Dallas — We often associate the actresses who have played the title role in the Jerry Herman/Michael Stewart musical Hello, Dolly! with the character Dolly Levi precisely because these actors — from Carol Channing to Pearl Bailey to Bette Midler — are, like Dolly, outsized themselves. Maybe that’s why the Tony-winning Betty Buckley seemed like an odd casting choice for the national tour, which is winding down its first year and begins a second week at Dallas Summer Musicals tonight, running through Sunday.
Buckley has memorably played larger-than-life characters, such as Grizabella in Cats (for which she won her Tony) and Norma Desmond in another Andrew Lloyd Webber musical, Sunset Boulevard. But Buckley herself, who has had quite the film resurgence thanks to roles in two M. Night Shyamalan movies (The Happening and Split) and her guest role as Gran’ma in AMC’s Preacher, isn’t necessarily “extra” in everyday life. She’s outspoken and active on social media (follow her on Twitter and Instagram if you don’t already), but she’s also a self-described couch potato. Accompanying her on this tour are personal assistant Cathy Brighenti, and four dogs.
Even Buckley agrees that she never saw Dolly Levi as a fit. In the interview below, she discusses why she had never considered the part, or thought much of the musical itself. Until, that is, she saw the Tony-winning Jerry Zaks revival on Broadway, with Midler, a few years ago.
TheaterJones: You grew up performing in Fort Worth at Casa Mañana, but have you ever performed on stage for Dallas Summer Musicals?
Betty Buckley: I did a benefit concert for them once, at the Music Hall at Fair Park; but not in a musical.
You’ve also never done a national tour like this. I imagine it’s tiring, but also thrilling.
It will be a year at the end of August. It’s exhausting, doing eight shows a week, which happens on Broadway — but I haven’t done it in a long time. The tour is fine when we’re in cities with two-, three-, four- or five-week runs; the one-weekers are difficult because you travel on your day off.
What has your experience with the musical itself been? Is this a role you wanted to play at some point?
No. It wasn’t on my wish list, it wasn’t in my head. When I saw it as a teenager, I didn’t get the show. I never understood it. The first shows I did at Casa were Gypsy (I played Dainty June) and West Side Story. I loved musicals like that. And I loved Bob Fosse.
I saw the Pearl Bailey version of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway, and I really appreciated that as an entertainment, I still didn’t get the story.
When I saw this production, three months before they won all the Tonys, with direction by Jerry Zaks, costumes by Santo Loquasto, lighting by Nathsha Katz, the choreography by Warren Carlyle and the glorious orchestrations by Larry Hochman, I loved it.
My brother Norman was with me, and I looked at him weeping openly, like many people in the audience, and I said to him “this might be the greatest piece of musical theater I’ve ever seen.” I started crying when I saw the opening of “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” with this sumptuous design and the dancing; the beauty of the production was overwhelming. And of course, Bette Midler was utterly charming and wonderful in the part, I think it’s one of the best things she’s done.
At that point did you see yourself in the role?
I was completely swept away by it, but it still wasn’t something I saw myself in. Which may be why I let myself be so thoroughly entertained as an audience member. Because normally, when I’m watching a show with a character that’s the age I could play, I would be analyzing it, wondering what I could bring to it. I was watching it without any analytical consideration. I let it wash over me, and I understood the story for the first time.
That’s purely the genius of Jerry Zaks. Both Jerry and [producer] Scott Rudin, they saw it as boys, multiple times in New York, and they were in love with the story. They went back to the original material by Thornton Wilder [the play The Matchmaker]. This production is so beautiful and rich and is true to the Wilder play. It illuminated the love story at the heart of it; the idea of seeking joy, of honoring the moment. It was a feast for the eyes. The new orchestrations by Larry Hoffman brought the music to another level.
In January [of 2018] Scott called my manager to offer me the role. I was filming Preacher on AMC; I was really shocked.
I remember pacing around my hotel room wondering if I could do this part. They flew me to New York, and we talked for three hours. I said, “you guys think I can do this?” They said “yes, of course.” It has been an honor to be the quarterback of this amazing team of glorious singers/actors, with this phenomenal leading man in Lewis Stadlen. It’s been really a divine gift.
Was it a vocal challenge?
It was in the beginning. It’s classic, old-school, Broadway belting, and I haven’t done that kind of singing for years. I started training with my vocal coaches. I lost 40 pounds … 30 pounds before opening, and another 10 during the tour. It has been arduous. For the first few months I was still finding the part. We’d be in these old theaters with some moldy dressing rooms, and I have an allergy to mold. I got bronchitis, and missed a few performances in Chicago, in Orlando, Costa Mesa. That was unfortunate, but since January, when we were in San Francisco for four weeks, I haven’t missed a performance. To find my Broadway voice again has been a gift.
Are you a fan of Jerry Herman’s music?
I love Jerry Herman’s music without a doubt. I saw Mame with Angela Lansbury at the Winter Garden, which is where Cats was later. I did [Herman’s] Dear World in London. I just didn’t see myself as Dolly Levi. But now I do [laughs].
It’s also a more comedic performance than you’re known for playing.
I’ve done comedy, but I’ve never done this kind of precise farce comedy. It helps that my leading man, Lewis Stadlen, is a great comic actor. I turned 71 in July , and I got to spend the year going to comedy school with Jerry Zaks. Meaning, I consider rehearsals with Jerry Zaks being in comedy school.
Dolly Levi herself, I can add her to the list of wonderful ladies, characters I’ve gotten to play in my long and eclectic career. Grizabella is one of my soulmates; learning to play her required a phenomenal amount of work and study with my teacher at that point. I consider her one of my great soulmates and teachers. I’m always reminded of the whole experience of Grizabella; she has grown and changed and evolved as I have. Same for Norma Desmond, and any of the great roles I’ve been privileged to play.
Now, Dolly Levi is a great spiritual teacher for me. She’s a very joyous being and committed to joy as her way of life. There are a few things I have in common with her, like her mischief, so I was able to bring my mischief to her…but to play a person who is that committed to joy in everyone around her is a beautiful gift and challenge. While I wish people well, I maybe haven’t achieved in my own personal growth as a person the ability to maintain that level of joyful presence all the time. Do you know what I mean? I like to go into a couch potato life, which my life at the ranch affords me, with riding horses and being quiet. Dolly is determined at this point in her life, after being a widow for 10 years, to be back in the world of the living and bring as much joy as possible to everyone around her in the time she has left.
That’s her mission, and it’s gorgeous.
But I assume you’re ready to go back to couch potato life after this year on tour.
[laughing] I cannot wait.