Maggie Cassella is currently my favourite person in Toronto.
The lawyer cum comedian cum talk show host cum Flying Beaver owner shocked many a theatre fan recently when she announced that the headliner for the final We’re Funny That Way comedy and music festival would be none other than Broadway icon Betty Buckley.
To be honest, at first I didn’t quite believe it. Betty Buckley? That Betty Buckley? At Buddies in Bad Times? Unreal!
In addition to a Tony Award and some Grammy nominations, this woman has Andrew Lloyd Webber on speed dial. After performing in Sunset Boulevard, Carrie (on screen and stage, thank you very much), Gypsy and Cats, not to mention the definitive recordings of many songs via her solo albums, her presence on this particular Toronto stage will be an incredible night to remember.
Buckley chats on the phone with me from her rocking chair on the porch of her Texas ranch. “I’m not really a diva,” she says. “Diva, for me, is playing a part full-out. Full-tilt boogie. It’s no-holds-barred; it’s what I went to acting school to do.
“My favourite actresses were Maureen Stapleton, Gena Rowlands, Kim Stanley, who could play really raw naturalism and realism. I wanted to bring that kind of truth to the musical theatre; those are my favourite kinds of parts. However, once you play roles like that, people project that person onto you, which is part of why I moved back to Texas to ride horses. The majority of my time was spent dealing with that projection, which was really not my reality or something I enjoyed having to confront on any basis.”
Fair enough, but Toronto audiences will get that full-tilt-boogie diva. The Buddies in Bad Times up-close venue is an incredibly rare chance to catch an artist who has played venues such as Carnegie Hall. An intimate space like Buddies requires focus, Buckley tells me. “Stepping forward in a state of real courage in the centre of all that adrenaline and remaining focused? Without meditation, I couldn’t do that. I’ll vocalize that day, I’ll work out. Then I’ll put on my makeup and clothes and meditate right before going on.”
What can we expect? Buckley’s show will be a gender-bending romp, featuring some of the most gorgeous musical theatre songs . . . for men.
“It’s all the songs I’ve wanted to sing but are normally sung by men: ‘Sweeney Todd’; ‘Jet Song,’ from West Side Story; an interesting and beautiful song called ‘Venice’ about the relationship between three men, from William Finn’s Elegies.”
It is another ambitious effort from someone who’s played some of Broadway’s best women, and even a cat. On her Tony-winning turn as Grizabella from Cats, Buckley says, “We did extensive ensemble work, improvisational theatre games, group improv, literally on our hands and knees. Your upper body is the cat, your lower body more human. Tuck in through the core. During the run of Cats, people always brought me cats’ things backstage, saying, ‘Oh, you remind me of my cat,’ and I was like, ‘This is a show.’ I didn’t get it. Then I saw the show and I really understood . . . they were like creatures to me, not actors. I really wanted to touch them!”
Although Toronto audiences haven’t seen Buckley in a role, male or female, on one of our stages, she knows our city. “I’m excited to come. I’ve been a couple of times . . . I like it up there.”
Over the years, the We’re Funny That Way foundation has provided money for queer community centres, youth projects and support services, specifically targeting smaller towns and cities across Canada. This year, the Ten Oaks Project, which coordinates summer camps and safe spaces for children and youth of queer communities and families, is the beneficiary.