It’s noon on Thursday but Betty Buckley’s vocal cords are just waking up. With good reason—they’ve been working overtime lately.She’s currently starring in “The Old Friends,” a play by Horton Foote, which has been staging at the Signature Theatre in Manhattan since August 20. Just a few hours before her telephone interview with the Press, the actor and singer learned that the show had just been extended through Sunday, October 13. Additionally, Ms. Buckley has also got a full concert schedule for the fall, and is gearing up for a return performance at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday, October 12.
“Today we just learned that the show was extended,” she said in a raspy voice, clearing her throat a few times. “I play a very wealthy woman who’s an alcoholic who throws tantrums, for eight shows a week. In the morning my voice sounds like this. Once I finish my third cup of coffee and vocalize it will get back to normal,” she laughed, and cleared her throat once more. “It’s husky and opens up as the day goes on. It takes my voice a while to wake up.”
The versatile performer is best known for her work on Broadway. Among other things, she’s won a Tony Award for her performance as Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats” and she’s played Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard,” also by Mr. Webber, on Broadway and on the London stage. Additionally, she’s acted in dozens of films and television shows, notably “Tender Mercies,” also written by Mr. Foote, “Carrie” and “The Happening” on the big screen and “Eight Is Enough,” “The Pacific” and “Oz” on TV. She’s also recorded 15 albums, with “Ghostlight,” produced by T Bone Burnett, to be released in 2014.
During her Bay Street show, “The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway,” Ms. Buckley will perform a medley of hits, sung by the second female leads in popular stage shows. Planned songs include “When You’re Good to Mama” from “Chicago,” “My Heart Belongs to Daddy” from “Leave It To Me!” and “Another Hundred People” from “Company,” plus songs from “Annie,” “Oklahoma,” “Allegro,” “Evita,” “Into the Woods,” and more.
The Bay Street material loosely follows the theme of a recent successful series undertaken by Ms. Buckley, “Ah Men! The Boys of Broadway,” which she performed last year in Sag Harbor. During that show, she sang songs written for male Broadway musical leads.
“They said, ‘You can’t sing that song, it’s a man’s song,’” she laughed, explaining why she chose to undertake “Ah Men.” “So I decided to sing some of my favorite songs by boys.”
The soloist is just as excited about “Vixens,” especially as she’s returning to the Bay Street stage with pianist Christian Jacob, her musical director and arranger for the past five years.
“It’s a really great show with show-stopping songs,” she said. “It’s also very funny, lighthearted and fun.”
The singer said she doesn’t know where her next vocal production series will take her, but she is most certainly aware of how her past has informed her work.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do next,” she said. “I don’t know what I’m interested in right now to sing next. I have to ponder.”
Writing a book about the journey is a distinct possibility, the singer said, adding that she’s particularly interested in how the voice evolves over a lifetime.
“When I was a young girl, I thought my voice was too girlie—a clarion sound,” the mezzo-soprano continued. “All the great lady singers that I loved had these great husky voices. ‘Dammit, I don’t have a sexy voice,’ I thought.”
“What was I thinking?” she mused. “Now I look back and think, ‘I love that girl. Her voice was like a bell.’”
Continuing, she laughed.
“And now I have that husky woman sound,” she said, clearing her throat once more. “The instrument stays the same, but the resonance, the vibration, changes. You don’t sing; you let yourself be sung.”
From her earliest days as a performer, Ms. Buckley knew that her voice would not fail her as long as she treated it right, she said. Her teacher, Paul Gavert, told her, “Voices they evolve. The voice is who you are, and it shows in how you take care of yourself,” she recalled her mentor saying.
Over the years, as her voice has changed, she has always made sure to take care of her instrument.
“It’s not so much about loss as it is about gain,” she explained of how a singer’s voice changes over the course of a lifetime. “One of the great flaws and problems of our culture is the need to stay stuck in youth. I wouldn’t go back to my youth for anything.”
“People forget the challenges of youth,” she continued. “Each era has challenges for you to live a contented, happy life … but it’s really about contribution. There’s no reason to surrender.”
One of the performers who has celebrated her age, and survived decades in show business gracefully, according to Ms. Buckley, is fellow singer and friend, Cher.
“I saw her on ‘David Letterman’ not too long ago,” she said. “She looks better than she ever has. She sang better than she ever has. I sent her a Tweet to tell her.”
Like Cher, Ms. Buckley—who made her Broadway debut as Martha Jefferson in “1776” in 1969—has fully embraced the gifts that have come to her over a four-decade-long career. Celebrating where she is right now is the most important thing, she said.
“It’s about each period of your life. What is it that I long to sing about? The songs I loved as a young girl aren’t necessarily the ones I love the same way now. Now that I’m an older woman, my voice and my likes have a maturity from all the years’ experience I’ve had. Life can be a very beautiful journey. Allow yourself to enjoy it.”
And just as she had predicted a little less than a half an hour earlier, by the end of her telephone interview and another cup of coffee, Ms. Buckley’s voice had bounced back. It was strong and true. And she was ready for some vocalizing.
Betty Buckley will sing “The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway” at Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor on Saturday, October 12, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $50 and $75 and VIP tickets, which include an after party with Ms. Buckley, are $100. For reservations, call 725-9500 or visit baystreet.org.