A reinvigorated Betty Buckley is ridin' high — and riding horses — these days. I had the pleasure of chatting with one of this column's favorite gals this past week, and Buckley filled me in on her many new and upcoming projects, which include her latest recording, her upcoming cabaret act, her return to Broadway and her cutting-horse lessons! (She'll also appear on all eight episodes of the final "Oz" season this winter on HBO.)
We spoke about the devastating events of September 11 and how it's affected her as an artist and how it inspired her latest collection of Americana songs, "Deep in the Heart," which she will offer at New York's Feinstein's at the Regency beginning Oct. 22. "After Sept. 11, I didn't know what to do," Buckley says. "We all lost focus after that, and I felt pretty aimless. I called my friend [Stephen Bruton] one day, kind of bereft, and said, 'Stephen, I don't know what to sing anymore. I really need inspiration.'" Guitarist-songwriter Bruton and Buckley were schoolmates back in high school in Fort Worth. "Stephen was a year behind me in school," Buckley explains. "My senior year I was voted Ranch Queen, and his senior year he was voted Ranch Foreman. We were the only two kids in school that rode horses at that time, so we have that in common.
"I asked him if he would come to New York," Buckley continues, "and work with me on some new material. So, he came up at the end of January 2002 and hung out with for me two weeks, and we put this new collection together. We tried a lot of the material out at the Bottom Line in February, and the collection developed from there. I had it orchestrated this past August by David Cullen and Kenny Werner and Larry Hochman and a Texas orchestrator named Stephen Barber . . . Stephen [Bruton] is coming for my first three shows on the 22nd, 23rd and 24th as my guest artist." Among the songs cabaretgoers can expect to hear Buckley wrap her thrilling vocals around are "Once in a Very Blue Room," "No Pride at All" and "Too Many Memories"; the latter is a composition by Bruton.
Buckley will also offer a few tunes from her newest recording, "The Doorway," which hits stores Oct. 29, although those who attend her shows at Feinstein's will be able to purchase the inspirational disc beginning Oct. 22. About the new recording — her tenth (!) solo disc and her first original release for the Fynsworth Alley label — Buckley says, "'The Doorway' is the heart of the collection of the songs that we did to open Lincoln Center's American Songbook series last fall, which was just over a week after Sept. 11. We took the real heart of that concert, and we went in one week afterwards to Kaufman-Astoria Studios, where my friend Joe Castellon works." Castellon mixed The Mystery of Edwin Drood cast recording as well as Buckley's 'Stars and the Moon' solo disc, which was nominated for a Grammy Award. "I called [Joe] and said, 'We'd really like to do a Relief Fund CD.' . . . We recorded it a week later, and then I worked on it when the studio had time all through the year, just little bits and pieces. In late May Fynsworth Alley called me and said they were looking for product of mine and said they wanted to pick up the KO releases . . . KO is still the production company and is still my record label, but we had an independent distributor. We had completed our deal with them, and now the stuff is being distributed by Fynsworth. Fynsworth asked about what other product we had, and I said I'd been working on a Relief Fund CD all year, and Fynsworth said they'd like to release it." Buckley says that the Relief Fund CD, "The Doorway," is quite different from her other recordings, and it reflects the emotion and sense of community that were part of her Lincoln Center concerts. "I didn't know what to expect in those nights [just after Sept. 11]. Those two [Lincoln Center] concerts were the purest experience of music with the community that I've ever had. It wasn't about performing. It was just about being together in music. That experience of oneness was really quite remarkable. That's what the album is, in my opinion . . . It's very inspirational material. It's very soothing. It's very much what it is, which is a benefit CD as a commemoration of Sept. 11."
Among the songs on "The Doorway" are the title song, composed by Buckley; "With a Song in My Heart"; "An Interesting Person"; "Sycamore Trees"; "Autumn Leaves"; "I Concentrate On You"; "St. Francis Prayer"; "Loss of Heroes," a musical improvisation; a medley of "America the Beautiful" and "Bridge Over Troubled Water"; and a pairing of "For the Beauty of the Earth" and "Imagine." Buckley has recorded some of this material before — "Autumn Leaves," "Bridge Over Troubled Water" — but the actress explains that "they are done somewhat differently, and in the context of Sept. 11, they have a new resonance that felt very appropriate for the collection . . . I deliberately picked these songs because they were right for the occasion. Like 'Autumn Leaves' — whenever I sing 'Autumn Leaves' now, I can only think of Sept. 11. And 'Bridge Over Troubled Water' is paired with — as it was in the concert — 'America the Beautiful.' We put 'For the Beauty of the Earth' with 'Imagine,' the John Lennon song. I think it's a very pretty album, and it accomplishes what we set out to do, the musicians and myself. We wanted to do something that was our artistic tribute to the loss of heroes."
Buckley also spoke about The Diner Stories, a new musical that will hopefully bring her back to Broadway, her first gig on the Main Stem since her Tony-nominated turn in The Triumph of Love. Featuring music, lyrics and a book by Nancy Shayne, the musical consists of three separate stories, all of which take place in a diner over a 24-hour period. Buckley will portray a different character in each story, and a workshop production will be mounted in December featuring Buckley, Christiane Noll, Leslie Kritzer and "Sopranos" star Dominic Chianese. Buckley has nothing but high praise for writer-composer Shayne, who she says is "really fantastic. Her music and her writing is just so fresh and so smart and so funny. It's beautiful. Shows cross my path all the time, and I choose not to do most of the things that come to me. This one is the first thing that I've gotten so excited about in years. We're all hoping for a fall 2003 production, and we hope to go out of town this spring or summer."
Tony Award winner Buckley is equally excited about the prospect of buying a ranch and a cutting horse. When this city boy asked what exactly is a cutting horse, Buckley responded, "It's in the tradition of the old cow horse — you ride the horse into the herd of cattle. You drive a cow from the herd, and then you have to keep it from getting back to the herd. Like border collies do, only the horse does all the work, and the rider just sits their with the loose reins. It's really cool." Buckley has also been searching for a ranch and feels that "I'm just getting back to the essence of what made me want to sing in the first place . . . I'm at heart just this Texas girl. Sometimes you lose sight of your roots in the process. I'm just getting back to basics, coming home to myself. That's kind of what the songs [in my new show] are about. I travel a lot doing concert work, and everywhere I go is pretty much like everywhere else now. Every town in America — the resonance of all these towns is the same. I think there's a certain kind of resonance of truth about things that we all go through in our lives. Each song is about a certain rite of passage . . . It's real Americana music as opposed to country western. Some of the songs come from the [country-western] realm, but the way that we do them has more of a very open, spacious Americana feeling."
At Feinstein's at the Regency, Buckley will be backed by a quintet featuring Clifford Carter on piano, Paul Nowinski on bass, Jamey Haddad on percussion (Bob Weiner on Wednesday nights), Billy Drewes on reeds (Richard Perry will play reeds on two nights) and Todd Reynolds on violin. Stephen Bruton will be Buckley's special guests Oct. 22, 23 and 24.
Buckley's performance schedule at Feinstein's at the Regency (540 Park Avenue at 61st Street) is Tuesday through Saturday evenings at 8:30 PM with late shows on Friday and Saturday nights at 11 PM. There is a $30 food/drink minimum at all shows with a cover charge of $45 (Tuesday through Thursday 8:30 PM shows and Friday 11 PM shows) and $60 (Friday 8:30 PM shows and Saturday 8:30 and 11 PM shows). Call (212) 339-4095 for reservations or log on to Ticketmaster.com.
(To order Buckley's "The Doorway" CD, go to www.fynsworthalley.com.)
A MAN OF NO IMPORTANCE:
I find it interesting how different things affect our emotions as we get older. When I was in my twenties, it was heartbreak and loss onstage that touched me the most. Songs like "Tell Me On a Sunday," "I Dreamed a Dream," "On My Own," "What Would I Do?" and a host of others were particularly moving to me. Now that I'm in my thirties, the theatre that affects me most features characters who exhibit acts of kindness and compassion. This is probably why the new musical The Man of No Importance, which I caught at last Sunday's matinee, affected me so deeply. Based on the movie of the same name, the musical boasts a book by Terrence McNally and a score by the Ragtime/Seussical team, Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens.
The musical, perfectly suited to the intimate confines of Lincoln Center's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, starts slowly but begins to draw in the audience as we begin to discover Alfie's (Roger Rees) hidden secret and why the small Dublin theatre in which he stages the plays of Oscar Wilde is of such vast importance to him. Rees offers an intense, moving portrayal of a man who is unable to allow himself "the love that dare not speak its name." Steven Pasquale is also wonderful as his unrequited love Robbie, and Pasquale's rousing rendition of "The Streets of Dublin" is the musical highlight of the first act. Faith Prince as Rees' sister Lily Burne and Sally Murphy as Adele, who is burdened with her own dark secret, also offer performances of beauty and depth.
As much as I enjoyed the first half of the show, however, it was the second act of the production that I found completely moving. Prince's second-act diatribe, "Tell Me Why," in which she unleashes years of suppressed emotion, is both frightening and wrenching, and her last line — "You must have known I'd love you all the same" — is heartbreaking. And when, at the show's end, Alfie's friends return to the theatre to show him their support despite their confusion, it's one of those scenes that makes me love live theatre as much as I do and one of the many reasons why I plan to return to the show before its engagement ends. My only quibble with the production is that it is vocally undercast: Rees' singing is problematic and hides some of the beauty of the Flaherty/Ahrens score, and to not give the glorious-voiced Luther Creek a song is almost sinful. But, that aside, the musical is a beautifully haunting production and one Man who more than deserves your attention. (Tickets for A Man of No Importance may be purchased by calling Telecharge at 212-239 6200.)
IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: It was officially announced this week that the Bernadette Peters Gypsy will indeed play the Shubert Theatre on West 44th Street. The classic musical, which boasts music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents, will begin previews on March 24, 2003, and open a month later, April 24, 2003, making the show eligible for 2003 Tony Award nominations. An on-sale ticket date has yet to be announced . . . Liza Minnelli and David Gest aren't quite ready for their close-ups, as their weekly reality show — scheduled to premiere Nov. 30 on VH1 — has been delayed. Fans of the newlyweds shouldn't fret; the postponement is only by one day, with "Liza & David" set to air Dec. 1. Liz Smith reports that the duo began taping their reality series last week at the famed Sylvia's restaurant in Harlem. Liza offered a rendition of "God Bless the Child" to the packed crowd at the homestyle eatery. Sylvia Woods, who runs the legendary restaurant, will cater the first dinner party/concert that will be part of the Dec. 1 "Liza & David" broadcast. Guests for the premiere episode will include Destiny's Child's Beyonce Knowles, Kelly Rowland and Michelle Williams; Luther Vandross; hip-hop artist Eve; Tommy Lee; Deborah Cox; Isaac Mizrahi; Mia Farrow; and music legend Ray Charles, who will offer a duet with Minnelli . . . Congratulations to former Aida star Heather Headley, whose debut solo recording, "This Is Who I Am," debuted at #38 on this week's Billboard Top 200 charts. Headley's R&B recording — RCA label — sold 26,000 copies in its first week in stores, which also placed the disc at #14 on Billboard's Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
Betty Buckley in Concert:
Oct. 22-Nov. 9 at Feinstein's at the Regency in New York, NY
Nov. 16 at the Performing Arts Center of SUNY Purchase in Purchase, NY
Dec. 6 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC
Liz Callaway in Concert October 21 in Other Voices 6! at Caroline's on Broadway in New York, NY
October 26 in Divas: Simply Singing in Los Angeles, CA
May 16, 2003 in "Broadway Showstoppers" with Peter Nero and the Philly Pops in Philadelphia, PA
Barbara Cook in Concert:
Oct. 19 at the Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA
Nov. 2 at the Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts in Brooklyn, NY
Nov. 7 at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ
Nov. 9 at the Harriman Arts Program of William Jewell College in Kansas City
Nov. 22 at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, VT
Dec. 3-16 at the Royal Poinciana Playhouse in Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 20 at the Robert Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 31, 2003 at the Tilles Center for the Performing Arts in Long Island, NY
Feb. 14-16 at the Byham Theater in Pittsburgh, PA
Linda Eder in Concert:
Oct. 25 and 26 with the Charlotte Symphony in Charlotte, NC
Nov. 1-3 at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia, PA
Nov. 8 in Providence, RI
Nov. 20 at the Community Theatre in Morristown, NJ
Nov. 23 at the Warner Theatre in Torrington, CT
Dec. 1 at the Bass Hall in Austin, TX
Dec. 3 at the Verizon Wireless Theatre in Houston, TX
Dec. 4 at the Majestic Theatre in Dallas, TX
Dec. 12 at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Center in Sarasota, FL
Dec. 16 at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in West Palm Beach, FL
Dec. 17 at the Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL
Dec. 18 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples, FL
Dec. 20 and 21 with the Atlanta Symphony at the Woodruff Arts Center in Atlanta, GA
Jan. 3 and 4, 2003 with the Baltimore Symphony in Baltimore, MD
Jan. 25 at Mohegan Sun in Uncasville, CT
Jan. 30 at the Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks, CA
Feb. 1 at the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek, CO
Feb. 14 at the Proctor's Theatre in Albany, NY
Patti LuPone in Concert
March 27, 2003 at the East County Performing Arts Center in Cajon, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 28-29 at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, CA ("Matters of the Heart")
March 30 at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas, NV ("Matters of the Heart")
April 5 at the State Theater in New Brunswick, NJ ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Maureen McGovern in Concert:
Oct. 24 at the annual Cabaret Convention in New York, NY
Oct. 30-Nov. 3 at the American Music Therapy Association Conf. in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 2 at the Rialto Center for the Performing Arts in Atlanta, GA
Nov. 9 at the Landmark Theatre Gala in Port Washington, NY
Nov. 10 at the Hanford Civic Auditorium in Hanford, CA
Nov. 19-Dec. 1 at the Plush Room in San Francisco, CA
Dec. 6 at Pepperdine University in Malibu, CA
Dec. 8 at the Poway Center for the Performing Arts in Poway, CA
Dec. 9 Laurie Strauss Leukemia Benefit at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY
Dec. 14 at the Boca Pops Big Band Series in Boca Raton, FL
Bernadette Peters in Concert:
Oct. 24 at the Hilbert Circle Theatre in Indianapolis, IN
Oct. 26 at the Kleinhans Auditorium in Buffalo, NY
Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!
—By Andrew Gans