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Betty Buckley Is the Gay Icon & Musical 'Heart Surgeon' America Needs

Betty Buckley

The legendary actress and singer talks Hello, Dolly!, her new cabaret series, and the conservative friends she lost after the 2016 election.


Well hello, Betty Buckley!

Fresh from her tour of Hello, Dolly!, the award-winning actress will be taking the stage once again -- at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., as well as the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills - to perform selections from her Hope and Story Songs albums. A few modern renditions of Dolly favorites will be included in the set in addition to new material.

In this cabaret series, Buckley will be accompanied by four musicians and her "brilliant" musical director and pianist, Christian Jacob. It's an experience she compared to "an evening of paintings" in a recent interview with The Advocate.

"I hope [audience members] have their own personal experience of the music and that it makes them feel better," Buckley said. "I've always thought of doing concerts as having a gallery showing of my recent portraits of human beings and little stories about what we're all going through."

Buckley -- a veteran of the stage and screen whose credits include the 1976 film Carrie and the original Broadway run of Cats, in which she won a Tony Award for her memorable performance as Grizabella -- is still going strong in her career at age 72. After finishing a 13-month tour as Dolly, "I came home August 26, took about three weeks off, and then went back to work on this music," shared the icon. Just prior to Dolly, Buckley starred in season 3 of AMC's Preacher and M. Night Shyamalan's blockbuster Split.

A national tour, in addition to all of her other projects, is a lot to ask of a performer at any age. "I have to say, I really didn't know I could do this," admitted Buckley. She credited her stamina to her trainer, Pat Manocchia, the founder of the New York fitness and medical center La Palestra. "I'm just like incredulous," Buckley said of her training. "I lost 40 pounds and I had no idea that I still had this body underneath of my sedentary 'I'm an older woman' body. I was really thrilled to discover that."

In body and soul, Buckley was also inspired by the character she inhabited for over a year, Dolly Levi -- the unsinkable matchmaker star at the heart of the musical, which first premiered on Broadway in 1964. "I learned a lot from Dolly Levi in terms of her commitment to joy as a way of being. It was an incredible gift to get to do that show," said Buckley of Dolly, an older widow who is able "to come back to the world of the living" and marry again after mourning her first husband.

"When I saw it on Broadway, I just wept with joy," recounted Buckley of seeing Bette Midler in the titular part in the revival's 2017 Broadway run. "I was in a pure state of rapture and I truly thought it was one of the greatest productions of any piece of musical theater I've ever seen." For Buckley, it was a privilege to impart that joy to audiences "in a time when we need that, with all that's going on in our country."

"I've been so blessed that I've gotten to play some iconic roles written for ladies in the musical theater," said Buckley, referencing Grizabella, Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, and Miss Alice Nutting in The Mystery of Edwin Drood in addition to Dolly. "It's a gift to be an actor, singer, and to share music and stories with people."

Buckley did not have the opportunity to trade notes at length with Midler on playing Dolly. However, Midler did offer her one piece of advice: "Whatever you do, get your rest," she counseled. The pair have long been acquaintances. They formerly shared a manager, Martin Bregman, who first took Buckley to see Midler perform onstage in New York decades ago during her youth.

Buckley was floored by what she saw.

"Oh, my God, this girl is fully formed and in her mid-20s, and I don't even know who I am yet," Buckley recalled thinking at the time of her theatrical peer. "She was pretty daunting to see her in performance. She knew exactly who she was and I didn't. She's always been a kind of iconic person to me."

Buckley did not feel "fully formed" herself until she discovered meditation in her mid-20s, an experience that "transformed her life" as it allowed her to find the tools to connect with audiences. "You have a heart that loves and wants to be loved" is the spiritual and philosophical rule Buckley shares with her musicians and her students; she has been a teacher in the craft for over 45 years now.

Buckley feels her role as an entertainer has been generally unchanged throughout the years, even in the wake of the 2016 presidential election, when many ugly truths about persistent human prejudices were laid bare.

"We're heart surgeons," said Buckley of actors. "Our job is to go in there and reach into the hearts of the members ... of the audience and shift things around so that people can feel who they are again."

However, heart surgery isn't easy, particularly in politically divisive times. Buckley recalled an experience of sharing a message of acceptance onstage. Afterward, a Republican woman interrupted Buckley's CD signing to vocally express her offense at her words.

Buckley did not back down. "I stood up in that chair and took her down. I just said, 'Get out of my face. I didn't do anything to offend anyone. You have some serious problems and you need to rethink everything in your life, including who you support. If you don't want to come to my shows anymore, then don't.'"

"I've lost friendships in this time period -- friends and family," Buckley shared of the fallout from standing up to her liberal beliefs. "I don't care. I don't care if I ever spend time with them again."

Buckley currently lives in Texas, where she was raised -- and her experiences with conservative acquaintances have led her to "seriously consider" moving states. She recalled visiting a friend's house on Thanksgiving and receiving a cruel test of her political allegiances by her hosts.

"They set this mug, this 'Drumpf' mug -- I won't even say his name-- at my place at this beautifully decorated house in this beautiful, appointed Thanksgiving feast, gorgeous table. It was this ugly MAGA mug," said Buckley. "I was like, are you kidding me? I just pushed it aside and put it somewhere else and sat down and pretended that nothing happened. And they were all watching me, like I was some kind of alien creature that they had never seen before."

"Never again," said Buckley, who was also revolted to hear racist thoughts being expressed by those in her former circle. "I feel bad about that, because I love these people. I still love them, but I can't, I just can't."

"Now is the time to declare ourselves as humanitarians, as people who are connected, truly connected to the human experience, which includes persons of every race, color, creed, gender," she said.

Buckley's advocacy -- in addition to her peerless Broadway presence and powerful female roles -- has endeared her to many LGBTQ people. It's something the actress and singer recognizes and does not take lightly.

"I'm very grateful for the audience of gay persons that have liked my work through the years. It means a lot to me. The tenderness of heart means a lot to me," said Buckley. She credited her gay brother, Norman Buckley, a prominent director of television shows like Pretty Little Liars and The O.C., as a major influence in her life. "He's a huge source of learning and inspiration for me."

However, Buckley also takes umbrage that her acceptance of gay people should still be considered remarkable. "It's like, who the fuck cares? You know what I mean? It's no one's business who someone loves," she said. "And people have such cruel opinions about that, of course."

Buckley said that the reality of Supreme Court justices debating whether being gay should be a fireable offense is "insane," and she referenced an idiom from Hello, Dolly!, "The world is at sixes and sevens," as summing up the current era of chaos. However, the exposure of hatred is not without its upsides, Buckley reasoned.

"It's like peeling a scab off and finding the infection that's underneath. And so bringing it to the light has to have some merit," she said. "Down the road, we've really got to rally and pull together all of us who are like-minded and believe in one another. We have to stand together against such cruelty."

Betty Buckley will be kicking off her cabaret series at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, Calif., from October 17 to 19. She will perform at the Saban Theatre in Beverly Hills November 2.

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Daniel Reynolds

Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.
Daniel Reynolds is the editor of social media for The Advocate. A native of New Jersey, he writes about entertainment, health, and politics.