Bernadette Peters Keeps Moving On
When it comes to Broadway Babies, few can top Bernadette Peters. She began in the theater at the age of 9, getting her Actors Equity card for a role in an Otto Preminger-directed drama that closed out of town, and she hasn’t stopped working since.
Her breakthrough role was playing the Betty Boop-like ingénue in the spoof of 1930s musicals "Dames at Sea," which lead to her first Drama Desk Award and roles in such Broadway productions as "On the Town" and "Mack and Mabel," both of which brought her Tony nominations. After a stint in Hollywood, she returned to New York for one her iconic roles - that of the model to Georges Seurat in "Sunday in the Park with George." For it she received another Tony nomination, and also began her 20-year relationship with Stephen Sondheim, who has said of her: "Like very few others, she sings and acts at the same time. Most performers act and then sing, act and then sing ... Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned. I can’t think of anything negative."
Before starring in her second Sondheim, "Into The Woods," she played the vulnerable heroine in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s "Song and Dance, which won her a Tony. A second came for the revival of "Annie Get Your Gun;" and continued her survey of roles associated with Ethel Merman with her acclaimed performance of Rose in the 2004 revival of "Gypsy," directed by Sam Mendes. In addition, she has recorded numerous albums, including a pair of disks dedicated to songs by Sondheim, as well as making frequent concert appearances, such as her upcoming one this Saturday, June 27 at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony.
Her program will range from songs from Americana to Disney, with the requisite Sondheim stops enroute. EDGE spoke with Peters recently about her concert, her career, her affinity with Stephen Sondheim, her favorite roles, and her latest endeavor - writing children’s books. Here’s the interview:
The Sondheim Connection
EDGE: What will you be singing this weekend?
Bernadette Peters I have to do my Sondheim songs. I love to hear those sentiments. I love to hear ’No One Is Alone’ and ’With So Little To Be Sure Of’ and ’Being Alive’ - they’re wonderful thoughts. ’Children Will Listen.’ Important things. I sing other things - Peggy Lee’s ’Fever’ on the piano, that is if I can get up on it. I’m doing that Americana song ’Shenandoah’ - it’s gorgeous. I’m doing that with just a piano. The first time I did it was with just a harmonica, which was beautiful.
EDGE: That is an amazingly beautiful song. Thomas Hampson sings it on a CD of American songs and it is quite evocative.
Bernadette Peters Really? I can imagine him singing it. I’m sure it’s beautiful. But why? Sometimes a song gets in my head and says, ’sing me. Sing me.’ This song has been in my head for five years and I decided to sing it now. When I told my musical director or anybody for that matter they looked at me like I was crazy. But the thing is when something is true and pure and comes to you at that, there’s usually a reason why you want to sing it. It’s a lovely, beautiful song. And there’s a lot going on in it.
EDGE:What other songs will be in the concert?
Bernadette Peters I’m doing ’When You Wish Upon a Star,’ which I love to do because it is such lovely song. And I do sing ’Joanna.’ I added it back in. I sang it years ago. At that time I was singing in Disney Hall and they have this beautiful pipe organ in the wall and every time I go to a hall when there’s an organ I was dying to use it. I figured out a way to use it - and we play all that wonderful organ music in ’Sweeney Todd,’ then I sang the song. Now we’re able to do the same thing with a synthesizer, so we added it back in. It’s so beautiful. I fell in love with it when I heard Victor Garber sing it. It’s amazing with that beautiful, melodic line and those lyrics - ’I feel you’ - it’s just amazing. And I thought, I love this song, Could I sing it? Then I thought, why not? So I’m singing it.
I also do ’There’s Nothing Like a Dame’ and I come out in the audience. It is usually sung by a group of men, but I do it.
EDGE: Is that your gay friendly number?
Bernadette Peters You could say that. To me, it’s a powerful women’s song. That women have a lot of power - there is nothing like a dame, all you guys. You really need us, that’s how I look at it. That being said, when I sang it in the Hamptons and in the Pines, it was pretty funny.
EDGE: When did you first meet Stephen Sondheim?
Bernadette Peters I guess when I did ’Sunday in the Park with George,’ but there was time years before that that we were at Joe Allen’s at the same time when I was a kid. I remember, but I don’t think he remembers.
EDGE: You were amazing in ’Sunday.’ Both you and Mandy (Patinkin). It was if the show was written for you? How did you get involved in it?
Bernadette Peters I was in San Francisco and I got a message from James Lapine that he was doing a workshop of this Stephen Sondheim show and they just offered it to me, to play the artist’s model. And I thought, Mandy Patinkin would be great for this role. And I asked, who is playing George? and he said Mandy Patinkin. Wasn’t that weird? The experience on that show was amazing. It was so exciting because the show kept evolving every night and new music would come in.
EDGE: In the show you move from being a woman in her twenties to a woman nearly 100 - was it difficult for you to play old?
Bernadette Peters I was nervous. James Lapine said, ’Don’t cop out on me now. You really have to do it.’ So I took the bull by the horns and really went to play it - I had never done that before.
EDGE: What accounts for your affinity with Sondheim?
Bernadette Peters I don’t know. It could be that it is his songs make so much sense to me. I think that he writes both the music and the lyrics. So that there’s no break - there is a flow. The intention is so clear to how the actor or character should feel. It’s just so wonderful. He informs you what is going on - the passion and the anger.
EDGE: Have you thought of playing Mrs. Lovett?
Bernadette Peters Yes. I started looking at that role. You know what role I would love to play is Sally in ’Follies.’ That’s the one. The music, the role, everything about it.
EDGE: What about roles in non-musicals? Any jump out as to ones you would want to play?
Bernadette Peters The one that comes to mind are ’Long Day’s Journey...’ Maybe a Tennessee Williams, I’m not sure which one.
EDGE: I read where you once said your three challenges in your life: playing gay, playing Jewish and playing Chekhov? Is that true?
Bernadette Peters Yes... (laughing) well, no. It wasn’t quite that. I did a movie for television where I played an actress who was gay and was Jewish and she was playing in a Chekhov play. So the biggest challenge was playing all three at the same time. But what made most nervous wasn’t playing gay or playing Jewish, but was playing Chekhov. It was ’The Seagull’ and I ended up loving it.
EDGE: When you played Rose in "Gypsy" in 2003, there were stories about a stressful rehearsal process. Was it difficult for you to get a handle on that character?
Bernadette Peters No. Not really. There were different points of view at the beginning, but basically it was wonderful. It was cathartic. It was like going through my life night after night with different perspectives. I just loved doing it. But that production had a challenging beginning. We should have gone out of town to get it organized. There are benefits to going out of town. But, you know, life is tough. But the best thing about the show was the cast - John Dossette and Tammy Blanchard, there was a point where it seemed we just stopped acting. It was amazing.
EDGE: As a child you were Dainty June in ’Gypsy’ on the show’s second national tour. What did you think of the show then?
Bernadette Peters Well, when you’re in a show you really don’t get to see it. I was this girl who was backstage who came out and did her part. I knew the show through the backstage life. I knew it in bits and pieces. But that’s usually the case when you’re in a show. What’s funny was recently I was watching the video of ’Into the Woods’ and thought, ’Wow, this is a great idea for a show.’ Because when you’re in it, you have an entirely different experience than what the audience is experiencing. Then when I went to see ’Sunday in the Park with George’ I was able to get the audience’s experience. And I was always jealous of the audience’s experiences - I mean, I loved my onstage experience, but that is different. But I finally got to see it from the other side, which was really something. There I am watching the show and the painting comes alive and you’re very moved, then in the end, when everyone in the painting bows to them - you don’t know when and why that happens, but you’re moved.