DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony-Winning Actress Bernadette Peters

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony-Winning Actress Bernadette Peters News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Tony winner Bernadette Peters.
Tony winner Bernadette Peters.

BERNADETTE PETERS
Tony-winning stage actress, TV and film star, concert performer and Grammy-nominated recording artist Bernadette Peters can now add two new vocations to that already impressive list: author and songwriter.

Peters' "Broadway Barks," which features wonderful illustrations by Liz Murphy, has just been released on the Blue Apple Books label and boasts a CD featuring a lively reading of the story by Peters and a lovely song ("Kramer's Song") penned by the Tony-winning Annie Get Your Gun and Song & Dance star. The charming children's book, the tale of a down-on-his-luck, yet scrappy dog Kramer ("nee" Douglas), benefits Broadway Barks, the charitable organization co-founded by Peters and good friend Mary Tyler Moore over a decade ago.

"I was in Annie Get Your Gun," Peters told me earlier this week about the creation of the Broadway Barks charity, "and we had won the Easter Bonnet Competition. We raised the most money — that was because of [my assistant] Patty Saccente and all the work she did on eBay. We all felt so good, and our stage manager, Richard Hester, said, 'What can we do now?' I said, 'Let's do something for the animals. Mary and I are really interested in doing something for animals.' I told Mary about it, and she said, 'Okay, let's do it!' So we put on a show. We called [Shubert Organization chairman] Gerry Schoenfeld to ask if we could have Shubert Alley. We thought we'd get all the Broadway performers from the shows, and it was really exciting."

"What I found out," Peters continues, "was [the event] really gives you energy. It's pet therapy. It's like, 'Oh, my God, I feel so good!' I was in Annie Get Your Gun, and I was thinking, 'Could I do this [event] between shows?' I usually sleep between shows, but after the first Broadway Barks, I thought, 'It just gives me energy to go back in [and do another performance].' It gives you such a jolt!"

Last season, Angela Lansbury was given that jolt when she opened Broadway Barks. "She was starring in Deuce," Peters says, "and she came between shows, opened our show with great gusto, and I am forever grateful to her for that." This year's fundraiser, again in Shubert Alley, will be held July 12.

Peters' new tome

Peters says she was approached to write the new book by Blue Apple Books editor Harriet Ziefert. The gifted singing actress, who is devoted to the plight of shelter animals, thought it was a terrific idea because it would further her mission to let people know that "companion animals are really here to make our lives better: They lower blood pressure. They're also finding out that if children have a dog really early in life, they tend not to develop allergies later on. Children that are non-communicative will start communicating with an animal. And, older people sometimes have nothing to get up for except their animal. They're companion animals, and [there are] all these great animals in the shelters. [The book] is just a way for me to get the word out." Peters dedicated her premiere tome to her late husband, Michael Wittenberg, who was also an animal lover. "We got both our dogs from the shelters," Peters explains. "That's when we recognized [the plight of these shelter animals]. . . . We went to the City Shelter, where they have to take everything that the police bring in or anybody finds on the street. They even had a chicken that was coming in! And then we went upstairs and we saw the amount of purebreds that were there…and mutts and little dogs and big dogs and all the dogs from the puppy mill. All the purebreds were in there, all the dogs that people didn't realize how much it was going to cost to feed them. It was heartbreaking, and they can only be there for a certain amount of time. There's not enough room to keep them there forever. So I thought, 'This needs attention.'"

And, attention was paid in the form of Broadway Barks; in fact, proceeds from the annual event are donated to each of the shelters involved. "We also have a fund called the Picasso Fund," Peters says, "which is named after a dog that we rescued that had his nose on one side of his face and his eyes on the other. The money in the Picasso Fund goes to the rescue groups. They take a dog out of the shelter if, say, the dog's leg is broken, the dog needs a heart operation, the dog needs any medical attention — that money comes out of the Picasso Fund, which is part of Broadway Barks."

Peters' commitment to shelter animals, however, is not limited to the annual event. She spends much time rescuing animals from shelters and finding them new homes. In fact, one recent rescue of a rather large dog named Asia was particularly memorable for the beloved actress. "We were driving her to the rescue group in Brooklyn," Peters recalls, "and she was barking and barking and barking. I crawled back and talked to her, and I said, 'I know that your family moved. I know you're looking for them. We're not going to find them, but we're going to find you a good home. You're going to be fine. You're safe now.' And don't you know, she stopped barking," Peters laughs. "And I'm thinking, 'Oh, my God, I thought that's what she was saying, and I answered her the best I could!' And then we got to the BARC Shelter, this wonderful rescue group in Brooklyn. In fact, we're raising money for them to build a new facility, state-of-the-art, that's going to have a veterinary office for the neighborhood and a hospital, and they're going to do spay-and-neuter free for all the other rescue groups." And, it should be noted, Asia was adopted and is now enjoying her life with a new owner.

Peters, who jokes she is a "doganizer" — "I know what a womanizer means, but I'm a doganizer" — says that she was surprised how easily "Kramer's Song" poured out of her. At first she thought, "I'm not going to write a song because I have too much respect for composers!" Then, Peters says, "I was thinking it should be a lullaby, and I'm thinking, 'What lullabies do I like? What do I want it to sound like?' And, all of a sudden I'm on a plane coming back from an event, and this song comes to me — music and lyrics at the same time. All of a sudden, I wrote a song!" Peters may also pen a second tune for her follow-up children's book, which will be based on the life of her other dog, Stella.

While her work with animals is an important aspect of her life, Peters also continues to perform sold-out concerts around the country as she looks for just the right project to bring her back to Broadway. She also attends much theatre, including the current revival of Sunday in the Park with George. Peters, of course, starred in the original production of that Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical, creating the role of Dot with a mix of humor and passion and investing such songs as "Move On," "Sunday in the Park with George," "Everybody Loves Louie," "We Do Not Belong to Together" and "Children and Art" with a wealth of emotion and her inimitable lush, powerful tones.

Peters says that she thought the Roundabout Theatre Company's revival of Sunday was "beautiful. I had my experience doing the show, which was wonderful, but I always envied the audience, so I finally got the chance to experience [seeing the show]. . . . I liked the digital animation. I just thought, 'Wow!' The paintings start to move, they start to come alive… I cried at the end of the first act, and then I cried when [Dot] enters at the end and says, 'I did not recognize you.' And then [I cried] again when they all bow to [George]. I thought, 'Why is that making me cry?' And, I realized [that George] created [them], and the images are now bowing to him."

Was it at all strange watching another actor, Jenna Russell, play a role that she had created? "I'm so far removed from it because it was 20 years ago," Peters answers. "I was removed enough from it that I just found it really interesting. I loved the way they staged the first scene. I loved that she had this kind of common English, Cockney accent. I loved certain things she did with the role."

Bernadette Peters in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

And, does Peters have a favorite role among her many superb stage outings? "I'm always lucky to say it's the one I'm doing at the time," she says, "but I have to say I did love doing Gypsy. It was a year of really doing a play with music. It's so well written, it's a privilege to be able to." When asked why so many actresses wish to star in the Stephen Sondheim-Jule Styne-Arthur Laurents musical, which is currently back on Broadway at the St. James Theatre with Tony winner Patti LuPone, Peters says, "I think it is the ultimate singing actress role, and every singing actress should play it! It's the Hamlet of musical theatre for a woman. It is written so well. The book really is a play. It's quite a journey." "Sunday in the Park," Peters adds, "was also a wonderful journey, and I couldn't wait [each night] to get to sing 'Move On' because that song was the healing part. You go so deep and it's so upsetting — George and Dot [love each other, but] they can't be together — it's so sad. . . . Even watching the show [recently], that stayed with me for a day or two. But, as I was discussing with Jenna about doing the role, 'Move On' heals the whole thing. It is like a singing meditation."

[To order a copy of "Broadway Barks," click here. For more information about the charity Broadway Barks, visit www.broadwaybarks.com. For Bernadette Peters' concert schedule, go to www.bernadettepeters.com.]

DIVA TIDBITS
The original Off-Broadway cast of I Love You Because will reunite May 19 at the Cherry Lane Theatre for a one-night-only concert presentation of that Joshua Salzman-Ryan Cunningham musical. Farah Alvin, David A. Austin, Courtney Balan, Stephanie D'Abruzzo, Colin Hanlon and Jordan Leeds will all be part of the 8 PM concert. The evening will feature musical direction by the show's composer, Salzman, and direction by its librettist-lyricist, Cunningham. The Cherry Lane Theatre is located in Manhattan at 38 Commerce Street. Tickets, priced $20, are available by visiting www.ILoveYouBecauseTheMusical.com.

Emerging musical theatre writers are celebrated by the York Theatre Company in its new NEO Spotlight Concert series, which will continue May 12 with Sailing Against the Current: Songs by Robert Bartley and Danny Whitman. The cast for the 7:30 PM concert will include Jenn Colella (Beebo Brinker Chronicles), Tony Yazbeck (Gypsy), Judith Moore (Sunday in the Park with George), Tituss Burgess (The Little Mermaid) and Kirsten Wyatt (Grease). Bartley will direct the evening with musical direction by Chris Tilley. The Theatre at Saint Peter's is located at 619 Lexington Avenue (on 54th Street, just east of Lexington Avenue). Tickets, priced $20, are available by visiting www.yorktheatre.org.

Kate Baldwin

The songs of Georgia Stitt will be presented at Birdland during an evening simply titled Georgia Stitt & Friends. The May 26 concert at the famed jazz venue will feature the talents of composer Stitt as well as Kate Baldwin, Lauren Kennedy, Keith Byron Kirk, Jennifer Simard, Tony Holds and Elizabeth Salem. Show time is 7 PM. The singers will be backed by Victoria Paterson on violin and Randy Landau on bass. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear tunes from Stitt's CD "This Ordinary Thursday" as well as songs from her musicals The Water, Big Red Sun and Sing Me A Happy Song. Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. There is a $25 cover charge and a $10 food-drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com. Five Tony Award-winning actors will perform in concert at the Music Center at Strathmore. The 2008-2009 Great American Song concert series at the North Bethesda, MD, venue will kick off Nov. 9 with a pairing of two two-time Tony winners, Christine Ebersole and James Naughton. Ebersole won her Tonys for her performances in Grey Gardens and the revival of 42nd Street; Naughton was honored for his work in City of Angels and the Chicago revival. Nine-time Tony winner Tommy Tune will be joined by the Manhattan Rhythm Kings for the Washington-area premiere of Steps in Time: A Broadway Biography. Tune will entertain Strathmore audiences Jan. 23 and 24, 2009. The New Year will also feature another two-time Tony winner, Bebe Neuwirth. Neuwirth — who nabbed Tonys for her performances in the revivals of Sweet Charity and Chicago — will take to the Strathmore stage April 2, 2009. And, the concert series will conclude April 18 and 19, 2009, with Bernadette Peters. Peters, a two-time Tony winner for her work in Annie Get Your Gun and Song and Dance, will perform songs from her acclaimed Broadway and recording career. The Music Center at Strathmore is located at 5301 Tuckerman Lane in North Bethesda, MD. For tickets call (301) 581-5100 or visit www.strathmore.org.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Bernadette Peters and Kramer.
Bernadette Peters and Kramer.
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