DIVA TALK: Catching Up With Tony Winner and Dear World Star Betty Buckley

By Andrew Gans
01 Feb 2013

Betty Buckley

London has always been fertile ground for the Texas native, who made her West End debut in her early 20s in Promises, Promises and later took the city by storm as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard, earning critical hosannas and an Olivier nomination for her performance as the ill-fated silent-screen star.

"I love it here," Buckley enthused. "I love this city. Clearly, I must have lived here in a former life because it feels so familiar to me. And, the funny thing is I came here when I was 22 years old to do Promises, Promises… Almost 25 years later, I was here to do Sunset Boulevard, and again, almost 20 years later, I'm back, so it's interesting that I had this opportunity to come and work here at these pivotal moments in my life. When I was 22, I was just so naïve and so young, and I had done seven months [on Broadway] in 1776, and I knew nothing, I was just a kid. And, when I was in my mid-late 40s, I really felt I had a lot to prove and was still trying to make my mark as a Broadway leading lady, so to speak, and I hadn't had that kind of part that really let me do what I could do until I had done Norma Desmond, and … here I am at the dawning of myself as an older person, and it's just great to get to come here. I walked by the places where I had lived at each of these points and remembered who I was at those years, and then to realize how much I've grown and changed, it's just amazing. It's wonderful."

What's also wonderful, Buckley said, is her latest theatrical role, Countess Aurelia, the part created on Broadway to Tony-winning effect by Angela Lansbury. "[Dear World is] based on a French play written by Giraudoux, [The Madwoman of Chaillot]," explained recent Theatre Hall of Fame inductee Buckley. "It was written right after World War II and performed after he died. It's a beautiful play — a very political play, actually. It's a fable, but it's about businessmen and the exploitation of oil and wanting to destroy all of Paris, and there's a little group of bohemian friends who work and live around the Café Frances, which is a café that belongs to Countess Aurelia, who is described as the 'Madwoman of Chaillot,' and she is kind of the centerpiece of this band of bohemians — compatriots, [who] find out that these evil businessmen want to destroy the whole of Paris, and they think that a lake of oil is right underneath the Café Frances.

Buckley and team on the first day of rehearsals

"Countess Aurelia is a philosopher and kind of a magician. She's an incredibly positive force of nature, and she's quite convinced that the world is absolutely beautiful, and she wants to live a beautiful existence all the time. She inspires all of her friends to live in that state of positive awareness as well. And then they force her to understand that the world has changed and that these guys really want to do harm to the city of Paris. When she comes out of her shocked awareness that this could be true, she sets about and inspires her friends to get together to defeat these evil guys. They take it upon themselves—this little group of persons—to save the world. It's very sweet. It's a fable, obviously — a fairytale — but we are all of the belief that it was done before its time and that perhaps, now in these days — corrupt politics and greed gone mad in our world in business and oil — that it's more of a timely moment for the play. While it's a fairytale and a fable, it's very light and it's got a beautiful message within it."

Buckley, who gets to wrap her achingly rich, vibrantly colorful tones around such Herman tunes as "Sensible Woman," "Each Tomorrow Morning," "I Don't Want to Know," "And I Was Beautiful" and "Kiss Her Now," said director-choreographer Lynne's vision for Dear World is "very vulnerable and fragile and beautiful. It's exactly what this show needs. She's such the perfect director for it. It was so over-produced when it was done originally, and it's a very fragile piece. Her vision is an exquisite vision, and I love watching her work every day. She's 86 years old, and she's amazing… She's brilliant, and I'm just thrilled to get to be a part of it."

Buckley said that Lynne had several meetings with composer-lyricist Herman at his home in Florida, and the Tony-winning veteran has "given her carte blanche to do whatever she wants to do with it. But she loves him and really wants to honor what he originally intended with it. Even he was not happy with the original version. It wasn't what he had in mind; he really loves Gillian's vision of things, and he's given her permission to proceed." To that end, Buckley said, "a lot of stuff has been repositioned, and Sarah Travis is brilliant, and she's re-orchestrating everything for an eight-piece band. So the orchestrations are completely different… It's not at all what it was originally."