Entertainment » Music

Bernadette Peters Keeps Moving On

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Friday Jun 26, 2009

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 ing?nue 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.

"I’m a doganizer."

EDGE: Do you vary your concerts much?

Bernadette Peters Sometimes I do, but basically I’m putting on a show with an arc, and if you fool around with it too much, you throw the balance off. Each song has an energy that builds and builds to the next one. You have to be careful with the build of the show. If I put the wrong song in, the bottom will fall out and I’d have to struggle to get it back on track. So the show really has an arc.

EDGE: You’ve been doing some television lately -’Ugly Betty’ and ’Grey’s Anatomy.’ Were they happy experiences?

Bernadette Peters When people ask me what I like most to do, and I say it’s whatever has the best writing. I did the opening - the two-hour episode of ’Grey’s Anatomy/’ -- and the writing was amazing. I felt the same way about ’Betty.’ The writing is so good on that show. And the people are so good - America and Michael Urie and Vanessa Williams - they are really nice people. And you know when they say, the writers can make it better? They really do make it better. That’s what happened on ’Ugly Betty.’ They took the script back and improved on it, that doesn’t always happen, but that show’s writers are amazing.

EDGE: What’s the film role you’re most proud of?

Bernadette Peters I’ve done a lot of movies to be proud of. ’The Jerk’ is a classic. ’Pennies from Heaven’ is an amazing film. I’m proud of those films. And I’m proud to have played Tammie Faye Bakker. She was very happy with my portrayal. She was a really darling person. She got stuck in the midst of something she couldn’t control, but her intentions were always good.

EDGE: How do you keep your voice in shape?

Bernadette Peters I do a lesson every day when I was in the show. I vocalize every day anyway, but when I’m in a show I take a lesson every day. And when I’m in a show I don’t talk on the phone. I don’t go out to parties or noisy restaurants. And if I had to do some publicity, like get up and do an early morning show, the eighth show in the week was hard. It took its toll. Especially that role. That role is like doing Hamlet 8 times a week. That show’s a play - it was a privilege because it was doing a play with music for over a year on Broadway.

EDGE: You’ve also had your share of musicals that didn’t run. How do you handle the disappointment?

Bernadette Peters I You can’t take those things to heart. You just have to go to the next one, and there was always a next one.

EDGE: You’ve recently have set out on a new career - that of a writing children’s books about dogs to benefit your favorite cause - Broadway Barks - the charity you started with Mary Tyler Moore ten years ago. Your first book "Broadway Barks" came out last April and it’s been a big success. And it has come out of your love of dogs. Is it true that you’ve never met a dog you didn’t like?

Bernadette Peters Yes. I’m a doganizer. I say now that I understand what a womanizer is because I’m a doganizer. Dogs like me. It’s funny, because a dog will turn around in the street and look at me - it’s like they’re saying, you’re one of us.

EDGE: You’re next book is going to be about your pit bull Stella and is going to be about not judging a book by its cover. Why do pit bulls have such a bad reputation?

Bernadette Peters You know it is the dog of the moment for the tough guys. It used to be the German Shepherd, it use to be the Doberman Pinscher we were afraid of. Did you know that on the Little Rascals, Pete the Pup was a pit bull. It used to be at the turn-of-the-century that pit bulls were the nanny dogs. They use to take care of the children. And they love people. It is actually inbred in them to love people. Sports Illustrated had a Michael Vick dog on the cover on December 26, and inside there were all pictures of his dogs and where they are now. They are very sweet dogs and they’re scared dogs. They said in 1987, they had a pit bull on the cover - a vicious one that said ’be afraid of this doll.’ And since that moment all the tough guys decided to get that dog. That’s where they think the whole pit bull culture began. They’re actually lap dogs. My dog loves to sit in my lap. They’re amazing.

Everyone knows my dog when I walk her. Stella, my pit bull. I have two dogs, and my other dog doesn’t like other dogs. But Stella loves other dogs.

EDGE: For the book you wrote your first song - ’Kramer’s Song’ - do you sing it in the show?

Bernadette Peters I do. I sing it at the end. Children really take to it. It is so fulfilling. I’ll be selling the book the next evening, and I don’t feel funny saying it because my profits go to help the shelter animals. But at Broward the Humane Society is going to have a table in the lobby and I’m going to give them part of my profits.

EDGE: Was it difficult to write?

Bernadette Peters For me it was like a little miracle. My editor told me that we needed a song for the book. And I thought, who is going to write it? I had never written a song in my life. And I thought, what lullabies to a like? Then I’m up in a plane, and all of a sudden, this song comes to me - music and lyrics at the same time. I finished on the way home in the car. Then I wondered if I would sing it, because I’m very particular about what songs I sing. And the next day my musical director came for a rehearsal and my assistant said, sing that song for Marvin. And I sang it under my breath because I was, like, embarrassing. Then he said he’d write a little lead sheet. I sang it in a rehearsal, and changed some lyrics, and started singing it and it was lovely. Then I wrote the second book and the second song came out, and it is another lovely song. They are illustrating it now so it will probably be out in 2010. You know, my last book made it to the New York Times Best Seller list.

Bernadette Peters @ Davies Symphony Hall, Saturday, June 27, 8pm. Davies Symphony Hall, Van Ness Ave. at Grove St. $20-$90. 8pm. 864-6000. www.sfsymphony.org

Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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