Before there were award-winning stage performances and acclaimed movie and television roles, before there were Grammy nominations and eclectic musical collaborations, before she became known as the Voice of Broadway, Betty Buckley needed a breakout role. It came on Broadway, playing Martha Jefferson.
And Buckley briefly feared the performing career she’d long dreamed of might end with one performance.
It started out in storybook fashion. She was the last actor on the last day of auditions to try out for the part of Martha Jefferson in the musical 1776. When she arrived for the audition, though, she didn’t know what the role was. She didn’t know what the musical was. Just go to this audition, her agent said. It’s in 15 minutes.
It was 1969. Buckley was newly graduated from Texas Christian University, three years removed from a runner-up finish in the Miss Texas pageant and already a seasoned local performer. The pageant opened doors to U.S.O. shows and television appearances that caught the eyes of a talent agent, Rodger Hess. Deeply shaken after visiting war-wounded soldiers during the U.S.O. tour, Buckley briefly considered abandoning performing. She went home to Texas and took a job at the Fort Worth Press where, as a journalism major, she had worked all through college.
But the agent kept calling and eventually Buckley gave in. She worked at the newspaper during the week, and Hess got her jobs performing in stage shows sponsored by national corporations on weekends.
In the winter of 1969, she was performing in Philadelphia and Hess asked her to come to New York for a six-week show sponsored by Gimbel’s department store. If nothing happens, he said, you can go back to Texas and forget about a musical career.
So Buckley got on a train and went to New York.
“I called him and said, ‘I’m here,’ and he said, ‘You have an audition in 15 minutes in the American Laboratory Theatre. Take your music and go. Here’s the address.’”
Buckley still didn’t know what she was auditioning for, but she had a piece of go-to music — The Rose of Washington Square from a 1939 movie musical of the same name. She sang for nearly a dozen people gathered for the audition and got the part the very same day.
“They asked, ‘When did you get to town,’ and I said, ‘Today.’ And they were all like, ‘Today! This is like a movie! This is like a movie!’”
By the next morning, she was in costume fittings and rehearsals.
Buckley would later learn that she was replacing another actress, whose costume and wig she inherited.
“She had brown hair, so I had a brown wig, and I’d never worn brown hair before — I was a blonde — so I didn’t know how to do my makeup,” Buckley said.
“Right before our first preview in New Haven [Connecticut], I went to the drugstore and I bought all this makeup. It was really dark makeup and blue eyeshadow,” she said. “And I had this big beautiful dress.”
The costume designer, Patty Zipprodt, wanted the costumes to be authentic and the dress had panniers that expanded the width of the skirt. The dress — a “massive apparatus,” as Buckley called it — extended “approximately 2½ to 3 feet on both sides.”
That made it difficult to navigate the spring-latched stage door that she would need to pass through to join the actors playing Benjamin Franklin and John Adams for their scene. The actors, William Daniels and Howard Da Silva, couldn’t see her immediately because Buckley’s face was hidden in a cloak. What they didn’t know — and what Buckley didn’t know either — was that the makeup was cartoonishly dark.
“They were trying to keep a straight face. But I didn’t know anything was wrong, you see, so I’m acting up a storm and they’re trying to squelch their laughter,” Buckley said. “I come out the door and I’m trying to hold these panniers and keep the door open, and the door slams shut on my panniers. And I’m tugging it, tugging it, trying to get out the door and that causes me to stumble forward onto the stage, and Franklin and Adams catch me before I fall down.
“It was the most humiliating thing you can imagine. You couldn’t duplicate it in a comedy sketch. You couldn’t make it any worse.
“Fortunately, there was a huge snowstorm in New Haven, so the theater was not full. And it wasn’t reviewed or anything that night, otherwise it would have been the death of my career,” she said.
After the New Haven show, the producer, Stuart Ostrow, told her not to worry. Buckley got a new wig, a lighter, more manageable gown and a professional to do her makeup.
And the door?
“They had a guy backstage holding it,” Buckley said.
1776 enjoyed a three-year run on Broadway, winning three Tony Awards, including Best Musical. And Buckley is enjoying a career that extends beyond New York’s Theater District to movies, television and Grammy-nominated recordings. It was a career she had been training for, so even in that first Broadway audition — and even after the near-disastrous stage mishap — she felt she belonged.
“I had a lot of professional experience and I had great teachers. I was certainly ready. And it wasn’t like I didn’t know what I was doing,” Buckley said, looking back on 1776. “Except about the makeup. And managing panniers.”
Betty Buckley’s musical repertoire includes musical theater, jazz, rock and pop. Her movie credits include her most recent role as a psychologist in M. Night Shyamalan’s film Split. (Photo by Scogin Mayo)
Called the Voice of Broadway by New York magazine, Betty Buckley earned a Tony Award for her role in Cats and an Olivier Award for Sunset Boulevard, in which she played the leading role of Norma Desmond. She has made a career of interpreting American musical styles.
This spring, she joins Colonial Williamsburg’s Revolutionaries in Residence program, which honors innovators and achievers in the arts, media, education and politics. She will appear May 4 at Mr. Jefferson’s Palace Garden Party, performing songs from her most recent albums, Story Songs and Story Songs #2. By request, she will also be singing He Plays the Violin, her song from 1776. Visit colonialwilliamsburg.com/gardenparty for more on the Garden Party.