When the national tour of the Tony Award-winning revival of “Hello, Dolly!” debuts at the Durham Performing Arts Center May 21, for the beginning of its six-night stay, it will feature arguably one of the few headliners who is a household name: acting legend Betty Buckley.
Buckley, a longtime fixture on both the stage and screen, stars as the title character, the bold matchmaker Dolly Levi, a role made famous onstage by such talents as Carol Channing and Bette Midler. For an actress of Buckley’s stature, and a storied career onstage dating back to her Broadway debut in 1969 (as Martha Jefferson in the historical musical “1776”), it may surprise some to find that this tour — based on director Jerry Zaks’ celebrated 2017 revival of the stage stalwart — is Buckley’s first association with the production. Well, onstage, at least. Buckley tells The News & Observer during a break in the tour that her love for “Dolly!” didn’t exactly happen at first sight.
“I first saw the show in Fort Worth, Texas at our local theater. I didn’t understand why everybody was so enthralled by this woman, and all these fancy dresses flouncing around the stage,” Buckley admits to The N&O. “I just didn’t get it.”
“Then I saw it again my senior year in college,” the actress continues. “I went to New York City on vacation, and saw the Pearl Bailey production of it, and I thought she and the rest of the cast were wonderful. It was like a wonderful achievement, but I still didn’t get the story.”
But then she saw the 2017 revival on Broadway starring Bette Midler, who went on to win one of four Tony Awards earned by the show.
“I was enthralled by it. I was completely enchanted, and I felt complete rapturous joy, it was so beautiful,” Buckley said. “For the first time, I understood the story. Jerry Zaks really turned it into something so profound. I was so enchanted by the show that I turned to my brother, who was with me that night at the theater, and said, ‘This is the greatest piece of musical theater I’ve ever seen.’ My brother just laughed at me, but I was in this rapture.”
A year later, Buckely’s agent notified her that Zaks and producer Scott Rudin wanted her to play Dolly on the national tour.
“I was absolutely gobsmacked,” she said. “It’s been a huge gift, getting to be a quarterback of this phenomenal tour.”
Buckley has dozens of acting credits to her name. She won the Tony Award in 1983 for Best Featured Actress in a Musical when she played Grizabella in “Cats.” She has performed on Broadway in “1776,” “Pippin” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood.” She was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2012. Her off-stage credits include “Eight is Enough” on TV and the 1976 film, “Carrie.”
She proved to be an easy interview subject, as she readily answered questions that ranged to include everything from her pet dogs, to her work in such horror films as “Carrie” and “Split.”
Q: What helped you decide to take on the rigors of a touring production? An acting gig on Broadway is hard enough, with work schedules that don’t leave room for many days off, but here you have to add constant travel into the mix.
A: Exactly. Yeah, it’s tough. You know, I live on a ranch in Texas — I’m a Texas girl, and I have horses and stuff — so I told my agent when they started negotiating my deal to tell them I want to travel with my two horses. I left it on the table for two weeks, and finally my agent comes back and says, “Betty, I think they’re getting really nervous about the horse thing,” and I said, “Okay, let it go, and tell him it’s just four dogs.” That made it easier for them to agree.
I was always only teasing them, obviously, but I’m not sure they knew it was a joke. It was a good negotiating ploy, because now I’m traveling with my three dogs, and my assistant has her dog with her. So between us, we have four dogs, so we’re quite a little traveling caravan.
Q: Taking care of four dogs doesn’t exactly make touring easier though, does it?
A: No, it doesn’t. We’re a bit of a little traveling circus here, but it’s been a real education, and I really enjoy bringing this glorious show across America. We’ve been playing really beautiful theaters, some older ones that are just incredible, so it’s been really fun.
Q: Why does it seem like your name seems to resonate with potential audiences in markets outside of the Northeast, moreso than some headliners that have played other national tours over the years?
A: Oh, I wouldn’t presume to think that anybody would come to see me more than anybody else. You know, I just I think I’ve been around for a long time, and our producer Scott Rudin’s marketing team have marketed the show really brilliantly. I’ve done a lot of Broadway shows in New York and in London, and they’ve been great shows, and I’ve been really fortunate to be received by audiences for that work. I’ve done a lot of work in film and television, and then the concert world as well. I think a lot of people do love “Hello, Dolly!”, and I’m just one aspect of it, I’m not the reason by any means that people are coming. Honestly, the times I’ve been out sick, my two understudies have been really great in the show.
I’m a pretty good storyteller. I’ve worked hard to learn to become that, and so I’m bringing my best to it, and fortunately my version of Dolly Levi is one that people are really taking to heart and have endorsed. The critics have endorsed that interpretation, and I’m really, really grateful.
Q: The way that you’ve been able to divide your time between your work on the stage and screen is remarkable, not to mention your singing career [Buckley released her 18th solo album, “Hope,” in 2018]. What is it that keeps bringing you back to television and film, instead of focusing only on Broadway? Considering some of the roles that you’ve taken on in horror films, I can only assume you’re really drawn to projects that feature supernatural entities devouring kidnapped cheerleaders, as in 2016’s “Split”?
A: And I got started in film with Brian De Palma’s [1976 horror film] “Carrie”! So yeah, that was a scary movie, and I also got to do [film director M. Night] Shyamalan’s movie “The Happening.” “Split” was my second time working for him, and I really love the guy and his movies. He wrote the part in “Split” for me, which I was very grateful to learn. I just I’ve been a lucky girl to get to work with M. Night, and all the other wonderful directors I’ve worked with.
Q: With your name being associated with so many great works on Broadway — from “Cats” to “Sunset Boulevard” — does much of that boil down to luck in landing parts, or have you always been very particular about the projects you star in, in only wanting to be involved with productions that you believe to be quality? The latter is extremely hard for a “working actor” to pull off.
A: Well, that would be the ultimate goal, to always love what you’re doing and like the people you’re working with.
To answer your question honestly, I think there’s definitely luck involved, but I also think it’s God’s grace. I pray everyday to be of service, and I’ve worked really hard with the best teachers in the business — both in music and singing and storytelling and acting — and I studied comparative world religions and spiritual study for years and years.
I’ve been a believer (and teacher) of meditation as a means of focusing your mind to become an actor, singer, storyteller with better accuracy. My quest is to be of service to the audience, and the consciousness of the community; that’s my job. I tell my [acting] students that if they keep their purpose high, in terms of why you want to be of service, then you will be called to that service; that’s what it feels like to me.
To me, it’s God’s grace.
What: “Hello, Dolly!”
When: May 21-26, times vary
Where: Durham Performing Arts Center, 123 Vivan St., Durham
Cost: Seats start at $31. A limited number of $30 seats will be available beginning May 20 at 9 a.m. in an online lottery. The lottery will happen online the day before each performance.
Info: dpacnc.com or 919-680-2787