits that question has been raised by several friends, including her vocal coach, Joan Lader. “I got to town on Friday and had a voice lesson on Monday, and she said, ‘Where are the theatre songs?’ I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t going to do any.’ She said, ‘You have to!’ I said, ‘I do?’ [Joan] then said that all of her young students were excited that I was going to be doing an engagement in New York and would expect to hear theatre songs.

“For the past couple of years what I’ve done,” Buckley continued, “is I always have ‘Memory’ and ‘With One Look’ up on stage with me, and if people request them — which they often do, especially when you get into a run in a cabaret — I’ll add them as an encore. I just feel that I’ve reached a point where it’s okay for me to wait until people request something, but I don’t feel like I have to offer that as part of my current collection. It’s a bit like being between a rock and a hard place. I’m doing this new collection of songs, and I feel like it’s a gallery showing of my newest paintings, but it’s not a [career] retrospective.”

As for her life beyond the stage, Buckley said she’s constantly inspired by her new Texas ranch, where she rides her two horses every day and also participates in numerous cutting-horse events. The versatile performer recently showed those horses at the Memphis Futurity: “I was in the finals with both of them,” Buckley excitedly remarked. “My new show horse is a little stallion named Wild Man Bill. He was awesome! We were in the finals and placed with him. And, Purple Badger, my first cutting horse, was also in the finals but I overrode him and we lost a cow. We still placed and made some money but not as much.”

As much as she loves her new life, Buckley admitted that “it is really, really great to come back to New York, especially for six weeks at the Carlyle Hotel. Once I get through the reviews, I feel like I’m on vacation when I do this gig. Staying in this pretty suite, singing with my favorite musicians every night — nothing could be more fun than that, except maybe a big Broadway opening!”

Would Buckley come back to New York if the right musical came her way? “Oh, yeah, sure,” she said, “I’d just have to find a stable nearby and bring my horses with me!” But, for now, she’s happily holding fort at the posh Café Carlyle, a room she first played many years ago. “I was asked to sub one weekend for Eartha Kitt, so I came in on that weekend and there was this huge snow storm in New York where it looked like the snow had been dumped out of the sky. I remember my bass player’s car got smashed when the snow from an awning fell down on it, and it cracked the windshield. The snow was so enormous that no one could drive.

“Suffice it to say, that happened on the night I was playing there. A few of my friends showed up, and that was about it. Thank God they were there! I think the Carlyle expected me to do this great business, [but] New York was snowed in. They didn’t ask me back for a long time, but finally they did.”

Audiences and critics alike are extremely grateful for that wise decision.

[Buckley will be offering Smoke through April 9. Don’t miss your chance to see one of the theatre’s most powerful stars in such an intimate setting; call the Cafe Carlyle at (212) 744-1600 for reservations.]

DIVA TIDBITS

More dames! Lea DeLaria, Sandy Duncan, Mary Ann Lamb, Nancy Lemanager, Dana Moore, Rosie O’Donnell and Lillias White have been added to the stellar line up of gals taking part in the 10th annual Nothing Like a Dame benefit March 14 at the Marquis Theatre. Those previously announced for the annual event include Kathy Brier, Zoe Caldwell, Kate Clinton, Jennifer Cody, Edie Falco, Sutton Foster, Randy Graff, Ann Harada, Dee Hoty, Leila Josefowicz, Ledisi, Brandi Massey, Maureen McGovern, Bebe Neuwirth, Phyllis Newman, Orfeh, Faith Prince, Lynn Redgrave, Chita Rivera, Shayna Steele and Karen Ziemba. The Cagelles from the Broadway revival of La Cage aux Folles will also be part of the 8 PM concert, which benefits The Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors' Fund of America. Tickets for Nothing Like a Dame 2005 are available by calling (212) 840-0770, ext. 268. Visit www.broadwaycares.org for more information.

Cabaret legend Julie Wilson and Tony Award winner Karen Ziemba will be part of the 92nd Street Y’s “Lyrics & Lyricists” celebration of the late Dorothy Fields. Dorothy’s Side of the Street will be presented at the famed Y March 19-21. Hosted by artistic director Deborah Grace Winer, the concerts will also feature the talents of 42nd Street’s Billy Stritch. Host Winer, who penned the biography “On the Sunny Side of the Street: The Life and Lyrics of Dorothy Fields Fields” will share stories about Fields’ life and career throughout the evening. The 92nd Street Y is located in Manhattan at 1395 Lexington Avenue at 92nd Street. Tickets, priced $45 and $55, are available by calling (212) 415-5500. Visit www.92Y.org for more information.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.