It was six years ago when three-time Tony recipient Bernadette Peters last graced the Broadway stage, starring in the acclaimed revival of Follies that originated at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Of course, the multi-talented actor, who boasts one of the greatest voices in the musical theatre, has been busy, opening City Center's premiere of Stephen Sondheim and Wynton Marsalis' A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair and co-starring in two currently running TV series: Mozart in the Jungle and The Good Fight.
But it's the Broadway stage where Peters solidified her reputation as one of the most gifted singing actors in the business; in fact, like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin before her, she is among that tiny group of stars whose name is synonymous with the musical theatre. So, it only seems fitting that she should step into the title role of Hello, Dolly!, a part created by Carol Channing and later played by Merman, Martin, and some of the biggest names in entertainment.
The current revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart classic, directed by Jerry Zaks, opened in April 2017 with Grammy-winning stage and screen star Bette Midler in the title role and was, arguably, the most uplifting production of the 2016–2017 season. Audiences burst into spontaneous applause at the rainbow of colors and sounds in Herman's toe-tapping “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” with attendees leaving the Shubert floating on a musical theatre cloud.
So it's no surprise that Peters believes it's the perfect time for Hello, Dolly! “I love that it's happening now,” she says, “because there's so much going on in the world that's not positive, and this is all about being optimistic and feeling good. It's very joyful, and that's important right now.”
Peters says when she was first approached to join the Tony-winning production, she decided to “just look at [the script]…. I’m starting from scratch [with the material], and I thought, ‘This is a wonderful story about a woman who decides to rejoin the human race after being a widow for 10 years.’ And, consequently, in doing that, she finds love.”
A foremost interpreter of the songs of Stephen Sondheim, playing more lead roles in New York productions of his musicals than any other actor, Peters also has a long history with Dolly! composer Herman, having created the role of silent-screen star Mabel Normand in Mack & Mabel. Peters says what stands out about working with Herman on that 1974 musical is “how positive and supportive he was—and how excited he was. He's a very supportive presence to have around.”
The star of Sunday in the Park With George, Into the Woods, Song and Dance, Annie Get Your Gun, and more is similarly enthusiastic about her latest director, four-time Tony winner Zaks. “He is adorable, wonderful,” says Peters. “If I say, ‘Gee, you know, Jerry, I'd like to try…,’ he says, ‘Yes, yes, and yes. And, I'll tell you if it doesn't feel right.’ Nothing's in stone. It's for everybody to create, which is so smart, because you don't want to stick somebody with someone else's style. You want it to feel fresh… for that person to create Dolly or to create Horace.”
Peters’ Horace—the famous half-millionaire—is Victor Garber, who also made his name in the theatre before becoming one of the busiest character actors in TV and film. One of those TV outings was the 1997 broadcast of Cinderella, which cast Garber as King Maximillian and Peters as Cinderella’s Stepmother. “I never had a scene with Victor, but he's a lovely, lovely person,” Peters says. “I loved being with him, getting to know him, and I'm looking forward to being onstage with him. He's going to be a wonderful Horace.”
When asked how she would describe Dolly, Peters says with a laugh, “Well, she's very good at improvising! Very good at trusting that things will turn out well, just as she wants them to, because she knows how to improvise to get them to get that way. And, I think, she's sort of brave in a way, because she talks about going away ’from the lights of 14th Street and into my personal haze,’ and she's decided to [live life to the fullest].”
Peters is also cognizant of the rich history of the musical, including original star Channing, who played the role on and off for decades. “My God, she took it around the country. It's a big show, believe me. My hat is off to her. She's a strong, strong woman. It's a wonderful show, it's a wonderful part, and I'm glad that I am joining that sisterhood.”