FORT WORTH Betty Buckley loves hanging out at home, where she spends time with several cutting horses, a donkey, cats and dogs and other pets and creatures that may stray onto her ranch west of Fort Worth. But, as would be expected from a Tony-winning Broadway legend, she isn’t any more excited than when she’s talking about seeing musicals and plays in New York.
At a recent lunch at Joe T. Garcia’s, her expressive eyes lit up, matching the girlishness in her voice, when talking about what was then her upcoming week in New York. She was planning to spend the days in rehearsal for a reading of a new musical called The Thing About Time, and the nights catching up on Broadway and off-Broadway shows.
“We’re going to the theater and we’ll be seeing everything; I’m so excited. We’re going to see Kinky Boots, [Bill Irwin’s] Old Hats, Pippin....I was in Pippin, you know,” she says, referring to the Tony-nominated revival of the Stephen Schwartz musical that Buckley was in on Broadway, as a replacement for the character of Catherine. Then, upon realizing that the big-buzz show, Matilda, was not on the schedule, she sends her longtime assistant, Cathy Brighenti, on a mental quest to figure out how they can work that musical — which could win the Best Musical Tony on Sunday night — into their schedule.
“We have to see Matilda!” she says.
Aside from her general love of the art form — musicals — with which she has built her reputation as a bona fide Broadway legend, you know that her excitement about seeing shows is in no small part due to the idea that with each new musical come more chances to learn more songs. She not only teaches the art of interpreting them to students across the country (one of her master classes is currently in session in Fort Worth), but she uses them in her concerts, which have, of late, become more wickedly clever than ever.
In 2011, she debuted Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway — featuring songs originally sung by male characters — at Feinstein’s in New York, and then performed it across the country, including at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth. This week, she brings its follow-up, The Vixens of Broadway, to the Modern for two shows. This collection, which she debuted in 2012 in New York, features tunes by “the other woman.”
“The ‘other woman’ in Broadway terms is the second lead,” she says. “The mezzo also got the fun stuff. It’s very funny and lively and mischievous.”
In Vixens, the tunes include well-known songs like When You’re Good to Mama (from Chicago), Another Suitcase in Another Hall (Evita) and I Cain’t Say No ( Oklahoma!); as well as The Gentleman Is a Dope (from the Rodgers and Hammerstein flop Allegro), Unusual Way ( Nine) and The Miller’s Son (A Little Night Music).
In Ah, Men, she reworked the My Fair Lady song A Hymn to Him (performed by Higgins) into a rant about all the great male roles she could have played. In Vixens, its counterpart is the parody Play the Other Woman, set to the tune of You Gotta Get a Gimmick from Gypsy.
“It’s such a fun song,” she says.
If you’ve seen Buckley perform in concert in large venues, such as Bass Hall (with the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra), you know she loves to throw in tunes by some of her favorite singer-songwriters, like James Taylor and Joni Mitchell. But the focus on Broadway, and reinventing its tunes, comes, in part, from years of playing at Feinstein’s, the famed club and cabaret in midtown Manhattan.
“Feinstein’s always insists on a Broadway repertoire,” she says. “In the olden days, I would do songs from singer-songwriters, and [the producers] would get letters. People wanted to hear Broadway. It’s literally in my contract that I have to do Broadway songs.”
Not that she minds.
Lately, she’s been as busy as ever. In early 2013, she performed in a London revival of the forgotten Jerry Herman musical Dear World, reuniting with her Cats assistant director Gillian Lynne. During that time, she was inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame (but was in London, so friend Ellen Burstyn accepted it on her behalf). And after her Fort Worth engagements, she’ll return to the Big Apple to begin work on the previously unproduced Horton Foote play Old Friends, opposite Lois Smith and Hallie Foote, which is scheduled to open Aug. 20 at New York’s Signature Theatre.
And if she finds any downtime in that process, you know she’ll be seeing as much theater as she can fit in.
After all, even though she won’t divulge any details, she is already working on a concept concert to follow up Vixens.