Betty Buckley won raves and even nabbed a Tony Award for playing an aging feline -- so, by comparison, a little gender-bending seems oddly natural.
It's no surprise, then, that the legendary stage actress and singer effectively wears the pants on her latest CD, "Ah, Men! The Boys of Broadway," in which she tackles more than a dozen tunes that were introduced by male characters in musical theater. Whether she's belting one of two "West Side Story" tracks or serving up "Hymn To Her," her pronoun-swapping take on a "My Fair Lady" classic, Buckley is in solid voice and whimsical spirit throughout; by the time she gets to a suite of songs from "Sweeney Todd," unquestionably the album's centerpiece, it's hard not to envision the star slipping into Benjamin Barker's barbershop gear for a full-scale revival of Stephen Sondheim's masterpiece one day.
Despite an astonishing theater, film and television legacy, Buckley is proving herself to be anything but a nostalgia act as she gears up for her two New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) shows, which will comprise tunes from both "Ah, Men!" and her latest cabaret act, "The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway." Weeks after her two Newark performances on Nov. 10, she'll be whisked to London, where she's set to play the Madwoman of Chaillot in a much-anticipated revival of Jerry Herman's "Dear World," due to open next year. Then there's her guest-starring turn in "Pretty Little Liars," and her induction into the Theater Hall of Fame, both set for January 2013.
On the phone from San Francisco, Buckley shared some details about her NJPAC shows and other upcoming projects, as well as some anecdotes from her acclaimed moments on stage ("Cats") and screen ("Carrie").
The Huffington Post: Congratulations on the new album, which is of course based on your cabaret act of the same name. What inspired you to perform, and subsequently record, a collection of musical theater songs originally sung by men?
Betty Buckley: Basically I started thinking about it back when I was doing "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" [in 1985], in which I played Alice Nutting, a woman who played a boy who played an old man. It was during that time I was introduced to the history of the British Music Hall, which featured a number of women who were male impersonators. It was really scandalous at the time because women weren't allowed to wear pants onstage, but when they were playing men, it was OK.
I just thought about how interesting that tradition was, and how I've always wanted to sing songs that were originated by men in Broadway musicals, but never really had the opportunity or outlet in which to do so. So I began putting an evening together of songs from the musical theater songbook that were originally sung by men, and it developed from that.
What surprises do you have in store for your NJPAC audience?
Well, I've just finished performing my latest cabaret show at Feinstein's in New York called "The Other Woman: The Vixens of Broadway," which comprised songs that were performed by second leads or featured actresses in musicals. These women aren't the leads, but they often have the showstoppers, some of the most beautiful songs in musical theater…songs like "Another Suitcase in Another Hall" [from "Evita"], "When You're Good to Mama" [from "Chicago"] and "I Know Things Now" [from "Into The Woods"].
We had a really great time doing that show, so for NJPAC we're going to do a "best of," picking our favorite selections from both shows. We're calling it "Vixens and the Boys of Broadway," and we're going to fit elements of the two repertoires into one cohesive evening. I love all of the music that we've selected.
After 9/11, you famously re-located back to your native Texas after years of living in New York. Is it strange for you to return to the metro area?
Everything excites me about coming back! I love New York so much. I love living on my ranch and I love living with horses, but I'm still a New Yorker. As soon as I heard "Rhapsody in Blue" when I was eight years old, I knew there was some place other than Texas and I knew that I belonged there. I thought of myself as a New Yorker even before I lived there.
You're also gearing up to star in the London revival of "Dear World." What excites you most about tackling that project?
It's just such a great piece and a beautiful score. I absolutely love the creative team I'll be working with, and it's a wonderful new version of the show. It's about humanity caring for one another; it's an interesting fable that's really timely for the world right about now.
Do you feel any pressure when it comes to taking on a role so closely associated with Angela Lansbury, who starred in the original production?
Not at all, I'm actually quite thrilled! She's such a great lady of theater; she's always been one of my personal role models and I'm honored to get a chance to play a role that she originated.
It's been exactly 30 years since "Cats," for which you won a Tony Award. What comes to mind when you look back on the legacy of that show?
Learning to sing "Memory" -- that whole experience -- was just such a huge moment in my life and my career. Getting to work with Trevor Nunn, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Gillian Lynne…it was really the moment when I felt that I finally stepped into the potential I always knew resided inside of me. It took some months to learn how to play the role and deliver "Memory" properly, but that character and that song really allowed me to do that.
Given that you have the unique distinction of having starred in both the 1976 film and 1988 Broadway musical versions of Stephen King's "Carrie," what do you think it is about that story that keeps it so relevant after all these years?
I think it's a pretty universal thing -- feeling like the outsider, feeling like the disenfranchised person who marches to the beat of a different drum. There are so many of us who've experienced that, so we identify with Carrie and her experience on a personal level.
The bullying mentality has always been so prevalent in our society and it's only in recent history that it's come fully to our consciousness. Thank God people are becoming more aware of it.
What did you think of the 2012 revival of the musical?
I'm really happy for them that they got to do that. People have been asking them to do it for years and years, and they finally found collaborators who gave them the opportunity to revisit the material and get it closer to what they had originally intended.
The original musical was a misguided, misconceived effort, but the essence of the piece still had that heart that so many fans [of King's story] respond to.
Touring with your cabaret performances and a big musical revival in London -- your schedule is jam-packed these days! What's next for Betty Buckley?
I'm also in the first episode of the new season of "Pretty Little Liars," which starts airing in January. It's my second appearance on the show…my character's name is Regina, and I call her Grandma Reg. She's an Oklahoma rancher who was a glamour girl in her day; she's really outspoken and very hilarious. She's kind of over the top and very protective of Hannah.
I hope they'll keep bringing Regina back. Those girls are great, I love them, I love the whole team -- they're really terrific people.
Betty Buckley performs at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark on Nov. 10. For more information, click here.
Check out some of Buckley's best musical moments below: