Betty Buckley was the last actress Betty Buckley ever imagined playing the role of the irrepressible matchmaker Dolly Levi in the 1964 musical theater classic “Hello, Dolly!” Not only did this theatrical luminary never envision herself as a match for the character, she openly acknowledges she wasn’t a fan of the show when she saw it in college starring Pearl Bailey. As a young woman, she was smitten with the darkly sensual work of Bob Fosse, so the old-fashioned “Dolly” seemed like a relic.
“I didn’t understand why people were so happy to see this woman in these beautiful hats and costumes flouncing around the stage,” Buckley says over the phone on a week off from the show, while sitting in her car in a supermarket parking lot in Fort Worth, not far from her horse ranch. “I just didn’t understand the depth of the story by any means.”
So how did the actress, who won a Tony Award as “Memory”-belting Grizabella in the original Broadway production of “Cats,” come to reexamine her original assessment and wind up headlining the national tour of “Hello, Dolly!”? The production, which won four Tony Awards in 2017 including best musical revival, arrives at the Citizens Bank Opera House on Tuesday, running Aug. 13-25.
Buckley, 72, credits seeing Bette Midler’s supernova performance as Dolly two summers ago on Broadway, for which she won waves of adulation and a Tony in a staging by Jerry Zaks, for changing her impression. She says she was “gobsmacked” by the “joyous and sumptuous production,” the earworm-laden score by Jerry Herman, as well as the depth of a story about a widow who’s been watching from the sidelines of life following the death of her beloved husband, Ephraim Levi, and now wants to “rejoin the human race.”
“I was just enraptured!” Buckley says.” I told my brother [television director Norman Buckley], who was with me, ‘This may be one of the greatest pieces of musical theater I’ve ever seen.’ He was laughing at me, and I said, ‘I’m serious, Norman!’ It was my first experience of having a true emotional connection with the material.”
Then in early 2018, while she was on set for the AMC series “Preacher,” producer Scott Rudin offered her the chance to “quarterback” the national tour of “Dolly.” “I hadn’t ever thought of myself in the role. I said to my agent, ‘I have to call you back because I was really bewildered that they’d offered it to me,’” she recalls.
Despite her surprise, Buckley quickly said yes. But the trip to the fabled Harmonia Gardens restaurant was never a breeze. Director Zaks says Buckley “expressed a little trepidation at first” about the comedic aspects of the role. “She had to get over her fear of not being funny,” he says, over the phone. “I convinced her that she had nothing to worry about. You’ve got to be brave to be funny — and Betty has that in spades.”
Buckley acknowledges that playing this “farcical, antic comedy” proved to be a new challenge. “That was part of the joy in getting to do this: Learning this brand-new skill at 71 years old. One of the things I love about life is when you turn a corner and it completely surprises you.”
In the musical, based on Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” Dolly is a widowed matchmaker and jack-of-all-trades who’s been hustling since the death of her husband. Her latest gig is to find a wife for her old friend, the curmudgeonly yet wealthy merchant Horace Vandergelder. And she thinks she’s found the perfect candidate: herself. But it’s not going to be easy to convince Horace of her suitability, so she stages an elaborate scheme to convince him to propose to her. As she sets her plan in motion, she winds up sparking romance between several other characters. The madcap action climaxes, of course, with Dolly’s iconic grand entrance swanning down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, beaming in her bejeweled and feathered headdress and sparkling scarlet gown.
“She’s a charming, funny, life-loving little sage,” Buckley says. “She wants to be happy and she wants other people to be happy. She has this uncanny, intuitive ability to know what is best for other people and what they’re seeking in their own hearts when even they don’t know, and she can suss out a person.”
The key to understanding the character, Buckley says, is that she’s a woman who’s been living a safe and solitary existence and wants to return to the game of life before the parade passes her by. “I have this little thing I read every night before I go on: ‘This is a day like no other day. I’ve made a decision that I’m coming back to the world of the living,’ ” Buckley says.
Buckley can relate to the character’s stasis and yearning for renewal. Not long after 9/11, at the age of 55, she decided to uproot her entire life and leave New York City. She sold her Riverside Drive co-op on the Upper West Side and bought a ranch near Fort Worth to pursue her dream of riding cutting horses and competing in the western-style equestrian sport. “[9/11] was really sobering. I woke up a few months after the shock of that experience and was like, oh my God, none of us know how much time we have left,” she says. “I need to remember what I wanted to be in show business for — which was to have a horse ranch. So I just had this epiphany and changed my life.”
Buckley caught the performing bug at an early age. She was hooked from the time her mother, whose own show business aspirations were squelched, took her to see “The Pajama Game” when she was 11. Later, at a junior high talent show, the shy, diminutive girl performed “Steam Heat,” and the audience was stunned into silence before erupting in deafening applause. “Suddenly, I was Little Bitty Betty Buckley with this humongous voice,” she says.
Her performance at her first audition in New York City — on the day she arrived in town as a fresh-faced 21-year-old—prompted an equally astonished reaction from the creative team for “1776.” They immediately cast her in her big-break role as Martha Jefferson. “I finished singing and they were like, ‘Who are you, and where are you from?!’ I said, ‘I’m Betty Lynn Buckley from Fort Worth, Texas.’ They asked me when I got to town, and I told them ‘today.’ And they said, ‘It’s like a movie!’ ”
Since then, Buckley has carved out a career on stage and screen, succeeding Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard” and performing in musicals ranging from “Pippin” and “The Mystery of Edwin Drood” to “Grey Gardens.” Her film and television roles include “Carrie,” “Tender Mercies,” M. Night Shyamalan’s 2017 horror-thriller “Split,” HBO’s “Oz” and, of course, “Eight Is Enough.” In that 1977-81 television drama, she played Abby, the stepmother who helped to raise a rambunctious brood after marrying the family’s widowed patriarch. In 2018, she found a television “dream role” as the malevolent, soul-sucking Cajun sorceress Marie L’Angelle (a.k.a. Gran’ma) on “Preacher.”
The heart of Buckley’s process is finding “the current of psychological truth” in her characters. “There’s so many elements to playing another human being — all your thoughts about it, all your inspirations about it, all your meditations about it. It’s so many tiny details, and the joy of my work is those tiny details. That’s where I feel this joyous connection to the character — and the ultimate joy of connecting with an audience at a deep level of human recognition and truth. That’s why I do what I do.”
Presented by Broadway In Boston. At Citizens Bank Opera House, Aug. 13-25. Tickets from $44.50. 800-982-2787, www.broadwayinboston.com