Although Bernadette Peters won accolades for her stage roles in Dames at Sea, George M! and Mack and Mabel, it wasn't until her triptych of hits in the '80s — Sunday in the Park with George, Song & Dance and Into the Woods — that she solidified her place among the tiny pantheon of Broadway's great musical theatre stars, joining the likes of Ethel Merman and Mary Martin and those select few who possess the talent, star quality and drawing power that create a Broadway legend. About her Tony Award winning performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance former New York Times critic Frank Rich gushed, "As an actress, singer, comedienne and all-around warming presence, Bernadette Peters has no peer in the musical theatre right now." Peters followed these three hits with the title roles in The Goodbye Girl and Annie Get Your Gun, the latter bringing the singing actress her second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical. Also a star of the concert stage, recordings, television and film, Peters was recently cast opposite Michael Douglas in the upcoming feature film, "Smack in the Kisser." Her newest recording, "Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein," is now available in record stores, and the Tony winner will return to the Great White Way in 2003 in an eagerly-awaited revival of the Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim-Arthur Laurents classic, Gypsy, to be directed by Academy Award-winner Sam Mendes. Recently, Peters spoke to Playbill On-Line's Andrew Gans about her many new and upcoming projects.
Playbill On-Line: Tell me about the new Michael Douglas film that you're about to shoot.
Bernadette Peters: Fred Schepisi is the director. I had lunch with him, and he said, 'Michael and I thought it would be wonderful for you to do this role in this movie.' I play his wife.
PBOL: When does the film begin shooting?
BP: It starts shooting March 20.
PBOL: You also have the new album coming out. How did the idea of an all Rodgers and Hammerstein recording come about?
BP: It was actually brought to me by my producer, Richard [Jay-] Alexander...I've always loved Carousel. It was the first Broadway show I ever heard on record, but I didn't know if I wanted to sing any of the other music. I always sang "Mister Snow" and "If I Loved You" in [voice lessons], but when I started reinvestigating the music, I found myself connecting a lot to the songs, and then Steve Sondheim told me Oscar Hammerstein believed everything he wrote, so I found great truth in the songs. I never thought I'd sing "You'll Never Walk Alone," but it's just gorgeous and the sentiment is just beautiful...and "Some Enchanted Evening"...and "It Might As Well Be Spring" is such a perfect song.
PBOL: How did you go about choosing what 13 songs to record out of all of their songs?
BP: Some of them just came into my head as I was working, and I would try them — like "A Grand Night for Singing." It's a nice beginning, although I never thought I would be singing that song. Although I sang it, and I thought, "This is joyful singing." I was thinking of doing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," and it's also glorious that way, but it actually didn't relate to me too much. It's more of a man's song. PBOL: Did people suggest which songs to do?
BP: Some people had ideas about it, but I had to really connect to it. Jonathan Schwartz, who wrote the liner notes, had suggested...it's so beautiful...it just went out of my head. "Out of My Dreams!" [Laughs.] Jonathan Tunick [the arranger and conductor] loved that one also, and I started going over it. It's such a beautiful song.
PBOL: Is there any song you wish you had recorded that you hadn't?
BP: No, I think once I found these I stopped investigating. Are there songs you're missing? [Laughs.]
PBOL: The only one I hoped you might do is "This Nearly Was Mine."
BP: You know, I thought of that one, and I thought for sure I was going to do it. And then I started working on it. And I didn't feel it fit at this point in my life...I wanted to sing that one. That was on the top of my list...I remember seeing a woman named Felicia Saunders sing it years ago, and she was so great.
PBOL: Your last solo CD was practically all Sondheim. I wonder how you think Rodgers and Hammerstein is to sing versus singing Sondheim. Do you approach them any differently?
BP: No, I don't approach them any differently. I'm always going for what the song is saying, the truth in each song. I'm always tentative to move on [from Sondheim] because I love singing Sondheim so much, and I know I'm going to miss [his songs] when I leave them, but then I always go back to them and I love them. It's interesting, though, because I sang at the White House, and I sang all Rodgers and Hammerstein.
PBOL: How did that go?
BP: It went really, really well, and I enjoyed singing them. The interesting part is that Oscar was Steve's mentor, so maybe it's not so odd [to be singing these songs]. And Steve was the one who told me that Oscar believed everything he wrote. Again, I might have said this before, but I've taken these songs for granted because they were always so beautiful and they've always been in all our lives, and those melodies are so majestic. [Sings] "Some enchanted evening..." and I started pulling [the songs] apart, what he really was saying, and there's such substance in the lyrics and the music matches it, so they're lovely to sing.
PBOL: What's it like singing at the White House?
BP: It was great. I sang there once before for Clinton, but we sang in a tent in the Rose Garden, and it was for the President of Italy, and a lot of the people I don't think spoke English [Laughs.] They told me this was a rowdier bunch. They weren't rowdy, but they were great.
PBOL: Which songs did you sing?
BP: I sang "It's a Grand Night for Singing," then I sang "Mister Snow." I did "It Might As Well Be Spring" and then "There Is Nothing Like a Dame," which they loved. And "Some Enchanted Evening" and "You'll Never Walk Alone."
PBOL: There's starting to be some publicity for the revival of Gypsy. Is that a show you always wanted to do?
BP: Yeah. You know, as I kid I was in the road company of Gypsy. When you're a kid, you know everyone's lines and everybody's songs.
PBOL: Do you remember who played Mama Rose?
BP: Oh, yes. First it was Mitzi Green and then Mary McCarty.
PBOL: How did this production come about? Were you approached to do it?
BP: Actually, when I was going to do the Gay Men's Health Crisis concert at Carnegie Hall — [Gypsy librettist] Arthur [Laurents] got me involved in that. When we were having our first meeting at lunch, we were talking about some things he had written. And, we had gotten on to Gypsy. And he said, "You know, you should play that part. They want to do it again, but I don't want to do it again. 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...and terribly charming and got everything done that way." And then when Sam Mendes wanted to do it, he wanted to do it with me. And he wanted also to explore it in a new way.
PBOL: Where did you first meet Arthur Laurents? What's your connection with him?
BP: I guess I met him peripherally through Steve [Sondheim]. Actually, I hadn't met him but I'd hear, "Arthur thought you were wonderful." [Laughs.] He liked me in Into the Woods, and then I met him. Steve brought me to Arthur's New Year's Eve party, and we had a wonderful discussion at that time about where we were in our lives, and Arthur was very lovely to me. And we kind of connected from there, from that wonderful discussion. Then we did Anyone Can Whistle, the concert version at Carnegie Hall. So, it started evolving from there.
PBOL: Who else have you seen do the role of Mama Rose? Did you see Merman?
BP: No, I didn't see her. It was interesting because I was a kid auditioning at that time, but I never saw the show. The money that we had would go for lessons instead of going to the theatre. But I saw Merman sing a song or two on television I suppose. Then, of course, I saw Rosalind Russell in the movie and Mitzi and Mary. They both were fantastic, and I saw Tyne [Daly] do it. I don't think I saw Angela [Lansbury] because I was in Mack and Mabel at that time.
PBOL: Since it's not going to be done for a year, how early will you start working on the songs and memorizing the dialogue?
BP: I don't know, I haven't done it yet! [Laughs.] The songs I'll probably start a couple months before because they're really difficult songs.
PBOL: Any word yet on who might play Herbie opposite you?
BP: No, not yet. There are some names being bandied about. I don't know where they're up to yet.
PBOL: And it's going to be your second Merman role after Annie Get Your Gun.
BP: Who would have thought that I'd be doing these Merman roles? It's just that they're great roles.
PBOL: Are you still involved with the dog charities?
BP: Oh, yes. We're gearing up to have a meeting about Broadway Barks this season. That's a big, important issue in my life, to help animals. [Broadway Barks, now in its fifth year, is Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore's annual effort to encourage New Yorkers to adopt pets from area shelters.]
PBOL: Are there any other projects coming up for you?
BP: [Laughing.] Isn't that enough?! [Bernadette Peters will make her solo Radio City Music Hall concert debut on June 19 singing the songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein. She will be backed by a full concert orchestra under the direction of conductor-arranger Jonathan Tunick.]
— By Andrew Gans