Betty Buckley’s performance at Cabaret Festival falls flat

Emily Esfahani Smith Managing Editor, Defining Ideas
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Betty Buckley, the one-time dame of the Broadway stage — the “voice of Broadway,” as New York Magazine has called her — sang and cried to an enamored audience on October 16, 2010, at the Town Hall Theater. Buckley’s solo concert was the centerpiece of this year’s three-show Cabaret Festival on Broadway, which was produced by Town Hall and is celebrating its sixth birthday this year.

The theme of the teary night was nostalgia for a bygone youth. For two hours, the 63-year-old Buckley sang the songs that defined her celebrated career on the stage, which began in 1969 when she debuted on Broadway as Martha Jefferson in the musical 1776. Since then, her career peaked when in 1982 she went on to act and sing in Andrew Lloyd’s Weber’s Cats as “Glamour Cat” Grizabella, and then in 1996 starred in another Lloyd Weber production that came to Broadway, Sunset Boulevard. She’s been inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame, she has won a Tony award for her performance in Cats, and she has been awarded the “Showstopper of the Year” prize by Lancôme Paris.

These days, though, Buckley’s star is a dull glimmer of light, a fact that hung in the air like a dead weight at Town Hall when in one song she sang, “I can smile at the old days / I was beautiful then.” After struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, the lines on her face have hardened, and her movements on the stage are not as lithe as they once were. Her career, of late, has felt forced as well: the last decade of her career has been defined by guest appearances on television shows like Monk and Law and Order, and retrospective albums like “Betty Buckley: Fifteen Year Anniversary Re-Release.” Her Town Hall appearance, though part of the Cabaret Festival, doubled as a promotional concert for her latest CD, “Bootleg: Boardmixes from the Road.”

Though her show primarily featured music from “Bootleg,” with songs like “Ghost in this House” and “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” she also delivered on audience favorites, like “Memory” from Cats, which secured her reputation in the international theater scene when she first performed it in the eighties. Singing it live, Buckley called the song “my soul companion,” and went full-feline, even wiping hair with her paw at one point. Buckley’s show tunes, including the upbeat “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from the show Avenue Q, were by far the highlight of the night — they were as big and theatrical as a woman who has spent her life on the stage.

But when Buckley veered into what she called some of her “personal favorites” — music by singer-songwriters like Paul Simon and Mary Chapin Carpenter — her sugary notes fell flat. Singing Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “Come On, Come On,” she managed to take an already maudlin song and make it even more so with her gestures and elocution:

Some people remember the first time

Some can’t forget the last

Some just select what they want to from the past

It’s a song that you danced to in high school

It’s a moon you tried to bring down

On a four-in-the-morning drive through the streets of town

Come on, come on, it’s getting late now

When she performed the second Mary Chapin Carpenter song of the night, “I am a Town,” she nearly lulled the audience to sleep by slowing way down a song that is already dragging.

Sure, Buckley is getting maudlin on the stage, but she is also getting political up there too. Buckley is not only stuck in the past when it comes to her career, but also to her views of the treatment of gay men. In a prelude to The King and I’s “We Kiss in a Shadow,” she invoked our universal right to live how we were meant to and love who we were meant to. In the era of gay marriage, isn’t that so last decade? Anyhow, she noted how whenever she sings “We Kiss in a Shadow,” she thinks of gay men:

We kiss in a shadow,
We hide from the moon,
Our meetings are few,
And over too soon.

But the strangest part of the night came when Betty launched into a lengthy and rather petty tirade against actress Faye Dunaway. Buckley, it seems, hasn’t gotten over a more than decade-old skirmish over who would be cast in the leading role of Norma in Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Sunset Boulevard, a musical about a waning star living in the past. Back in the nineties, Andrew Lloyd Weber ruffled some feathers — and induced a couple of very expensive dollar lawsuits — when he cast Glenn Close for the Broadway production after promising it to Patti LuPone. And then he hired Dunaway to replace Close — and then fired her. Finally, he settled on casting Buckley for the lead role. Though she came out on top, Buckley rather gracelessly called Dunaway out at Town Hall for not having the stamina to perform as Norma on stage, while she, Buckley, did: you see, Buckley spent her early youth earning money by performing for hours on end at a Texas amusement park, as she told the snickering audience that night.

Of late, Buckley has returned to those Texas roots. Splitting her time between her ranch and the occasional regional theater gig, her life is winding down like the words of one of the sentimental songs she sang at Town Hall: “I am memory and stillness, I am lonely in old age; I am not your destination / I am clinging to my ways / I am a town….southbound.” As the sun sets on Buckley’s days in the limelight, let’s hope that old age is more graceful to her than she is to it.

Emily Esfahani Smith, the managing editor of the Hoover Institution journal Defining Ideas, is an editor at the blog and a senior editor at Smith and Kraus, the largest publisher of trade theater books in the USA.

Emily Esfahani Smith