Tweeting, posting and singing with Betty Buckley

Betty Buckley

Onstage and online, Broadway legend Betty Buckley is electrifying.

If you’ve ever seen her perform on Broadway – perhaps in the original cast of Cats or as Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard — or in concert halls large or small, you know just how electrifying she can be. Very few singer/actors connect to material the way she does.

But Buckley, at age 63, has embraced social media in a big way. On the advice of her brother, Norman, a television director, she got hooked up. Now she Tweets daily (@BettyBuckley) and posts on Facebook with regularity to her nearly 5,000 friends. To find a name for her latest concert, she asked her online followers for suggestions. The winner would receive two tickets to the show.

Buckley brings that show, called For the Love of Broadway, to the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko May 3 through 8.

On the phone from her ranch in Texas, Buckley says the new show’s title is but one of the advantages to being, as they say, wired.

“I had to learn how not to be so fixated by it,” she says. “When I was in San Francisco about a year ago, doing shows at Yoshi’s, all these Twitter and Facebook fans came, which was really a blast. It’s nice when people like my work and support. It’s nice to be in touch with them to see how they feel.”

The new show, which features music direction by John McDaniel, includes songs Buckley has loved but never had the opportunity to perform. She sometimes refers to them as “my shower songs – songs I sing in the shower but never really knew all the words to.”

Audiences members can expect songs from Avenue Q, South Pacific, The Pajama Game and Nine among others. That should please the show-music fans, of which Buckley has thousands.

But Buckley, a Texas native, has eclectic taste in music and is as likely to sing a country tune as a show tune. Her last album, Bootlegs: Boardmixes from the Road, featured eight live tracks including a new song from Michael McDonald, some country tunes and Irving Berlin’s “Blue Skies,” a sneak preview of her forthcoming album, Ghostlight.

The new album is produced by T-Bone Burnett, the Grammy- and Oscar-winner behind such albums as the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ Raising Sand. Buckley and Burnett have known each other since high school in Fort Worth. Their mothers were friends, and at age 19, Buckley recorded her first album in Burnett’s recording studio (that album has since been re-mastered and released as Betty Buckley 1967).

Buckley recently heard the final remixes for the album, which should be out in November. “It’s the most wonderful recording I’ve ever done,” she says. “T-Bone is a genius. Some of the songs from For the Love of Broadway were cornerstones of that recording, but they’re done very differently than I do them in the cabaret setting. T-Bone calls the songs ‘my airs.’ He says, ‘I’m so in love with this recording of your beautiful airs.’ I’m so thrilled I can’t even tell you. This album is probably the truest to who I am than anything I’ve done.”

[bonus video: Betty Buckley performs “Meadowlark”]

If you listen to Buckley singing “He Plays the Violin” from 1776, which she recorded in 1969, and then listen to the live recordings from Bootlegs you hear the same singer but a very different voice.

“My voice is definitely different than when I was younger,” Buckley says. “I kinda like it. It’s richer and has more dark colors than when I was younger. As a kid I had this clarion mezzo-soprano voice. But I had some wonderful voice teachers – Paul Gavert, Joan Lader – who have helped me quite a lot. Paul really taught me to sing with a long line, with one vowel becoming the next vowel, how one thought becomes the next thought. It’s a brilliant way to approach singing. I’m so grateful I was able to learn from him. That’s how I could sing “Memory” night after night in Cats.”

As a singer’s voice changes over time, Buckley says, she is certain of one thing: a singer will always have a voice if she takes care of herself. “The voice follows who you are,” she says. “The instrument of my voice has deepened, gotten richer over time because I’ve grown as a person, changed as a person.”

Buckley has been teaching voice herself for nearly 40 years, but she credits Gavert with having a vision of her that was greater than she could have for herself.

“He was able to impart that vision to me and hold it in space with me in this long process until I could step into the potential he felt I had,” Buckley explains. “It took quite a while. That was such a gift to me when I look back. It’s so deeply touching that he would do that. I’ve always felt it was my responsibility to pass that on. I’m grateful to have an innate gift, but everything good I’ve learned to do I’ve learned from other people.”

Buckley had participated in a workshop performance of the new musical Tales of the City, which will be running at American Conservatory Theater shortly after her run at the Rrazz Room. She was rumored to be cast in the role of Mrs. Madrigal in the world-premiere production, but that didn’t work out.

This fall she’ll be back on the New York cabaret scene with a new show. Who knows? She may even ask her online followers to come up with another title. If she does, get to thinking: she says she’ll likely be doing men’s songs from Broadway shows.


Betty Buckley’s For the Love of Broadway runs May 3-8 at the Rrazz Room in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 800-380-3095 or visit

Frenchie Davis ready for `Misbehavin’

When her stint on season two of “American Idol” flared into controversy, Frenchie Davis became infamous. The promising young singer had been kicked off early on because of some risqué photos found on the Internet.

The singer managed to turn that infamy into hard-won fame through sheer hard work and by maintaining a focus on what was really important to her.

Her answer to all that media fuss was to turn to theater. She was offered a part in the long-running Broadway musical Rent, and she took it. She parlayed that into a West Coast tour of Dreamgirls that brought her to Sacramento and San Jose.

She’s back in the Bay Area as part of an ongoing series of former “American Idol” contestants performing at the Rrazz Room, a posh cabaret in the Hotel Nikko.

Davis performs through Aug. 2 with a rotating roster of “Idol” kids, and at 29, it’s clear Davis has done a whole lot of growing up since she was last here.

“My sanity is important to me,” Davis says. “I like the fact that I’ve been able to do what I love and still enjoy my life. I can tell you, I have crossed paths and met so many women who are way richer than I am, way more famous, but they don’t enjoy their lives more than I do. They’re miserable, empty shells, thoroughly Botoxed. They don’t even remember who they were when they got into the business.”

During the media melee that erupted during her post-“Idol” days, Davis says she nearly forgot who she was – a girl from Inglewood, California, who didn’t grow up with much money – and what she loved.

“I don’t want to lose my love for this, for performing,” she says. “Most black girls started singing in church. I started in musicals. I always was a little theater queen. I genuinely got into this business because I love to sing. I can’t even describe what it feels like when I’m on stage and I open my mouth. When I’m in a bad mood, I turn on some Aretha and sing along, and I’m over it. By track 4 I’m over it.”

After the Dreamgirls tour, Davis went back to Rent and ended staying four years and nearly driving herself to exhaustion. The grind of eight shows a week on Broadway wore her down, and she developed polyps on her vocal chords and had to have surgery.

But all the hard work also resulted in a slimmer Davis, who is a whole dress size smaller than the last time we saw her around here four years ago.

“Part of it was doing eight shows a week and having a New York Sports Club right next to the theater,” she says. “The other part is about my grandmother, who passed away with diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and obesity. On her deathbed, she made me and my mother promise to be good to ourselves.”

Davis still appreciates her big girl status – “My curves are sexy. I like them and my boyfriends like them.” – but she has a greater appreciation for fitness than she used to.

“Trust me, I’m not trying to be thin, not even a little bit,” she says. “I want to keep my dress size in the double digits. I’d be happy with a 14 to a 16. This is about pushing my body to the limit. Doing theater, if you can’t sing and dance without running out of breath, you’re in trouble. I’ll tell you this: an hour of cardio workout followed by the steam room opens me up, and I can sing anything.”

A hit on the gay pride circuit around the world (she just returned from Carnivale in Rio), Davis will record some dance music. “I owe that to my gays,” she says. But as for a debut album, she’s still soul searching on that topic.

“Everyone says, `Frenchie, you gotta do an album,’ but I just don’t know,” she says. “The recording industry comes with so much stuff, and nothing that has to do with music. You know, Nell Carter never recorded an album, but we know how fabulous she was. If I keep working to make it better, people will remember my contribution to the arts. I truly believe my contributions to the world will be outside of music. Like the Frenchie Davis School of the Arts. I’ll definitely have a legacy.”

When Davis headed to “Idol” land, she left Howard University in Washington, D.C., about 30 credits shy of her diploma. Education is important to her, and she had planned on going back to finish this fall. But then musical theater interfered. Instead of hitting the books, she’ll be hitting the road, along with “American Idol” Season 2 winner Ruben Studdard in a production of the Fats Waller revue Ain’t Misbehavin’.

“I’ll go back to school in the fall of ’09,” Davis says. “I can still work on the weekends. And I won’t be a poor student again. I remember that was like. I’ll have the time and money to finish the degree right.”

In the meantime she’s looking forward to touring with her good friend Studdard.

“Ruben’s my boo!” she trills. “When we were on the show we hung out a lot. Us and Rickey Smith and some of the other kids. Everybody else, well, let’s just say they were advanced. Maybe in college I had a glass of wine or smoked a joint, but I didn’t dabble beyond that. Some of those other kids were advanced. They’d be full out. And me and Ruben and Ricky, Nashika and Julie and some others would be playing cards in my room. We didn’t have time for shenanigans.”

When her show business shenanigans are over, Davis says she’s turning toward making a difference in the world like her father, who works with a human rights organization in Darfur. She may even get a master’s degree in international affairs at NYU.

“You know, I’m not 23 anymore. I’m not even 25,” Davis says. “I’m thinking about my life goals, not just career goals. When do I want to become a mother? I don’t want to wait ’til I’m 40 to have kids. And theater takes such a toll on the voice and body. I have to figure out what I’m going to do when my body says to me, `Bitch, I’m not doing eight shows a week anymore.’ In the theater, you can’t fake it. It has to be real, and I want to keep it real and then move on.”

For information: Frenchie Davis appears with other former “American Idol” contestants Rickey Smith, Julia DeMato and Trenyce today (July 25) through Sunday (July 26) and with RJ Helton, Julia DeMato and Trenyce July 29-August 2. The Rrazz Room is in the Hotel Nikko, 222 Mason St., San Francisco. Tickets are $45-$55 plus a two-drink minimum. Call 866-468-3399 or visit