For the Love of Betty Lynn

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Assuming they haven’t done so already, geneticists may figure out someday how to grow or replicate the vocal folds of superlative singers. But what they can never do is grow or replicate the unique accumulation of life experience that infuses songs with meaning and interpretation, especially when performed live — when they can be adorned with the nonverbal communication that, when mixed with rich traits of pitch, tone and style, can transform the marriage of words and music into portraits hung in time. Portraits that, in the paradox of live performance, vanish in the moment they are born.

Betty Buckley has been a star for more than 40 years; critics wiser than I have offered encomiums more lavish, more detailed and more illuminating and even critical than any I might attempt. Buckley’s bio is widely known; her 13 CDs, including her latest, “Quintessence,” is a representation of the continuing refinement and exploration of one very singular instrument

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What so many of us wouldn’t have given to have known Buckley — Betty Lynn as she’s affectionate called by friends and colleagues and intimates — on the day she famously landed the role of Martha Jefferson in the Broadway musical 1776, which was her very first day in New York. Still, raw talent is not necessarily the only factor that drew eyes or ears to her. It was, and it is, how she internalizes character or whole scenes or, of course, songs. She is, to play on the title of her 13th CD, quintessentially an inside-out performer, one allergic to artifice — think back to her Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway; her Rose in the Paper Mill Playhouse’s revival of Gypsy in 1998 (which should have gone to Broadway); think back, even, to her heaven-bound Grizzabella in Cats, for which she won the Tony.

And, no, I haven’t offered a word about Buckley’s acting career, for that would require a separate interview all its own. What we know is that she is one of the few musical theater legends who doesn’t needn’t music to act.

Buckley has also been a teacher for more than 35 years. Her classes — now held in Texas, where she was raised and to which she relocated permanently several years ago — remains one of the undisputed loci of inspiration for the theater greats of tomorrow. She is, in her way, the lone star in the Lone Star State.

Which is to say that Broadway, to its ongoing detriment, hasn’t been paid a visit by Buckley since the short-lived tuner Triumph of Love opened in 1997. Some fear the Main Stem will not witness her likes again. That is perhaps one reason Buckley’s cabaret shows are immensely popular and considered occasions — even if debated among her fan base and all the other Broadway-obsessed, need-a-life acolytes. This year, Buckley is returning once more to Feinstein’s at Loews Regency; her act is called For the Love of Broadway!, the product of a Twitter campaign that was not only jubilant but almost brilliantly dopamine-deprived.

On a personal note, I didn’t see Buckley in Cats, but I grew up hearing that shimmering, deity-touched voice on LP and then cassette; I saw her in both The Mystery of Edwin Drood in 1985 and the infamous Carrie — the date for the latter was May 7, 1988, just five days before it opened, just nine days before it closed. And obviously I’ve seen Buckley in a great many venues since then, but I had never had the opportunity to interview her until now.

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Back in 1988, I was a ticket broker, coursing through an unintended year away from college and getting my theater fix every other day because brokers were invited to see Broadway and Off-Broadway shows in previews — the better to sell them. In all of my nearly 30 years of theatergoing, I can think of very few instances in which an audience rose to its feet at the end of a first act. One was a performance of Dreamgirls. Another was Carrie. Buckley has been asked about it and talked about it and asked about it again ad nauseum. But for the sake of reintroduction — and for me, a note of nostalgia — this, my friend, is called commitment:

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For the Love of Broadway! runs at Feinstein’s at Loews Regency (540 Park Ave. at E. 61st St.) through Feb. 27. Buckley is joined by her music director/arranger and collaborator of 20 years, Kenny Werner, on piano, Tony Marino on bass and Billy Drewes on reeds. The Emmy and Grammy winning John McDaniel serves as musical consultant and provided special material.

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Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 8:30pm, and Friday and Saturday evenings at 8:00pm and 10:30pm. For more information or reservations, visit Feinstein’s website, visit ticketweb.com, or call 212-339-4095.

For the Love of Broadway! features songs you’ve always wanted to sing, but one might have thought you’d have sung the entirety of the musical theater canon.
They always want me to sing Broadway songs at Feinstein’s — but they like a different, eclectic selection. When they asked me to come back this year, they asked me to do “Broadway by Request,” which I did last year and everybody really enjoyed. But between John McDaniel, who is my dear friend and musical consultant, and my music director and arranger, Kenny Werner, and my musicians, Tony Marino and Bill Drewes, we came up with a repertoire of Broadway material I wouldn’t necessarily have thought of. McD — we call him McD — and his partner wrote some special material that’s pretty funny.

Broadway funny or Betty Lynn funny?
Both!

I love that you named the show through a Twitter contest.
Yes, that was something we did through fan submissions, which was really fun.

What are some of the songs you always wanted to sing?
There are a lot of them. I’m singing two songs from The King and I: “We Kiss in a Shadow” and “I Have Dreamed.” And there are two songs I consider my shower songs, meaning I always sing them in the shower: “Come to Me, Bend to Me” from Brigadoon, and “This Nearly Was Mine” from South Pacific. There’s a Maltby-Shire song, “I’ve Been Here Before,” and a song from the musical Goldilocks — “I Never Know When,” which Elaine Stritch made famous. And “You’ve Got Possibilities” from “It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman” and “There’s a Fine, Fine Line” from Avenue Q, “Home” from The Wiz, “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” from Pal Joey… and you have to see it for the rest!

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Can you walk me through your song-selection process? Do public or critical expectations affect your choices?
I kind of like to avoid that last part of the thought process. It does occur to me that people have expectations — here’s an example. We did a preview rehearsal last night of the material with my pianist, Hans Grim, in Fort Worth. It was just a rehearsal, so I went out there and I said, “Here are the rules. This is a rehearsal, basically, of 15 songs I’ve never sung in public” — well, more like 16, 18 or 20 songs, but within that are medleys, and still, that’s a lot of new materials. Now, at Feinstein’s, all the critics are there on the first night; I don’t get a chance to break it in. But I got to have an invited dress at the Museum of Modern Art in Fort Worth, which is the space I teach out of. So, with 100 people there, I said, “Look, if we make mistakes, we’ll stop. And then we’ll have a little rap session and you guys can tell me what you think.”

Did they?
Oh, I got honest input — I was overwhelmed with input. And it was very informative and instructive and I really saw, with this set list, where I needed to make some immediate changes in terms of where things are positioned, plus make a few cuts and be aware of when things are working or when the focus is waning.

All a net positive.
Absolutely. But you can get overwhelmed. One of my students for four years wrote me this morning and said she’d be happy to work with me on the material. She’s my student. She also said people are used to a certain quality from me; there’s an expectation about that. Apart from the feedback, of course, my mother was also incredibly opinionated. It’s like, “Ok, mom.” She likes the way things were done when she was a girl and she has never really understood my need for innovative interpretation.

Anwyay, my process with material is I really take a lot of time to marry myself to a song, for it to become a part of me. And it takes the time it takes: you can’t force that. It’s very challenging to sing 16 to 18 new songs, and I’m stepping on stage in a New York City cabaret before the wine has completely aged properly. So, expectations, you know…

Well, not to suck up to you, but would non-industry folks necessarily sense the wine hasn’t aged?
Oh, well, thank you for that. But as I say, expectations can’t determine what goes on in my process. As you know, I’m a meditator. As I’m contemplating my life and my experience day to day, meditation is a very critical aspect of anything I do. I discover what I like in any given moment. So, ok — I’m creating a show for Feinstein’s, as per their request, with all Broadway songs. These musicians, after 20 years, are attuned to what I love musically, how I express and interpret material; it’s innate. I’ve sat for many hours with McD — for this set, we did four to five work sessions, he came to my ranch, we worked one day at his apartment in New York, and we went through all my stacks of music, earmarking songs I was curious about. I spent $1,200 on music, then we went through another bunch of ideas with Kenny, playing ideas that I also tape-recorded. McD made suggestions and then, very quickly, I’d reply: Kenny likes this, McD likes this, and so forth. So, then, we get a whole bunch of songs, then I have to work with my rehearsal pianist, Hans, who teaches me all the music, note by note by note of what was actually written. I have a whole process to find keys, to find where it sits in my voice. Selecting the key determines how your soul will express the material — so all of that keeps changing.

The process, in other words, has a real tedium to it, like doing needlepoint, and you can’t focus too much on what you think everyone else is going to be expecting until you’ve gone through the process and done that work and until you’ve started to be aware of how to shift the elements to make sure there’s cohesion. It really is so personal to you. So, back to New York, meet again with Kenny, have another three days on arrangements. Then Kenny goes away and writes the arrangements and I work on them with Hans and then it’s back to New York, meet with Kenny again, and then I’ll have questions because of my learning process, and I have to narrow down the selections. Do you see what I mean?

Absolutely. My follow-up question would be: How do you solicit outside comments without allowing those comments to confuse what you’re doing?
That’s right. So, after last night’s rehearsal, I was informed about what’s on the money, what’s there, what songs had an immediate resonance with the audience and what’s more remote — and now it’s trying to figure out why. And it’s seeing what needs to be cut — getting down to 75 from 81 minutes. It’s asking what can I afford to cut, need to cut. These three songs are really similar in tone, and though they’re each from a different angle — all right, one can be cut. It’s using the outside feedback in the service of the piece.

How ruthless are you with yourself?
It’s very hard to be ruthless when you’re in love with a song and especially with an arrangement. Mother has a really good ear; she’s a good connection because my taste is kind of esoteric and hers is there, you know? All-American. She’s a good sounding board but, at the same time I need to also present my little paintings — because that’s really what they are, you know. It’s got to satisfy on a lot of different levels. I’ve got to be happy with it.

Do you read what critics write about you?
Yes. And nothing is more daunting when all the major critics in New York are inches away from me and I’m presenting material for the first time. It’s a torture. Stephen Holden of the New York Times has a gorgeous mind and I love his writing. My friend Jeremy Gerard of Bloomberg News — the same about him. I admire all of them. Holden — I mean, I felt like I knew him with the things he’d write about me that were just so scary but on the money. I noticed that, for example, if I did a show, any question mark about a piece of material that I didn’t address, he’d pick up on and nail it. I used to think, my God, this guy reads my mind. I know that if there’s any question that I have, I have to find the answer or somebody will pick up on it.

Sounds like fear.
No, not fear — it’s a desire to communicate with clarity what you really mean. If you haven’t been completely honest with yourself, people know. That’s something I teach my students: everyone knows the truth because everyone is the truth. You have to work from truth and tell the truth.

Is that a lesson you acquired or one that you’re handing down from a teacher as well?
Well, let me share this with you. I was studying with a guy for 13 years and I didn’t understand a word he said. I didn’t under a word he said until I had a piece of material, until he — well, until I’d collected everything he said down in my subconscious, and, like a machine, it finally all came together. I’m telling you, I went back to his class with a renewed depth of appreciation and humility. You come to it if you have the consciousness to say with it. Some of my students come and go and I want to say, “I have so much more to teach that kid.” But it, too, is part of an evolution.

Last question: Why isn’t Betty Lynn starring in a new or revived Broadway musical? We miss you! You do know that, yes?
Oh, you’re very sweet. You know, there are a lot of people I’d like to work with and I think I have another couple of Broadway musicals in me, if that could happen. I’m presented with material all the time and I’m excited to read it and listen to the music and I get all abuzz and then sometimes it’s, oh, no, no, I’m sorry, it’s just not there for me. A fan just wrote to me on Facebook and said, “Can you tell me what you’re looking for?” I really can’t. I know I want something to speak to my immediate experience, and also to my future.

And now, a selection of great Buckley clips:

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