Dallas — I must have seen Broadway/movie/recording/concert star Bernadette Peters hundreds of times over the years…or was it only once?
The “once” was on Broadway in 2003, when I turned my head to find her marching right past me down the aisle of the Shubert Theatre. Small and fierce, chin tilted high, she quick-stepped toward the stage calling “Sing out, Louise!” It was a revival of the Styne-Sondheim-Laurents musical Gypsy, of course, with Peters starring as stage mother Rose. She was magnificent and heart-breaking, horrible and gorgeous all at once. Ben Brantley of The New York Times called Peters’ Rose “the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career.” Her performance, for me, blew all earlier versions of the role into dust.
And that voice.
A bright soprano rubbed against velvet, agile and dazzlingly under control, with an astonishing affinity for contralto territory as well. Once heard, she is instantly recognizable as nobody else in this world.
Except for that unforgettable evening in New York, I’ve been a long-distance, flyover-country fan of Ms. Peters for nearly 50 years, since I “found” her in a 1972 TV version of Once Upon a Mattress. And I was late to the game at that: Peters, born in 1948, got her Equity card at age nine, and was playing regularly on Broadway by the late 1960s, just as she was coming out of her teens.
Thankfully, in a career in which she’s earned seven Tony nominations (two wins), plus Golden Globe, Drama Desk, Grammy, Emmy and other awards, the busy Ms. Peters turned up regularly on television in those early years (The Carol Burnett Show, All in the Family, The Muppet Show) and in some smartly chosen ‘70s movies (Silent Movie, The Jerk, Pennies From Heaven). Among my earliest VHS tapes were well-worn recordings of Peters in PBS broadcasts of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods. There’s been plenty in-between, of course, but new audiences have gotten to know her for recurring TV roles on Smash, Mozart in the Jungle, and The Good Fight.
This week, Peters performs Jan. 24-26 with the Dallas Symphony Orchestra at the Morton H. Meyerson Symphony Center with her longtime musical director, arranger, accompanist and friend Marvin Laird conducting. The DSO concerts will feature favorites from Sondheim (Peters is considered by many to be his finest interpreter) and from other songwriters she’s known and admired.
TheaterJones caught up with her by phone from Vancouver, where Peters was on-location for a new television series. She’s as booked-up as ever, with multiple TV irons in the fire, an upcoming movie, concert appearances, charitable work and more.
TheaterJones: We’re looking forward to having you in Dallas again. I hear you have a role in the new TV series Katy Keene; is that what you’re shooting right now?
Bernadette Peters: No, I’m in Vancouver with another new show. The pilot was shown already, but the series begins in February, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. I’m so happy to be doing an episode.
So what’s with all the pop-up musicals on TV? Maybe La La Land began it?
Isn’t it great? Music is so expressive and uplifting, and touches certain parts of your soul. The way they’re using it in this show is really wonderful. I read somewhere that when people are thinking deep down, about what they’re really feeling, it’s like singing. Zoey is hearing the song that is in their mind, though they certainly don’t know they’re singing it.
You keep yourself quite busy and booked-up, with concerts and TV, causes you work for. Is this your default setting? Have you always liked being busy, busy?
No, I haven’t! I think I used to like to be very, what can I say — not peaceful, because I make sure I’m peaceful even when I’m doing things like this. But I like inactivity. And activity, what can I say? I appreciate the [down time] when it happens, but my work activates my mind when I play all these varied parts, sing different songs, and so on. So I like that. And in my concerts I visit the experiences I want to visit, which also is a great thing.
How do you choose songs for a concert? You must know thousands of them. Of course, there will be a lovely cluster of Sondheim, but what else?
Years ago, they used to come into my mind, like the characters in Zoey. I used to think, why is that, what’s it telling me? I was listening to my own extraordinary playlist in my head. And I would think: I need to sing that.
And then when I’d be in a show, I would sit in the wings and listen to the songs the other characters were singing, and go ‘Oh!’ But above all, I have to connect to a song, and then I’ll sing it.
I read somewhere that you sometimes work on a number for a year or more before you put it in the ‘rotation’ for your concerts. Is that true?
Not exactly…but it grows and grows and grows within that year, as I sing it. I might put it in, but it doesn’t become, for a while, what it’s eventually, maybe, going to become.
I like songs with messages that I like to be reminded of, and I like the audience to be reminded of — of certain experiences, feelings.
You’re singing soon at a memorial for the late songwriter Jerry Herman. He gave you some wonderful songs.
Yes, he did. All the songs he wrote for Mack and Mabel were fabulous — and for Hello, Dolly! Before I played her [on Broadway in 2018] I couldn’t have told you what a fabulous part that was, and how much I would love doing the role. I saw Carol Channing the last time she did the show, and I was so blown away — and actually stole a little bit of her stuff for when I did it. I love the songs, and how Michael Stewart kept so much of the Thornton Wilder book [from his play The Matchmaker]. It’s so relevant today, about money being like manure: not worth anything unless you spread it around.
When you don’t see Dolly for a while, you remember her as a bit of a caricature — but her emotions run surprisingly deep and real.
It’s a beautifully constructed show, very uplifting, and such great songs — “Before the Parade Passes By”…. Now I do two of the songs from Dolly in my concerts.
Were there times during that six-month Broadway run that you thought, “This is a heck of a workout”?
No, I like being on that kind of schedule. You have to know how to pace yourself. I really don’t do anything else when I’m doing eight shows a week, and I never missed a performance.
I feel as though I’m asking for your makeup routine…but how do you take care of your voice? You have such a distinctive sound.
You really do a lot to preserve your voice. I humidify before I go on. I don’t go to sleep with the heat on, because that dries it out. I don’t go to loud restaurants. Talking over everybody is the worst, it just kills your voice. I don’t take long car trips when I’m in a show, but trying to talk over car noise is bad too.
Marvin Laird is with you for this concert, conducting the DSO, and of course I’ve seen him onstage with you many times as accompanist. You and he go back.
I met him when I was 13 [on the national tour of Gypsy]. And then I didn’t see him until I was in my 20s, and we began working all the time together. I can go anywhere with the music and he follows me, he’s right there.
I was a girl with incredibly curly hair in the 1960s — and when I read of your struggles to fit into the “type” of that era, it sounded familiar, in a small way.
Is your hair still curly?
Well, it was hard in the ‘60s, you felt you had to wear your hair straight. It was all about tall, skinny, no chest…Twiggy, you know. That was not me or my hair, at all. I didn’t fit in the chorus.
Maybe it was an accidental gift, then, that if you couldn’t be the type, you’d have to “go big” right from the start?
Maybe it was, because I could think “oh, I have an individuality” and really feel I could be free to express everything that was inside me.
And it seems to have been a gift for a lot of young women too. A writer recently called you “a model for girls with strong personalities who were never going to be happy pretending to be smaller than they are.”
Your family in Queens must have been part of it. What did they give you that shaped and helped and sustained you?
I think a reality that is very down-to-earth. I come from an Italian family, my parents were born in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. [Peters’ stage name comes from her father, Peter Lazzara.] There were lots of aunts and uncles who lived in Queens and Brooklyn and all over, and we had big family get-togethers. The Italian way is very interesting…and they believed in me, told me “you go ahead, do what you want to do!”
Were you the entertainment at these big family gatherings?
No, they were my entertainment! You can imagine, a loud Italian family, they entertained me. I was an observer.
Stephen Sondheim once said that “like very few others,” you can sing and act at the same time. I’d add — to the acting part — that you can be very funny while you sing. Is that how you connected with Carol Burnett? My children, in fact, found you first through comedy: Once Upon a Mattress, The Muppet Show, even the cat Rita you played in Animaniacs.
Actually, Carol found me off-Broadway, in a show called Dames at Sea. She was starting her variety show, and I was the very first person she booked. She’s a special person in my life; we’re still very close. There’s no one like Carol.
You’re very active, too, in causes that mean a lot to you. You and Mary Tyler Moore founded Broadway Barks more than 20 years ago, which promotes adoptions from animal shelters in and around New York City — and has branched out into other efforts.
Yes, that’s my passion. And I’m on the board of Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. They produce our Broadway Barks events, and are a fabulous organization with a tremendous heart. They gave a large donation to Australia just recently.
We started this adoption event in Shubert Alley, and it was the first time all the animal groups had worked together. They’d been doing it all by themselves, grass roots, which I so admire — those people who just say “give me those dogs!” and find ways to help. But now we all work together. We outgrew Shubert Alley, and had to move down the street a bit.
Last year we opened [the adoption event] with a number from Hello, Dolly!, “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” and everybody came on doing the number and holding a little dog — and they all just sat and behaved so well! You can find it on YouTube if you’d like to see it. [Here it is.]
How many dogs have you personally “schmoozed” people into taking?
Me? Michael Urie likes to tell the story that when he was in Ugly Betty, I asked him if he’d like to adopt a dog. And he said, “Sure, because who can say no to Bernadette Peters!” I got him a dog when he really wasn’t looking for a dog.
But then that dog passed on, and Michael right away got another rescue dog, so there you go.
Wishing you good shows in Dallas, and I’d like to thank you for all the songs, all the times you made me laugh out loud, all the times you made me cry when I didn’t think I was going to cry, and the tears just “snuck up” on me.
That’s the best kind of cry.