DIVA TALK: Here She Is, World! Here’s Rose!: An Interview with Bernadette Peters

News   DIVA TALK: Here She Is, World! Here’s Rose!: An Interview with Bernadette Peters Hello, diva lovers! As the Gypsy opening rapidly approaches — May 1 — I thought it would be a good time to feature my interview with two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, which will run in the May theatre edition of Playbill.
Bernadette Peters performs
Bernadette Peters performs "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy. (Photo by Joan Marcus)

Ethel Merman. Angela Lansbury. Tyne Daly.

And, now, add Bernadette Peters to that exclusive list of stellar actresses who have portrayed one of the musical theatre’s most controversial stage mothers—Rose—in the classic Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy, which is now playing at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in a new production helmed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes.

The character of Rose — loosely based on the life of Rose Hovick (and her daughters, actress-playwright June Havoc and the late striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee) — is one of the juiciest the musical theatre canon has to offer, a woman who erroneously believes success in show business will bring her and her two daughters happiness. A mix of contradictions, Rose is ultimately a battered and bruised soul, abandoned by a mother, several husbands and—as the play progresses—her own daughters. In an interview in her Shubert Theatre dressing room just prior to the commencement of previews, Peters says she believes Rose’s actions are the result of the deprivations in her life. “What’s pushing her,” says the award-winning actress, “is what she didn’t have in life: opportunity. Her mother deserted her—that’s a pretty devastating thing. I think that motivates her as well as [the desire] to give her children what she didn’t have. ‘I’m not going to let them sit away their lives like I did!’”

Rose is a role that the multi-talented Peters seems to have been inching toward most of her life. In 1961, a 13-year-old Bernadette Lazzara (Peter was her father’s first name) hit the road — with her mom in tow— in the chorus of the second national company of Gypsy. Peters has vivid memories of that production, which starred Mitzi Green and, later, Mary McCarty as the indomitable Rose; in fact, rehearsals for Gypsy’s fourth Broadway incarnation have prompted several recollections of that eight-month period on the road: “I remember the dressing room scene especially. I was just in the chorus originally, but I understudied Agnes, and I understudied Dainty June, and towards the end I played Agnes. I remember that second act, going to Wichita where all the strippers were, the burlesque cast.” The two-time Tony Award winner also recalls one particularly large, daunting theatre, Chicago’s Opera House. “I remember in order to make a cue, I had to start about five lines ahead, just to run to get to the center of the stage,” Peters laughs. “That stage, I’d never seen anything so big in my life!” The tour was also a family affair of sorts: Peters’ sister Donna, now a casting agent in New York, later joined the company as the understudy for Louise. “It’s like we all grew up on that show,” says Peters. “My brother remembers the show also because he would come to visit with my father, so it’s a vivid memory of our childhood, growing up, for all of us.”

And, the road to Gypsy didn’t end there. In 1996, Peters made her now-legendary solo concert debut at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, a benefit concert for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness the sold-out evening, which boasted a second half devoted solely to the songs of Stephen Sondheim, will remember the concert’s first-act finale, Peters’ thrilling, emotional rendition of one of Gypsy’s classic songs, “Some People.” As Peters belted her way through the Styne-Sondheim tune, it became clear that one of Broadway’s most-loved stars was ready to tackle a role miles apart from most of her previous Broadway endeavors, including model and mistress to Georges Seurat in Sondheim and James Lapine’s stunning Sunday in the Park with George; English hat designer Emma who arrives wide-eyed in America in Song & Dance (Peters received her first Tony Award in this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for her tour de force performance); or the spirited, but naive Annie Oakley who eventually gets a man with a gun in Annie Get Your Gun (Peters’ most recent Broadway outing, which garnered her a second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical). When asked if this departure from her other instantly likeable characters was a factor in her decision to accept the part, Peters explains, “No, what really factored in was that it’s one of the greatest roles ever written with one of the greatest scores and one of the greatest books. And, how lucky am I to be able to do it and with such a wonderful director and with Arthur [Laurents] and Steve [Sondheim]’s input!” Laurents, a close friend of Peters, has wanted the actress to play the role for some time. “Arthur originally got me involved [in the Carnegie Hall benefit concert]. When we were having our first meeting at lunch, we were talking about some of the things he had written. We had gotten onto Gypsy, and he said, ‘You know, you should play that part. They want to do it again, but there's no reason to do it unless we do it in a different manner. And Rose actually looked like you. She was small and blonde.’”

Peters is equally fond of director Sam Mendes, the man responsible for the Tony-winning revival of Cabaret as well as the Academy Award-winning Best Picture “American Beauty.” “Sam’s fantastic, he really is. He delves very deeply into the script, and there’s a lot of life on the stage.” She also explains that her performance is a “deeply personal one,” and the demands of the book and the score require daily preparation. “I do vocal exercises for speaking. That’s very important,” says the actress, who can also be seen on screen in the new Michael Douglas film “It Runs in the Family.” “There’s a lot of vocal relaxation, lying on the floor, lots of breathing, so that your body’s relaxed, and it’s all coming from a good place so that you don’t hurt yourself.” Though the Gypsy score exacts a “demanding vocal range of emotions,” Peters says that “every song has such a reason to be there. It’s all very important. Every time I open my mouth to sing, [Rose] really has something to say, something she needs to say.”

Currently contracted to stay with the show for a year, Peters — a recent Grammy (for the Angel Records charmer, “Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein”) and Daytime Emmy (for the Showtime drama “Bobbie’s Girl”) nominee — says that she enjoys long Broadway runs, which give her a chance to delve deeper and deeper into a role. “I’m surprised constantly about the character, and I’m surprised about myself, which is kind of exciting. That’s the best thing about doing a role is if you can constantly surprise yourself, and it just keeps growing and growing.”

 

IN OTHER DIVA NEWS OF THE WEEK: How exciting that William Finn’s melodic and haunting Elegies: A Song Cycle is being recorded! The thrilling cast — including Betty Buckley, Carolee Carmello, Michael Rupert, Keith Byron Kirk and Christian Borle — head into the recording studio on Monday, April 28. The Fynsworth Alley CD will be available over the internet June 1 and in stores June 24. . . . Congratulations to Tony Award winners Patti LuPone and Nathan Lane, who are the first two inductees announced for the Fourth Annual Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame Gala June 27! The evening featuring performances by LuPone and Lane will open the 82nd season of the famed venue, boasting the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra under the direction of John Mauceri. In a statement, Deborah Borda, the executive director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association said, “Each year, our Hall of Fame celebration pays tribute to exemplary artists who have performed at the Bowl through the years — those who embody the spirit of the one-of-a-kind venue. We are thrilled to honor the remarkable Nathan Lane and Patti LuPone this year.” The fourth annual gala will also include a presentation of the Unsung Hero Award, which recognizes Los Angeles educators. Singer Josh Groban, the newly appointed “Music Matters” spokesperson will present the award. The evening, in fact, will benefit “Music Matters,” the children's music education programs of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association. Tickets for the concert only ($15 - $75), which begins at 8:30 PM, are available by calling (213) 480-3232. Tickets for the gala and concert ($500 - $1,250), including a pre-concert reception and dinner (at 5 PM) are available by calling (213) 972-3051.The Hollywood Bowl is located at 2301 Highland Avenue in Hollywood, CA; for more information, go to www.hollywoodbowl.org. . . . Cabaret legend Julie Wilson will offer three master classes at the Singers Forum in May. Wilson, who has often been called the quintessential interpreter of the popular American song, will share some of her wisdom May 2 (7-10 PM), May 3 (noon-3 PM) and May 4 (noon-3 PM) at the Singers Forum, which is now celebrating its 25th year as New York’s premiere vocal academy. Attendance for the classes is limited. The Singers Forum is located in Manhattan at 39 West 19th Street. For more information about the master classes or to register, call (212) 366-0541 or visit www.singersforum.org. . . . Susan Egan, Loretta Devine, Betty Garrett and Amanda McBroom are among the performers who will take part in a June 14 benefit for the Susan Love MD Breast Cancer Research Foundation. Entitled Life’s a Stitch! A Celebration of Love’s Alterations, the 8 PM event at California’s Alex Theatre is described as “an anthology of humorous writing, songs and cartoons that comes to life in theatre and song.” The evening will feature the works of Wendy Wasserstein, Delia Ephron, Anna Quindlen, Kathy Najimy and Gloria Steinem; others scheduled to perform include Mindy Sterling, Fred Willard, Michele Brourman, Marie Cain, Babbie Green, Dale Gonyea, Sharon McNight, Dale Raoul, Lindy Robbins, The Satellite Sisters, Peggy Billo, Jenifer Chatfield, Mary Van Arsdel, Judy Walstrum, Cindy Warden, Arlo Williams and The Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles. Directed by Kay Cole, the event will be hosted by cabaret veteran Andrea Marcovicci. John Boswell, Shelly Markham and Gerald Sternbach will serve as musical directors. Tickets for Life’s a Stitch! are priced between $35 and $125 and are available by calling (818) 243-2539 or by logging on to www.alextheatre.org. The Alex Theatre is located in Glendale, CA, at 216 North Brand Boulevard. . . . Three “Broadway Divas” go Down Under this summer to open the annual Adelaide Cabaret Festival. Side Show’s Emily Skinner, recent Les Miz star Lauren Kennedy and The Wild Party’s Julia Murney will perform special arrangements of material written by Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich at the third annual festival. The trio of gals will perform “The Broadway Divas” June 6 and 7 at the festival, which runs through June 22. Gordon Greenberg will direct the concerts, with musical direction by George Stitt. “The Broadway Divas,” which celebrates the women of Broadway, has already been performed in Brazil, Mexico, Canada and throughout the United States, and a New York premiere is expected next year at The Supper Club. Concertgoers can expect to hear the three belters wrap their voices around such tunes as “I Enjoy Being a Girl,” “Woman,” “Life on Broadway,” “Baltimore,” “New York Lullaby,” “Truly Scrumptious,” “Ice Cream,” “Candy Man,” “Heart and Music,” “Life of the Party,” “I Will Never Leave You,” “Big Wings” and other tunes from the musicals that have starred Skinner, Kennedy and Murney. “The Broadway Divas” will be performed at the Dunstan Playhouse, which is located at the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust, King William Road in Adelaide, South Australia. Call 08-8216-8600 for tickets. For more information about the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, visit www.adelaidecabaret.com.

 

REMINDERS

Betty Buckley in Concert:

May 31 at Benaroya Hall in Seattle, WA

 

Liz Callaway in Concert:

Now in The Look of Love at the Brooks Atkinson Theatre
April 28 in Richard Rodgers: Giving Back at the Kaufman Center in New York, NY
May 16 Broadway Showstoppers in Philadelphia, PA

 

Barbara Cook in Concert:

June 5-22 at the Kennedy Center for the Perf. Arts in Washington, DC
Sept. 7-8 at the Ravinia Festival in Chicago, IL
Sept. 13 at the Tulsa Opera House in Tulsa, OK
Sept. 20 in Bethlehem, PA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Oct. 3 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA; concert with Marilyn Horne
Nov. 22 at Carnegie Hall in New York, NY

 

Patti LuPone in Concert:

Aug. 5 at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia, PA ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")
Oct. 25 at Symphony Hall in Boston, MA (“Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda”)
Nov. 7-9 with the Houston Symphony ("Coulda, Woulda, Shoulda")

 

Maureen McGovern in Concert

May 30 - 31 at the Palmer Events Center with the Austin Symphony Orchestra in Austin, TX
June 7 at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis, MN

 

Christiane Noll in Concert

May 24 Williamsburg, VA with the Virginia Arts Festival
Aug. 28 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 29 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Aug. 30 San Diego, CA with San Diego Symphony
Oct. 11 Chattanooga, TN with Don Pippin
Dec. 31 Des Moines, IA with Des Moines Symphony & Brad Little

 

Well, that’s all for now. Happy diva-watching!