Peters burst onto the Broadway scene with roles in George M! and On the Town, for which she received her first Tony Award nomination. In 1974 she starred opposite Robert Preston in Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart's Mack & Mabel. The musical told the story of the ill-fated love affair between silent film director Mack Sennett and his major discovery and star, Mabel Normand.
Mack & Mabel premiered on Broadway Oct. 6, 1974, at the Majestic Theatre. Critics found the book troublesome, but Peters and the cast were praised for their performances. "With the splashy Mack & Mabel," wrote Clive Barnes in his New York Times review, "wide-eyed, diminutive and contralto Bernadette Peters found herself as a major Broadway star."
The show received a total of eight Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical, and Peters received a Best Actress in a Musical nomination for her portrayal of Mabel Normand.
Peters' next career highlight came in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine musical Sunday in the Park with George, inspired by George Seurat's painting "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte." The production starred Mandy Patinkin as George, an artist, and Peters as Dot, his mistress.
The show opened May 2, 1984, to mixed reviews. Frank Rich of the New York Times wrote: "It's anyone's guess whether the public will be shocked or delighted by Sunday in the Park. What I do know is that Mr. Sondheim and Mr. Lapine have created an audacious, haunting and, in its own intensely personal way, touching work."
The musical won the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for ten Tony Awards, including Best Actress in a Musical for Peters. It ran for 604 performances before closing Oct. 13, 1985.
The following year Peters starred in Song and Dance, a musical whose first act is told in a one-woman song cycle and whose second act is told through dance. Peters starred as Emma, an aspiring English hat designer who moves to New York.
Featuring music by Andrew Lloyd Webber, the production opened Sept. 18, 1985, at the Royale Theatre. Critics were not overly warm to the unconventional musical. The New York Times' Frank Rich commended the talented cast and praised Peters for her "vocal virtuosity" and "husky-toned charm," but he was quick to point out that "empty material remains empty, no matter how talented those who perform it."
The show received eight Tony nominations, with Peters taking home the award for Best Actress in a Musical. Song and Dance closed Nov. 8, 1986, following 474 performances. Betty Buckley replaced Peters in the show's final weeks.
In 1987 Peters appeared in the Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine fairy tale-inspired musical Into the Woods. She played the Witch in a cast that included Chip Zien as the Baker, Joanna Gleason as the Baker's Wife and Tom Aldredge as the Narrator.
The musical opened Nov. 5, 1987, at the Martin Beck Theatre. Of Peters' performance, the New York Times' Frank Rich wrote: "Without this star, who delivers her numbers with enough force to bring down houses...Into the Woods would be a lesser evening."
The production ran for 765 performances and won Tony Awards for its original score and book.
The revival opened March 4, 1999, at the Marquis Theatre. Ben Brantley of the New York Times gave Peters a glowing review: "She seems to pull us all into a collective embrace with a mere catch in her voice or a hint of a tear, and there are moments when nothing seems to exist but the star, the song and the audience."
The show won two Tony Awards, Best Revival of a Musical and Best Actress in a Musical for Peters. It went on to play 1,045 performances; notable replacements in the role of Annie included Reba McEntire and Susan Lucci.
In 2003 Peters took on yet another iconic role: Mama Rose in the Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy. Also featured in the cast were Tammy Blanchard as Louise and John Dossett as Herbie. Directed by Sam Mendes, the production opened May 1, 2003, at the Shubert Theatre.
Peters earned accolades for her portrayal of Rose, a role largely associated with its originator Ethel Merman. The New York Times' Ben Brantley wrote: "Ms. Peters has created the most complex and compelling portrait of her long career, and she has done this in ways that deviate radically from the Merman blueprint."
The production ran for 451 performances and Peters received her seventh Tony Award nomination for her work.
Peters was most recently seen on Broadway in the acclaimed 2011 revival of Follies. In 2012, she received the Isabelle Stevenson Award, honoring her charitable work with organizations like Broadway Barks, which she co-founded, and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.