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November 20, 2017

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Q+A: Betty Buckley — the vixen voice of Broadway and her life of contrasts at home on the range


Nela Zolotic/Cashman Photography

Betty Buckley at “Zumanity” in New York-New York on Friday, Nov. 16, 2012.

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Betty Buckley.

Award-winning actress and singer Betty Buckley is one of theater’s most respected and legendary leading ladies, yet most people remember her for the long-running TV series “Eight Is Enough” and her three seasons on HBO’s “Oz.” I know Betty as my former New York City apartment neighbor who I went to for a cup of sugar.

Betty won a Tony Award for her role as Grizabella in “Cats” and an Olivier Award playing Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” before bringing it to Broadway. The talented Broadway star from “Pippin,” “1776” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” also starred in Brian de Palma’s movie “Carrie,” Roman Polanski’s “Frantic,” Woody Allen’s “The Other Woman” and M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.” Her TV credits also include “Pretty Little Liars” and “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.”

She returns to the Smith Center this weekend with four performances of her new show “Vixens of Broadway.” With 15 CDs to her credit, she’ll perform selections from “Evita,” “Chicago,” “Oklahoma,” “Into the Woods,” “Dear World” and more as a follow-up to her earlier hit Smith Center engagement “The Boys of Broadway.”

I chatted with her by phone as she packed to fly here.

Do you think of yourself as a vixen? What do you think of yourself?

A naughty girl, full of mischief — that’s me!

Your first show at the Smith Center the last time when I saw you was really cabaret jazz, and this one is a very focused show because it’s the memorable female vixens of Broadway?

Last year was all men, “The Boys of Broadway,” it was all the men’s songs. I work with jazz musicians, so the music has been always really contemporary; a very musical evening. Then we recorded that collection of songs released as a CD last year. This year’s show is called “The Other Woman: the Vixens of Broadway.” The other woman in musical-theater terms is the second lead, and what’s interesting in terms of its history in musical theater is that the other woman often has the best part of the show.

A lot of our best singer/actress musical ladies made their mark playing the other woman. You know like Chita Rivera when she played Anita, Bonnie Franklin in “Applause,” Randy Graff in “City of Angels”; those kinds of songs. It’s a beautiful collection; it’s very lighthearted and funny.

Are you on tour with this show or are you just keeping it to key cities?

With my schedule the way it is, one could say it’s a tour, but it’s not really. It’s more like I go out and I do a concert or two here, then I go back home. I live on a ranch in Texas. It’s about an hour west of Fort Worth. I have four horses, a donkey and a bunch of dogs and cats that I rescued. It’s a lovely place.

So you’ve given up our old Manhattan apartment building?

I moved back to Texas 10 years ago, but I’ve been really fortunate to have a job that has brought me back to New York every single year for an extended stay. That’s my life; I travel around like you — theater, film, television, workshops, all those things.

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Betty Buckley.

You’re a gipsy vixen.

I’m a gipsy vixen — that’s it!

You’re currently in an off-Broadway play, “The Old Friend,” but of all the Broadway shows you were in, were you always the other woman or just some of the time?

Most of the time, actually. I started as Monty Jefferson in 1776, the wife to Thomas Jefferson. I had one big song; he plays the violin. In “Promises, Promises,” as well. I was both the other woman and the lead.

How did you enjoy your last visit to the Smith Center?

Oh, I love the Smith Center! It’s so beautiful! That room is really great, and the people there are just perfect. I think it’s a great thing for Las Vegas. We had such a good time, and I’m glad they’re bringing us back for this new show I’ve got.

We’re set up in the Cabaret Jazz theater, but I popped my head into the huge theater, and it’s gorgeous. It looks like Carnegie Hall; it has that soul and acoustic power. It’s so fantastic and such a gift for Las Vegas. I love that the people of Las Vegas are supporting it so well.

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Betty Buckley with cast members of "Mystere" at Treasure Island on Sunday, Nov. 18, 2012.

So what’s next for Betty Buckley after “Vixens of Broadway” in Las Vegas?

I’m doing “Vixens” in Indianapolis. I do two nights there, then a workshop. Then I go to the University of Oklahoma and do a weeklong workshop. Then I go to San Francisco for two weeks at Feinstein’s at the Hotel Nikko, and then throughout the New Year, I have more constant work. Then there’s some talk of the possibility of “The Old Friend” moving to Broadway. I don’t know that it will happen, but there are producers who are interested.

That seems like an extraordinary travel schedule. I know it goes with the territory of being a working actress, but do you ever feel like settling down to your home on the range?

Well it’s a beautiful place to retreat. I really love that I currently have this ranch; I don’t know how long I’ll be able to keep the boat afloat. The catch-22 is that I have to work all the time to support the ranch. I’m yet to always be home to enjoy it. But when I am home, it’s a great respite and counterpoint to the rest of my life where I can run around the rest of my life in my jeans and boots and spurs and T-shirts.

One day I went to visit my mother in Fort Worth, and she said, “Betty, you’re becoming like one of those ranch women who don’t care what they look like; go put on some lipstick! It’s a good thing that every now and then, people ask for me to come and sing for them so I can get spoofed up and be a vixen again. It’s good to have those extremes, and I like my life the way it is. I don’t want to stop working; I love working, and I hope that I can do it for as long as I can.

It sounds like you’ve found the ideal balance.

So far, so good, Robin.

In addition to 7 p.m. performances Friday and Saturday, Betty has 3 p.m. shows on Saturday and Sunday at Cabaret Jazz in the Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Symphony Park downtown.

Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.

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