Broadway star Betty Buckley wants Trump to leave her music alone, and Texas to ‘turn blue’
The Daily Beast
October 25, 2020
Tony-winning Broadway star Betty Buckley tells Tim Teeman why she insisted President Trump stop using her rendition of ‘Memory’ from “Cats” at his rallies—and her hope for change.
Betty Buckley was out walking her dog one evening a few weeks ago—near her ranch, west of Fort Worth in her native Texas—when she saw a neighbor’s Trump/Pence sign.
“In a fit of pique, I ripped it off the fence and kept walking,” the Tony Award-winning Broadway star told The Daily Beast. Buckley then called her longtime assistant and close friend, Cathy Brighenti, who told her that she shouldn’t have done what she did, and that the homeowner would likely know she was the perpetrator. “So, on the way home I picked up the sign, and put it back.” Buckley laughed. “The next time I walked there I noticed they had wired it to the fence.”
Buckley has lived on her ranch for nearly 20 years, with her beloved horses and a menagerie of animals. A staunch Democrat, disgusted by President Trump, his policies and administration—“I really hope Texas turns Blue, that would be awesome”—she finds herself surrounded by Trump/Pence supporters and their signs.
“It’s really annoying and upsetting,” Buckley, who famously played kind but ill-fated gym teacher Ms. Collins in iconic horror movie Carrie (1976), said. “Everyone has rifles, everyone target-shoots. The neighbors on either side of my ranch practice with their AK47 automatic guns every weekend.” Buckley—a one-time Norma Desmond and who has appeared in Broadway shows including 1776, Pippin, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood—chuckled mischievously. “I have fantasized, going out at night, dressed all in black with my dog, and spraying all the damn signs with black X’s, but so far I am controlling myself.”
Buckley, 73, won a Tony in 1983 for her portrayal of Grizabella in Cats when the show first played on Broadway, and has had enough of Trump using her rendition of “Memory” at rallies. The show’s composer Andrew Lloyd Webber had already—fruitlessly—sent a “cease and desist” letter. Earlier this week, Buckley did the same, telling Trump his presidency was “completely devoid of empathy or humanity.”
Buckley wrote on Facebook that Trump’s “disastrous mishandling” of the pandemic had meant that Broadway was shuttered till the end of May 2021 at the earliest. She decried him playing the music at rallies that may become events that spread the virus further; a virus which is keeping Broadway actors “unemployed in the first place.”
Buckley told Trump she could not sit “idly by and witness my work being used to promote your fascist agenda.” She hopes “the utter hell” of his presidency will be “nothing more than a memory” by January.
“It makes me angry every time I see it,” Buckley told The Daily Beast of the footage of her song at the rallies. “It’s such a charade and so inappropriate. In Cats, the other cats initially reject Grizabella. She is everything that they don’t identify with—illness, a loss of prowess, dying, someone who requires connection and empathy. When she sings ‘Memory’ as a cri de coeur, they are finally moved to remember their own compassion. The song is about connection and compassion, a cry to remember connectedness and unity. That’s what so upsetting about his campaign using this song. They are the antithesis of empathy and compassion.”
Buckley, who has 18 solo albums to her name and most recently performed as the redoubtable Dolly Levi in the Hello, Dolly! national tour, doesn’t remember seeing Trump at a Broadway show. “I can’t imagine him being in a theater. I don’t think he has the attention span to watch a whole play or musical.”
“I call him ‘Drumpf.’ I can’t bear to say his name,” she said of the president.
Buckley, two-time Grammy-nominated and inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame in 2012, is “praying constantly” for a Trump defeat and Biden win. “We all deserve a break. My first waking thought in the morning and my last at night is, ‘Please god, let us free ourselves of this nightmare.’ It’s a coup. These people are working to destroy our country and democracy and everything about us. We have to defeat them, we just have to.”
Her anger and activism is channelled publicly through her Twitter account. “I’m obsessed, Tim,” Buckley groaned. “I would like to spend less time on it. It just exacerbates my anger.”
Buckley’s outrage and desire to try and change hearts and minds also led her to release “For the Beauty of the Earth/Jesus Loves the Little Children” with the School of Arts & Enterprise Virtual Choir. “I was so upset about the kids in cages and families separated at the border. I find that…” Buckley’s voice broke, and she began to cry. “The inhumanity and cruelty is just beyond comprehension.”
Her father Ernest was a Major turned Lt. Colonel in the United States Air Force. The two had a complicated relationship, as Buckley previously described to The Daily Beast. “I grew up as a military brat on Air Force bases around the world,” she said. “Kids of every race and color were my classmates and our neighbors.”
When she was in the fifth grade her father retired from the military, and the family settled in Fort Worth, where Buckley first learned “For the Beauty of the Earth” as a young child at Methodist church and “Jesus Loves the Little Children” at Vacation Bible School. The video accompanying the song is supposed to convey the beauty of a multicultural world, and the outrage she feels over the Trump administration’s separation of families.
Buckley hopes the song will lead people to donate to the American Civil Liberties Union, Save The Children, Black Lives Matter, and Voto Latino.
“I want to reach those people in the evangelical movement,” said Buckley. “I feel their snake-oil preachers have so distorted Christian teaching. The actual teachings of Jesus were so simple. They were about love and respect for your neighbors, and no judgment. These people have turned religion into something ugly. It’s been very disturbing to witness. I want these hymns to remind evangelicals of the truth of love in their hearts, and the images of cruelty to remind them to do the right thing when it comes to voting.”
Buckley is baffled that Christians can support such an un-Christian president.
“I think they drank the Kool Aid. His presidency has really changed my world view. I thought there was this fundamental common sense we shared, throughout the community and society, and that there were pockets of crazy people. Until now, I never realized how many absolutely crazy, stupid, and ignorant people there are out there. It’s mind-boggling. Trump and Pence have stolen the essence of a teaching and made it into something else.”
Buckley, who appeared in Oz and in M. Night Shyamalan films, including Split (2017), has been particularly upset that many of the people she went to high school and college with became Trump supporters. “I have known them since we were 11 years old. Now they’re racist, and their philosophy is unacceptable. That makes me really sad.”
She first saw this in 2018, when she went to a dinner party and someone put a Trump mug at her place setting. She moved it, went to the ladies’ room, and when she returned the mug was back. They were baiting her. “I realized I couldn’t be their friend any more,” Buckley said.
Relief can be found in Fort Worth, said Buckley. “It’s much better. I see a lot of Biden/Harris signs in the city. I am optimistic. I felt like there has been real change in Texas over the past two weeks. But then I had the same feeling about Hillary Clinton and look what happened there. Don’t count on the polls, go out and vote for Biden/Harris. But I do feel a growing momentum. Another four years of this is not even conceivable. It will be the end of everything, this beautiful democratic experiment. It will be over. We will have pure fascism and pure dictatorship. It’s not acceptable. It cannot happen.”
“It’s an abomination. We’ve got to get rid of these people”
Buckley is also furious that “the Senate is wasting so much time on the sham of confirming that horrible woman (Amy Coney Barrett), whose very presence threatens the rights of so many human beings and our healthcare. It’s just horrible. They should be focused on relief, the virus, and the financial relief of our citizens. It’s an abomination. We’ve got to get rid of these people.”
She wishes lawmakers’ minds were focused on legislation like The HEROES Act, currently stalled in the Senate, which would be a financial lifeline to many, including theater workers whose professional lives have been detonated by the virus. Buckley has been inspired by the creativity of her colleagues, producing what work they can online. When theater does return, she imagines an explosion of creativity.
“The mystery is the handling of the audience, because the bottom line for Broadway producers is about money and selling tickets,” said Buckley. “They’re going to have to create space between audience members. But theater is eternal. Theater started with people sitting around campfires telling stories, or traveling balladeers going from village to village singing the news. Storytelling is part of how we share about our lives, and assist, educate, and enlighten each other. That’s been always. I’m not worried about that. I’m worried about the ‘how’ of it.”
Buckley, who has taught for nearly 50 years, is conducting song interpretation classes online, is planning more music recordings too, and a concert next spring. Four weeks ago she had her “right shoulder” replaced, “after years of falling off horses and repetitive movements in Broadway shows.” Recovery from surgery has been painful. Her sling will stay on for another two weeks, then rehab begins.
Brighenti contracted coronavirus early in the pandemic. Buckley thinks she had it too, even though she tested negative for antibodies. “I’ve never been sick like that. The exhaustion went on forever.”
She has been stunned at people’s thoughtlessness, not wearing masks. Buckley, her filmmaker brother Norman, and their 95-year-old mother Betty Bob went out to eat a few days ago, with both Betty and Norman rowing with two sets of couples who refused to wear masks. “One person said she couldn’t because of a medical condition. I said, ‘Yeah, right.’ It escalated. I said, ‘Wearing a mask is not a political statement. It’s an IQ test!’ We called each other stupid,” Buckley laughed. “But my mother, who is hard of hearing, thought my brother and I were calling each other stupid. I was so angry with these people, exposing my mother and all of us.”
The ever-protective Brighenti hustled the battling Buckleys out of the restaurant, and will also accompany Betty when she goes to vote, concerned she might get into another argument (for the record, sling or no sling, I don’t rate the chances of any opponent of Betty Buckley’s).
The Trump/Pence signs, the election, the state of the country—all have led Buckley to contemplate leaving Texas, and the ranch where she has lived for nearly two decades. Brighenti runs errands in a nearby small town where a group of white supremacists gather every weekend, months after first confronting a group of Black Lives Matter protesters.
For now, Buckley continues to treasure her property and animals; her family, including two other brothers and their wives (Patrick and Diane, Michael and Marjorie), all live in Texas. She and Brighenti have coffee on the porch every morning, overlooking the verdant expanse of the ranch.
“I don’t know what lies ahead for all of us,” said Buckley. “I sure as hell hope it is a world of decency and normalcy.”