Ahead of her Sydney concerts, the Broadway legend talks to Limelight about Cats, Carrie and her remarkable career.

As Broadway stars go, they don’t come much more celestial than Betty Buckley these days. With an impressive 47-year track record in musical theatre, and a film and TV career that’s not much shorter, the Tony Award-winning performer (she won in 1983 as the first American Grizabella in Cats) is Sydney-bound to guest in Defying Gravity, an evening celebrating the songwriting talents of another show business legend, her close contemporary, Stephen Schwartz.

Buckley in Pippin, 1973

Buckley’s relationship with the composer and lyricist of shows such as Godspell and Wicked goes back to the very beginning of her career. “I played the role of Catherine in Pippin for two years and eight months”, she tells me over the phone from New York. “It was great. I’d been a huge fan of his from the Godspell days, but I needed to stay in the show all that time to pay for my acting classes and my therapy!”

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, to a mother who was a singer, young Betty Buckley studied dance from the age of three with an aunt and pretty much always knew that a life on the stage beckoned, recalling “I had a kind of vision when I was 13 that musical theatre would be my destiny”. It was 1969 when Buckley was catapulted onto the Broadway stage, walking straight into a major role, remarkably on her very first day in New York. It was the musical 1776, Sherman Edwards’ Tony-winning show about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. “My father didn’t want me to be in show business so he wouldn’t allow me to move to the city without employment. So this very wonderful person who was my first agent got me a series of shows in Philadelphia and then New York. In the olden days they would do these big productions to sell a product and they’d call them ‘industrial shows’. I was down to do one for Gimbel’s Department Store, but on the day of my arrival in New York I called the agent and he said: ‘You have an audition in 15 minutes at the American Theatre Laboratory – take your music and go!’ So I ran downtown and I was the last girl to be seen on the last day of auditions for the role of Martha Jefferson.”

Buckley in 1776 with Willam Daniels and Howard da Silva (1969)

The producers didn’t know what they were looking for in a role whose main function was to rhapsodise on the charms of the future President in the witty waltz-song He Plays the Violin. A conventional soprano in the role wasn’t working, and the fact that Buckley could sing the song as soprano or alto, or in fact in whichever way they might have wanted, landed her the job. Listening to the original cast recording, there is something of the contemporary in her projection, her voice sounding closer to the modern musical theatre soprano than the more operetta sounding voices of the past. That vocal flexibility would continue to stand her in good stead throughout her career, but for now she’d arrived, and it was the best of times. “Actually, Stephen Schwartz’s wife was one of the three original women in 1776”, she adds, appreciating that musical theatre can sometimes seem a very small world. “Her role was cut from the show, but as you can see my connection with their family goes way back.”

For Buckley, the show that got away was Schwartz’s 1976 musical The Baker’s Wife, a gentle tale of a young woman, her older husband and a young lover set in rural France. “For years, one of my signature songs was Meadowlark, which was sung by the baker’s wife in that show,” she explains. “I had a real attachment to that because Stephen called me originally and said that he wrote it with me in mind. He was the first composer to do that in my career. Anyway, he asked me to audition for it, and then I never got the part and that really killed me because I had about six auditions. They cast another girl and then later they fired her on the road and cast Patti LuPone right after she got out of Juilliard. I was heartsick about that so I went off to Hollywood and made my first movie, which was the film Carrie.”

Buckley in Carrie, the musical, 1988

The cult horror film Carrie saw Buckley in the role of the gym teacher, Miss Collins, alongside Sissy Spacek and John Travolta. In 1988 she returned to the story playing Carrie’s Bible-bashing mother in the infamous musical version – one of Broadway’s more notorious flops. “It got the worst reviews you’ve ever read when it tried out in the UK,” she admits. “The Royal Shakespeare Company originally offered me the role but we couldn’t come to terms, so we stopped negotiating and they went to Barbara Cook who did it in Stratford. After they got horrible reviews she walked away from it so they came back and asked me if I would open it on Broadway. It was a very controversial musical. People weren’t ready for it. But then the composer and the writer went back and revisited it a couple of years ago and made a lot of changes. The musical itself had a big cult following, so everybody was really thrilled when they brought it back.”

Cult musicals have been stock in trade for Buckley over the years. My first exposure to her talents was in her Tony-nominated performance in the charmingly cerebral Stock and Birkenhead musical The Triumph of Love, based on a 1732 Marivaux commedia – a Broadway show that everyone loved yet strangely closed too soon. Another star turn was her gender-bending appearance as the title character of 1986’s Tony-winning, music hall-inspired version of Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Seeing her again in 1997 in William Finn’s Elegies, a lovely show with some extraordinarily beautiful songs, was memorable for me not least for her character’s use of the c-word (rare in musical theatre then) in the only song not to make the cast album.

Buckley with F Murray Abraham in The Triumph of Love

It was perhaps an early interest in edgy musicals that first attracted Buckley to the work of Stephen Schwartz. “He was a very innovative composer at that time. Godspell was so remarkable – fun, iconoclastic but also very full of love and devotion. I went to see it several times. And then Pippin I adored. It was a beautiful score and Bob Fosse’s direction was very exciting theatre.”

The Baker’s Wife never made it to Broadway, beginning a fallow period for Schwartz. Quirky, modest-scale shows like Working and Personals were out of kilter with the excess of the ‘80s. Rags (1986 – lyrics only) and the Biblical epic, Children of Eden, inspired cult followings but earned little back on the producing dollar. Lyrics for musical cartoon films like Pocahontas (1995), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) and songs for 1998’s The Prince of Egypt did better. But since the mega-success of Wicked in 2003, Stephen Schwartz has been very much back in demand with a multitude of revivals of Godspell and Pippin.

Buckley as a Tony Award-winning Grizabella in Cats, 1983

“At his best he’s a brilliant storyteller,” reflects Buckley. “Especially in what I call monologue songs; songs that in a moment describe a character and/or enlighten the audience as to what their internal experience actually is. Meadowlark is a classic monologue musical theatre song. I think Stephen’s great at that kind of song with that kind of running, passionate piano through line. He’s good, if not better than anybody. His lyrics are so vivid and visual. I’m a very visual artist myself – I really need to be able to see what I’m singing about – and his songs really do that.” And what of the man himself? What is Stephen Schwartz like to work with? “He’s a very nice man. A very, very nice man. Lovely and charming and kind. I like him.”

Defying Gravity will be Betty Buckley’s Sydney debut alongside other Broadway stars including two-time Tony Award winner Sutton Foster (Anything Goes, Thoroughly Modern Millie) and Aaron Tveit (Enjolras in the movie of Les Misérables, Next To Normal). West End star Joanna Ampil, Helpmann Award winner Helen Dallimore and David Harris make up the rest of the cast. “I’ll be singing Meadowlark” reveals Buckley. “I’m also singing two other songs: Chanson from Baker’s Wife and No Time At All from Pippin. I’m so excited to be able to come to Sydney and to work with these brilliant artists – really excited. I’ve been to the Melbourne Arts Festival twice and the Brisbane Arts Festival once, and I’ve shot a miniseries in Australia called The Pacific that was produced by Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg, so I’ve made the trip about six times, but I’ve never played Sydney so I’m really excited to visit.”

For many, Buckley is the greatest Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard

Nowadays Buckley lives on a ranch in Texas from where she divides her time between New York, Hollywood and cutting horse competitions (that’s where horse and rider have two-and-a-half minutes to demonstrate their ability to cut cattle and prevent them from returning to the herd). As busy as ever, she still teaches song interpretation and scene study as she has done for over 40 years now, and she regularly conducts masterclasses in Fort Worth and other US cities. She’s just finished shooting a new film for director M Night Shyamalan called Split, which sees her co-starring with James McAvoy, and this past summer she was involved in an acclaimed new production of Scott Frankel’s musical Grey Gardens at the Bay St Theatre in Sag Harbour, NY. Buckley played the domineering older Edith Bouvier Beale with Rachel York as the eccentric “Little” Edie Beale. Co-incidentally, the theatre’s Artistic Director is Scott Schwartz, Stephen’s son, who it turns out has directed Buckley on previous occasions. As I said, it’s a small world.

Defying Gravity is at the Theatre Royal, Sydney on February 12 and 13.