“The job assignment was: Stop the show,” says Betty Buckley. “During previews, I was not stopping the show.” This was the first of several stories Buckley told me about her inaugural role as Grizabella in the original 1982 Broadway production of Cats. Spoken like a true theatre legend! Since her Broadway debut in 1969, Buckley has been an unstoppable force not just on the stage, but also on the screen (recent credits include Split and The Leftovers). She’s also recorded 18 albums.
She agreed to talk to me about her Tony Award-winning turn in Cats for the post in which I polled past cast members on their experiences in the show. I asked for about 10 minutes of her time, and true to her reputation for indefatigability, she generously gave me 30. The simple question of asking her to describe her time in the show elicited a nearly 10-minute monologue about how she found it within herself to nail Grizabella after failing to do so for almost the entirety of the show’s previews period. It was a vivid, impassioned, earnest conversation, so much so that it deserves its own post. So here it is below, a transcript of our chat edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: How would you describe your time in Cats?
BETTY BUCKLEY: It really was one of the greatest experiences of my life, with the honor of getting to work with [director] Trevor Nunn, [choreographer] Gillian Lynne, and [composer] Andrew [Lloyd Webber]. The job assignment was: Stop the show. I had stopped shows, but I didn’t know there was any particular formula to make that happen. During previews, I was not stopping the show. I was terrified. I knew that’s what their expectation was. Elaine Page, who is a wonderful singer/actor, in the original London company, had stopped the show [as Grizabella]. And so, I went through a whole process with my voice teacher, Paul Gavert, where I kind of came to a realization that I was trying too hard to please the powers that be. I was doing everything Trevor told me to do. I was choreographed down to my pinky by Gillian Lynne. I was trying so hard to please Andrew. The one person I had forgotten to consult was the being inside me that does this work for me.
Through my teacher’s guidance, I kind of rediscovered that inner-self. Trevor had written the lyrics for “Memory.” I knew that Trevor had created the role of Grizabella based on a four-line fragment of poetry by T. S. Eliot. That’s all there was and the rest was his contrivance. Grizabella, he told me, was the glamour cat. She had been the Marilyn Monroe of cats, you know, this glamorous, beautiful creature, who through living life with too much excess—drugs, alcohol, sex—had become a very desiccated being who had lost her prowess and her beauty faded. She was approaching death and she wanted to be just one of the community and they had made her the outcast, the pariah.
We were just starting as a culture to be aware of the problem of homelessness. I put two and two together in my intuitive guidance from my teacher, and I started following homeless women, and I noticed that everyone’s eyes were the same. We all had this desire to love and be loved and connect regardless of our circumstances. These homeless people we had turned away, as a community, from their humanity. I started observing them on the streets and learned how to keep a discreet distance. A couple of really beautiful, glamorous homeless women crossed my path. One, in front of my apartment building one morning when I was on my way to rehearsal. We were in previews at this point. She moved with such grace and such nobility that she connected with me for a moment, looking in my eyes, and I just felt her saying, “I see you and I would love to spend some time talking to you, but I have things to do and so do you, so maybe another time.” And she just kind of floated off down the street.
The next night as I was coming out of the Winter Garden stage door after the show, still not stopping the show, this other woman that looked like her, these moonlit colors and this wild hair and this very pasty makeup with smeared lipstick, I had the same kind of encounter with. It was very powerful and I thought, “Okay, I’ve got it, universe. I know what you want me to do.” So then I took the inspiration of all that I had observed and witnessed on the streets and put it through the direction and choreography I had been given in the show. It took me about two weeks. I thought they were going to fire me.
Suddenly, I walked out four performances before the opening night and stopped the show. I was like, “Oh my God, I’m so grateful.” I had discovered that the heart of compassion was what Grizabella was all about. She drew the whole evening together in terms of the story. It took some doing to sort all that out, but it was an incredible experience for me as a growing, young person who was committed to the art of storytelling in the musical theater and my studies as an actress, and I suddenly had this breakthrough understanding of what my mission was in terms of my work and how this wonderful character had come to me to help me break through the potential I had.
Grizabella is like my soulmate and my best friend and my teacher. I’ve been so privileged all these years, since 1982. It’s been a real gift to be her originator on Broadway and to be her student all these years.
When you finally made that connection, how did it manifest itself onstage?
Trevor kept saying to me, “Pathos, pathos,” and so I was acting rather pathetically because I was interpreting him literally. A director can only give an actor suggestions to help try to guide them along the path, but what I discovered worked best was her human dignity. That’s what I’d witnessed on the streets in these women I’d been following. There was a tremendous dignity and shared humanity. Even the ones who were begging weren’t begging from a place of inferiority or less-than. There was an inner knowing of the oneness of all humanity. Their circumstances being such, they were not any different than you or I.
When I realized that, that’s when I found myself in the role, and I stopped dragging myself around the stage pitifully. I held my ground and did the same direction, the same choreography but from a place of compassion for the other. I realized a very great lesson was that self-pity is never a choice. That’s something I teach to this day, to the actors and singers who study with me in my workshops. Human beings have a natural, organic revulsion to self-pity. Everyone’s trying to shoulder their own stuff, and it’s not that easy to be human. It’s complicated to explain. I realized Grizabella doesn’t feel self-pity; she feels longing—longing for connection. “Memory” is not about “me, me, me,” “I, I, I,” “help, help, help.” It’s more like, “Look how beautiful this world is. Let me express the love of my heart. I understand that you long to love and be loved, too. In that understanding, we’re one.” When I found that and I sang the song from that, it stopped the show.
As this character who is carrying the emotional weight of the show, do you have a different experience backstage than the rest of the company? Does the entire experience take on a heavier tone for you?
I don’t think so. I mean, yeah, I was in a lot of sturm and drang and consternation in trying to figure it all out during the rehearsal and preview period, but having done so and going through that process, it was a joy. It was a joy to watch them excel in their phenomenal gymnastics and their ability to dance and express. I thought it was an amazing thing and I was happy to be there.
Did you have fun?
Oh yeah, for sure. It was a blast. It was just a blast to be a part of it and to be onstage in that environment created by John Napier, the designer of the set and costumes—it was just this incredible world to be a part of.
Do you have any memories of doing the show that stick out?
One of my favorite things was the mask with the green lights at the beginning of the show. I was a normal cat in the first number, and our job assignment was to race out doing the overture in a section of the theater and try to sneak up on people in the dark so they don’t know you’re there. You know, get as close as you can and then flash your light in their face. People would jump and scream. I loved that part. That was a my favorite thing.
Years later, at the eight-year anniversary, Cameron Mackintosh flew me to London to sing “Memory” in the curtain call for their big celebration, they had the cake come out of the ceiling and everything. It was amazing. It was the first time I’d seen the show from the audience. For the year and a half that I did the show, people would come backstage and bring me Cats memorabilia and little ceramic statues and stuffed animals. They would pat me and tell me stories about their cat or their family’s cat or their friend’s cat. I was like, “Do they know this is a show? What is going on here? We’re not really cats.” But then when I saw the show in London and they came out, I was like, “Oh my God, I want to touch them, I want to hold them! They’re so cute!” I understood what the whole thing was about.
I also thought my part was a really big part. Trevor Nunn told me to constantly be lurking in the wings because he wanted Grizabella to always be there yearning to be a part of the festivities of the Jellicle Ball. So I thought I was in the whole show and I’m sitting there [watching] and waiting for Grizabella, like, “Where is she?” “Oh, there she is!” And then she’s gone. I was like, “What is going on? Where is she?” Finally, she came out and sang her song and then I realized my whole journey in the show had been 13 minutes long. I didn’t even know that! It was very educational. I was laughing at myself after seeing it in London. I was like, “You bimbo!” But it was great, I just loved the whole thing. I learned so much working with Trevor and I got to work with him later in Sunset Boulevard in London and in New York. He’s just a brilliant director. Gillian Lynne is one of my favorite choreographers in the history of musical theater. I knew who she was as a teenager so it was just beyond thrilling to get to work with her. I got to do Dear World with her in London a few years ago. And then, of course, Andrew, who’s just brilliant. I love those guys so much. It was a privilege. A great, great joy.
I’ve heard cast members talk about a tribe existing among Cats alumni. Is this your experience? And does it differ from, say, companies of Hello Dolly or Sunset Boulevard?
Completely different. Trevor took us through this process from Day One of rehearsal where we did Grotowski theater games. Grotowski was one of the great minds in the history of theater. He established games to help people be spontaneous and improvisational onstage and a theory of theater that was about spirituality and following this intuition. For the first month of rehearsals, all we did were theater games and improvisational exercises. And as we bonded as a company on that kind of universal level, like nobody was more important than anybody from the ensemble roles to the leading roles, we were all treated as of equal importance. Everyone forgot there was any kind of echelon.
We were given these assignments. One was to do a one-minute observation exercise of a cartoon cat. And then after that, a one-minute observation of a real cat. And then he gave us little pieces of paper for group exercises that went on for a long time, sometimes a couple of hours, where it was all in silence but we had these adjectives he’d written that we had to incorporate into our observations of real cats. These group dynamics would happen where actual storytelling took place, but silently as we were on our hands and knees just behaving like cats. It’s so crazy, but it totally worked. It was a blast. I can’t even tell you how much fun it was. The improvisational exercises that I did, one on one, with certain cast members, I’ll never forget those connections. I still love them with such depth from that original experience. Then we’d get shuffled off to our individual or group numbers. In my case, I only had one song, so I was in the rehearsal room with the pianist for four hours every afternoon working on one song. It was kind of crazy. Gradually, when everybody knew what they were doing, he brought us back in a group for run-throughs. And then everybody suddenly remembered the story we were telling. It was so beautiful, the spontaneity of what took place. At the first run-through, when I sang “Memory” for the group, everyone just burst in tears. Trevor just stepped forward and said, “I want every single one of you to remember this performance from here.”
During rehearsal, he was a psychological master. I would raise my hand to contribute to the group discussion or to ask a question and he would ignore me so the whole cast ignored me. They thought I was this ignorable person. [Laughs] Even in the changing room, I remember I was trying to get my leg warmers just right like the other girl dancers and they all kind of laughed at me because I was such a buffoon. All of that carried into the performance. And then they remembered when I sang: “Oh right, she can sing!” The group bonding stuff that went on was amazing. There’s no book, so to speak, in Cats so it all has to be in the group consciousness that the story’s told.
I know you were fully committed, but as you’re doing this, is there ever in the back of your head the idea that “Okay, but we’re also crawling around on the ground as cats, this is absurd”?
No! It was so much fun! You should try it. If you really want to get back to yourself, get on your hands and knees and crawl around your living room. It’s a good thing to do! It kind of puts you back into this state of being a little kid. That’s how we all started. And the dance warmups with Gillian Lynne, I still do some of those stretches we did.
What was your perception of the public’s perception of the show? It seems that Cats is polarizing. People love it, people mock it. Did you have a sense of that back then?
Yeah. I understood, but to me, it was this moving piece of artwork. It was living art because of Napier’s design and the costumes. I had never seen anything like it. Nobody had. Between his design and the lighting design, David Hershey, it was just unbelievably beautiful. David Cullen’s orchestrations for Andrew were mysterious and different from anything you’d ever heard. I’d seen Trevor’s Nicholas Nickleby, which was like an eight-hour saga. It was in two parts. I’ll never forget that day of theater. Four hours and then a break and then four hours. It was amazing. The guy is a theatrical visionary. Gillian’s choreography was innovative as well.
There was nothing to criticize. I think a lot of the people who didn’t get Cats or don’t get Cats don’t know how to trust their own experience with subtlety. And I have to say that in some of the following companies beyond the original company, the depth of improvisational theater work and games that brought the company together in that unique, one-consciousness thing, is sometimes overlooked. If that’s not crystal clear, I think a bit is lost in the story that’s being laid out. But even if you let it wash over you, from the visual and aural aspects of it, that’s enough. But there’s so much more to it than that.
I remember David Letterman really hated it and made fun of it. That used to piss me off. I was like, “You don’t understand! This is storytelling at the highest, but you’ve got to be a subtle human being in touch with your feelings and clearly you’re not!” [Editor’s note: The tone in which Betty Buckley recalled this hypothetical response to Letterman was one of humor and kidding around. Her laughing delivery made it clear that this was, in effect, a sarcastic “bit” and not intended to be taken literally.]
While working on my Cats piece, I have heard rumors that the original Broadway company was wild behind the scenes. Is that true?
I don’t remember that. I’d have a beer every now and then in the dressing room with Héctor Mercado and Terry Mann and stuff, but no. But maybe I wasn’t included in the wildness because I was the pariah. Which now pisses me off! We were a bunch of serious kids who wanted to do good work.
Do you have any thoughts about the movie that’s coming out?
I can’t wait to see it. I’m going to the premiere. I’m excited. It’s obviously very different, but I’m excited. It’ll be interesting. I listened to the Taylor Swift tune “Beautiful Ghosts.” I think it’s pretty. It’ll be interesting to see how it fits together.