DIVA TALK: Bernadette Peters Makes Carnegie Hall Debut

DIVA TALK: Bernadette Peters Makes Carnegie Hall Debut BERNADETTE PETERS
DECEMBER 9, 1996
LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL

BERNADETTE PETERS
DECEMBER 9, 1996
LIVE AT CARNEGIE HALL

The Tony-winning talent that is Bernadette Peters made her eagerly-awaited solo Carnegie Hall debut last night to an enthusiastic audience that included Howard McGillin, Laurie Beechman, Ann Hampton Callaway, Arthur Laurents, Mary Tyler Moore, Sam Harris, Joel Grey, Lainie Kazan, Stephen Sondheim and other luminaries. It was completely appropriate that Sondheim was in attendance, for Peters staked her claim as one of, if not the, foremost interpreters of Sondheim's work, performing a dazzling second act that was exclusively Stephen Sondheim material.

The evening began with a theatrical, Broadway-styled overture, including snippets of tunes from such musicals as Mack and Mabel, Gypsy and A Little Night Music. Marvin Laird, Peters' long-time friend and musical director--and composer of the musical Ruthless!--conducted the orchestra. Immediately following the overture, a voice announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, Ms. Bernadette Peters." A roar of applause greeted Peters' entrance, who was smiling from ear to ear; the star of the evening donned a stunning black-and-white dress designed by Bob Mackie.

Bernadette opened with an upbeat arrangement of "We're in the Money," and after the first few verses Peters stood at the microphone, center stage, and announced in a serious manner: "And now in pig Latin." As she sang "eeway inay the oneymay," the surprised audience laughed and even attempted to join in as Peters coyly implored, "Everybody!" Peters made her way down the steps of the stage into the audience, segueing into "Pennies from Heaven" and throwing mock coins into the crowd.

After her rousing opening, she welcomed the audience, expressing her excitement about singing in the historic space and the honor she felt about performing for such a worthy cause as GMHC. Peters then walked to the piano to take a sip of water, and facing the orchestra, she announced, "This is my back." Even her back received a warm ovation, an indication of the excitement of the audience for the performance that was to come. A slowed-down, luscious reading of a song from 1919 entitled "If You Were the Only Boy (in the World)" followed.

As the orchestra launched into the introduction for the next tune, Bernadette, with arms stretched out wide, vamped across the stage. "I'm . . . just . . . a . . ." Peters sang in a deliciously innocent style, building Sondheim's "Broadway Baby" to its climax: "I can get to strut my stuff. Working for a nice man, like a Ziegfeld or a Weissman in a BIG, TIME, BROADWAY, SHOW!"

Two more Sondheim tunes followed: a delicate, heartfelt "No One Is Alone" from Into the Woods and Dick Tracy's "Sooner or Later," which she sang perched upon a piano. Before her sultry take on "Sooner or Later," Peters informed the audience that the song had first been introduced in a movie "by a blond bombshell. . .not me. . .but we both have religious names!"

After teasing the audience with the Dick Tracy tune, Bernadette performed a song from the show that garnered her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance. The role was the perfect fit for Peters, allowing her the chance to show off the many facets of her talents. She picked the beautiful ballad, "Unexpected Song" to represent her work in that show, building slowly from the first verse to the climactic high note at the end. The song was greeted with a tremendous ovation, the first of many showstoppers of the evening. Other tunes in the first half included a tribute to a friend of Peters', the late Peter Allen. Peters sang a new arrangement of his "I Never Thought I'd Break," a song she had recorded on her first solo album. Peters brought a dramatic intensity to the lyric and then performed "Other Lady," a tune by Lesley Gore and Jack Weston about a woman who pleads with her husband's mistress, "Let's be friends. There is nothing left to be. I have always known he loves you. You know he depends on me."

With the lights completely dimmed, Peters offered her beautiful tones on "The Hills of Shiloh," which led right into a riveting interpretation of "Faithless Love," a song from her new album, I'll Be Your Baby Tonight. The comic high point of the evening followed the heartbreakers, a song that Peters introduced years ago on "Saturday Night Live." Entitled "Making Love Alone," Peters milked the song for all its comic potential, finishing the song by throwing her long black gloves into the enthusiastic audience.

Peters explained that while she was putting the Carnegie Hall evening together, many people suggested songs she should include, but there was one title that kept recurring, Jerry Herman's "Time Heals Everything," which she then delivered to perfection. Another gem from a much-earlier Peters show, Dames at Sea, followed: "Raining in My Heart." Peters was joined on this number by four male singer/dancers (Sean Martin Hingston, Sean McDermott, Bill Ebbesmeyer and Craig Rubano), who entered the stage--twirling umbrellas--from the aisles of the audience.

After the applause died down, Peters confessed that although her bio states that she played Dainty June in the national tour of Gypsy when she was a child, she was actually the understudy for the role! Her mother thought it would look better in her bio, but she said she wanted to take this moment to apologize to the young girl who actually played the role. BP recalled that every night she would watch from the wings of the stage as Mama Rose sang a certain song, and she knew that one day she would perform this number. In fact, Peters closed the act with an all-out, belty, don't-stand-in-my-way version of the Jule Styne/Stephen Sondheim classic "Some People."

After the intermission and a welcome from the three co-chairs of the evening--Rocco Landesman, Daryl Roth and Robert M. Wallach--Peters returned to the stage, hair pulled back and poured into a slinky black gown, designed by Donna Karan. She began the second half with a little-known Sondheim song entitled "They Asked Me Why I Believe in You," which is from an unproduced television musical I Believe in You. She leaned on her musical director Laird as she finished the sweetly simple song. Peters then introduced composer Stephen Sondheim, who was sitting in the first few rows of the orchestra and said that this act was for him, and then proceeded to dazzle the audience with an entire hour of beautifully interpreted Stephen Sondheim tunes.

What was most enjoyable in this act was the inclusion of songs that one would not have expected Peters to sing. The second song was a prime example, "Johanna" from Sweeney Todd. Peters sounded at her most luscious during this song, her creamy tones soaring with "I feel you, Johanna. I feel you...." "Happiness" from Sondheim's most-recent Broadway musical Passion was next, and she followed that song with a comical number, "Hello Little Girl" from Into the Woods, a song that is sung in the show by the Little-Red-Riding Hood-chasing wolf. The song was paired with "Any Moment," also from

Into the Woods.

After, Bernadette discussed the other Carnegie Hall GMHC benefit that she was a part of a year ago, the concert version of Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle , an evening that also starred Scott Bakula, Madeline Kahn and Angela Lansbury. She then scored with "There Won't Be Trumpets," a song that had been cut from the original version of Whistle. Another dramatically comical number followed, "Later" from A Little Night Music, which featured Clay Ruede, one of the orchestra members, center-stage on cello.

A solo, knock-out take on Company's "You Could Drive a Person Crazy" followed, which solidified Peters' rightful place among the few great comedic musical actresses of our generation. It's a shame that Broadway doesn't produce original musical comedies anymore, for Peters is one of the few actresses who can play comic moments as well as she can play dramatic ones.

An intensely focused version of Merrily We Roll Along's "Not a Day Goes By" was up next and received a tremendous ovation from the audience. If any song was a perfect example of Peters' craftsmanship as an artist, it was this number, which she had first sung a few years earlier at the Sondheim Celebration, also at Carnegie. Peters started softly, gaining momentum until finally letting her rich, warm vibrato shatter the room as she explosively sang, "You're still somehow part of my life. And you won't go away. So there's hell to pay. And until I die,I'll die day after day after day after day. . .till the days go by."

"Not a Day Goes By" was followed by a wonderful pairing of "With So Little To Be Sure Of" and "Children Will Listen," and after "Listen" Peters informed the concertgoers that that song plus the next few meant the most to her. "Being Alive" was the next song to receive the Peters treatment, which she delivered with all the dramatic intensity that has made her one of the great Broadway performers of our time. The audience leapt to its feet after the roof-raising rendition, and Peters then ended the act with a song from a show that had marked her triumphant return to Broadway over a decade ago, Sunday In the Park with George. The song was "Move On," and it couldn't have been a more appropriate way to end the evening. As Bernadette sang, "We've always belonged together," the lyric rang true for her as a performer who truly belongs onstage in front of an audience.

Peters returned to the stage after a lengthy standing ovation and thanked many of the people responsible for making the evening come to fruition: conductor Marvin Laird; the director of the evening, Richard Jay-Alexander; Bernadette's manager Tom Hammond; drummer and former "Mouseketeer" Cubby O'Brien; her assistant, Patty Saccente, and her "crew"; Steve Asher and the staff and volunteers of GMHC; and her new husband, Michael Wittenberg. After wishing the audience a Happy Hanukkah, she sang "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" as an encore, and invited the audience to join her half-way through. Peters then informed the audience to make sure they see the elves on the way out of the theatre, as she had a present waiting for everyone, a white Christmas ornament that had "Love Bernadette" written on it in red.

The concert, which was recorded live by Angel Records to benefit GMHC, is due out in record stores within a few months. Like the evening itself, the recording promises to be an example of supreme musicianship.

Lastly, here's the note BP inserted in the program:

"Dear Friends:
Thank you for coming this evening and supporting GMHC.
When I was originally asked to do this concert, it didn't take me very long to say yes, because I really wanted to do it for all our friends who are both here and no longer with us.
As we enter the holiday season, we must also celebrate our loves and lives and the sheer joy of giving.
And remember...there are only 15 more shopping days left 'til Christmas!
Warmest Love,
Bernadette"

That's all for now. Happy diva-watching.

-- By Andrew Gans

e-mail me at andrew_gans@playbill.com