Then Buckley — a 1983 Tony Award winner as the “Memory”-belting Grizabella in “Cats” — saw the 2017 “Dolly” directed by longtime musical comedy vet Jerry Zaks.
“I started crying when they came out for ‘Put on Your Sunday Clothes,’’ Buckley says, referring to composer Jerry Herman’s blissful ode to getting out and enjoying the world. “I had not felt that in musical theater since I can’t remember when. It was like a childlike rapture.”
Still, she wasn’t an obvious fit to take on the material: Buckley’s aura is dramatic, not necessarily comedic. The daunting actress with the laser-beam singing voice succeeded Patti LuPone and Glenn Close as Norma Desmond in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,” acted for three seasons on the HBO prison drama “Oz,” and lately has been playing Gran’ma, the Cajun sorceress in AMC’s gothic “Preacher.”
Buckley was surprised when she was asked to play the sweet-spirited Dolly Levi for the national tour. And she wasn’t the only one.
“Is she a comedian?” wondered Lewis J. Stadlen, Buckley’s co-star as the cranky “half-millionaire” Horace Vandergelder. Stadlen, a veteran of Broadway comedies, has played Vandergelder opposite several Dollys, none with backgrounds quite like Buckley’s. “Antic comedians play that role,” Stadlen says. “And she’s a character actress.”
That tendency is what Buckley explains when she describes attending script analysis class “religiously” with acting guru Stella Adler in the 1970s.
“Kim Stanley, Geraldine Page, Gena Rowlands — I loved those truth-telling actresses,” she says of her idols. “You didn’t feel you were watching an actor acting. Ultimately, my vision was to bring that quality of truth-telling to musical theater.”
The long, remarkably varied line of performers swanning into the role of Dolly Levi includes everyone from Carol Channing, who clung to the role for more than 30 years after originating it, to Barbra Streisand on film and Bernadette Peters, replacing Bette Midler in this Zaks-directed Broadway version. (Stadlen even acted opposite a Dolly played by Lee Roy Reams, who was the lovestruck clerk Cornelius in the 1978 Broadway incarnation with Channing and director of Channing’s 1990s revival.)
If Buckley was nervous about stepping into that formidable parade, those worries soon evaporated.
“I think she was apprehensive about being funny,” Zaks says. “Comedy is 80 percent rhythm and music. It’s sharp edges and life-or-death stakes, being super-real. Once she got that, the thoroughbred in her took over.”
Growing up in Fort Worth, Betty Lynn Buckley was encouraged to sing and dance by her mother, Betty Bob, but discouraged by her father, an Air Force officer and World War II vet. “Did you see the movie ‘The Great Santini?’ ” she asks, referencing the Robert Duvall movie (from Pat Conroy’s book) about a demanding military dad who drills his kids to bits. “That’s my dad.” (Years later, during “Cats,” one of her father’s military buddies came backstage and explained her dad’s demons. “He was a tortured guy,” she says now.)
As a kid, the platinum-edged voice that would become one of Broadway’s sterling signatures was already undeniable. “That delighted me — that when I opened up my voice people would jump backwards,” Buckley says. “That was like my power.” She entered beauty pageants but groans thinking about it, though it took her to Atlantic City and then to Asia visiting wounded U.S. soldiers. She already had been singing locally, and in 1967 she made a recording of standards and show tunes with her pal T Bone Burnett. Both were still in their teens.
Buckley majored in journalism at Texas Christian University, then landed that Broadway debut in “1776,” which quickly led to “Promises, Promises” in London. Surviving what she calls “big business show business” came next in Los Angeles as she played the gym teacher in the 1976 movie “Carrie.” (Buckley later played Carrie’s mom in the 1988 Broadway musical adaptation — a notorious flop.)
Buckley spent four seasons on the 1970s TV hit “Eight Is Enough,” living in Hollywood’s Chateau Marmont hotel, palling around at times with such fellow showbiz up-and-comers as John Belushi; Buckley pops up as a recurring figure in Bob Woodward’s 1984 Belushi chronicle, “Wired.” She got a featured role in the 1983 Robert Duvall movie about a fading country-and-western star, “Tender Mercies,” and clinched her place in Broadway lore by playing Grizabella and singing “Memory” in “Cats.”
Buckley has frequently talked about what an anxiety-filled grind it was to make that soaring ballad work. The pressure was on for her to give a showstopping performance, because Lloyd Webber and director Trevor Nunn had already seen another actress manage it in the London premiere. “I was choreographed down to the pinkie,” Buckley says. “I couldn’t find my own abandon within that. It’s hard to explain.”
Buckley found her inspiration for the faded-yet-indomitable Grizabella in chance encounters with proud homeless women on New York City streets. She chokes up talking about it, even now.
“She’s such a beautiful being, that Grizabella,” Buckley says. “I guess Dolly Levi has an aspect of that. She loves everyone. She loves the world.”
Buckley has stayed busy but hasn’t been on Broadway since the short-lived “Triumph of Love” — a musical comedy involving lovestruck 18th-century philosophers — closed in 1998. Book writer James Magruder recalls sitting next to her during the first rehearsal when she turned to him and said, “Magruder, do I have any parsley in my teeth?” Intimidated, he politely said no. “You didn’t even look,” Buckley-the-truth-teller replied. “How can I trust you?”
She decamped from New York, shortly after 9/11, for a ranch near Fort Worth so she could ride cutting horses, which separate individual cows from the herd. But she has continued to make a lot of surprisingly ambitious music, including thoughtful, eclectic albums with selections careening from Stephen Sondheim to Steely Dan. Her reunion with Burnett, for the 2014 album “Ghostlight,” featured show tunes alongside her woozy, almost 11-minute rendition of “Lazy Afternoon,” with Burnett and jazz legend Bill Frisell supplying hallucinatory electric guitar solos.
“Betty makes sensational music,” the composer Jason Robert Brown (“The Last Five Years”) writes in an email; Brown’s anthem, “Hope,” is the title track on Buckley’s latest CD. “Whatever kind of music she’s singing, she makes it her own.”
Buckley admits that she only recently recognized where she is in her career. She says that when a colleague called about a musical, not long ago, she instinctively pictured herself in the younger of two leading roles. She laughed as she grasped her mistake. She will turn 72 as “Dolly” plays D.C.
Not that she’s feeling melancholy about it. Buckley may not have foreseen herself landing in her current role, but she says it’s “great to learn this special new skill set, and get in performance shape again. I’ve reclaimed my Broadway voice, which was no easy thing.” She has boasted that the production will “make America happy again.”
“I’m telling ya, I have been doing the best work I know how to do, since my awakening into my older years,” Buckley says. “I just hope I get to keep doing it, because it’s so much fun.”
Hello, Dolly! June 4-July 7 at the Kennedy Center Opera House. $49-$159, subject to change. 202-467-4600 or kennedy-center.org