DIVA TALK: Celebrating Sondheim with Tony Winner Bernadette Peters

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Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters (Photo by Kurt Sneddon)

This month we celebrate the 80th birthday of Stephen Sondheim by chatting with several of the women most associated with the work of the award-winning composer-lyricist. First up is Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, who created roles in both Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods and also starred in the Sam Mendes-directed revival of Gypsy. Peters, who is currently filming the new motion picture "Coming up Roses," will take part in all three upcoming Sondheim celebrations in Manhattan: March 15-16 with the New York Philharmonic, March 22 for the Roundabout Theatre Company and April 26 at City Center.

"The way I first became really familiar with [Stephen Sondheim's] music," Bernadette Peters recently said, "was when I was in London, and I saw Side by Side by Sondheim. People would often say at that time, 'Oh, his music is unapproachable.' What was so weird is I came away from the show, and the melodies and the songs, I couldn't get them out of my head. I was humming 'Side by side. Isn't it rich? Isn't it cozy…' They were like big show tunes in my head."

"That was also the first time I heard 'Broadway Baby' slowed down," adds Peters, referring to the Follies tune that would become one of her signatures. That song was the first Sondheim Peters would record, on her 1981 solo album "Now Playing." Years later, the song would again find its way to disc on Peters' 1997 recording, "Sondheim, Etc.: Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall."

Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods
photo by Martha Swope

"I started doing that song . . . in one of my first concerts when I was in Vegas, [and] it kept evolving. I don't do it much anymore," Peters says. "It's funny, but you start to do other things. The last time I did it, it was with Steve playing the piano. He asked me to join him at a benefit, I believe for the Young Playwrights, in somebody's home. He played, and I sang 'Broadway Baby,' and I sang 'Children and Art.' But to have him play 'Broadway Baby,' with his original chords and song stylings, as they say, is just thrilling and amazing. I have this big arrangement, but just to hear him, with the purity of what he had written, is so great." Peters recalls that she first met Sondheim in 1971. "I was in Joe Allen's, and I was with some people, and he knew someone I was with, and he sat down at the table, and I was dumbstruck," she laughs. It would be 13 years after that initial meeting when the two-time Tony-winning actress would get the chance to star in her first Sondheim musical on Broadway, Sunday in the Park with George. Peters became attached to the project prior to its developmental run at Playwrights Horizons. "[ Sunday director and librettist] James [Lapine] called," Peters says, "and they sent this synopsis, this outline, of what the show was. They explained to me there's a painting, and the show is about the people in the painting and an artist, and Steve's writing the music, and it was just a tryout, and I thought, 'This is great!'" Prior to Sunday, Peters had not been on Broadway since the short-lived but tuneful Jerry Herman musical Mack & Mabel a decade earlier. She spent those ten intervening years carving out a name for herself in Hollywood with appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show," "Maude," "All in the Family," and her own series "All's Fair," as well as memorable turns in the films "The Jerk," "Silent Movie," " Annie" and "Pennies from Heaven." When asked about her decision to take the role of model Dot in the then-unknown Sunday property, Peters says, "Well, it was all pluses. It was a Steve Sondheim score. It was a great story that James wrote. I didn't know how great he was going to be — but I knew the outline — as the director. It wasn't a full commitment — no one said it was going to Broadway yet. It was just a tryout, so it just seemed like all pluses."

Peters and Robert Westenberg in Sunday in the Park with George
photo by Martha Swoope

Peters says the development of Sunday at Playwrights "was just a thrill after thrill every day, because [Sondheim] was writing the score as we were doing it. And we really, basically, just had the first act. We did the second act, I think, maybe three performances, the two on Saturday and the Sunday matinee. He kept writing the first act and adding songs. Every time a song would come in, we'd all be sitting in the audience at Playwrights, listening to this amazing music, and these amazing songs. I mean, they were amazing!" Peters' performance in the eventual Broadway production of Sunday, it should be noted, was pretty amazing, too. For this writer, no one has ever matched the warmth, humor (and voice) that she brought to the roles of Dot and Marie; Peters received both Tony and Drama Desk nominations for her work.

Following Sunday, Peters would star in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song & Dance as British hat designer Emma, a tour de force that brought the actress her first Tony Award. In 1987 the chance to star as a wise, but crooked-fingered witch in another Stephen Sondheim musical, the fairy-tale-themed Into the Woods, presented itself: "I was in Sunday in the Park, and I loved the show so much, and I learned so much from being in a Lapine/Sondheim show. With Into the Woods, when the role was available, I said to James, 'Okay, I'll do it!" Although Peters had not taken part in the musical's workshop, she says, "I was so focused on learning the role, it wasn't like I felt like I was so far behind everyone. I think it was being reblocked anyway, but no one made me feel that [I was behind], so that was nice."

And, what does it mean to the actress to have created roles in two of Sondheim's Broadway musicals? "It's pretty nice, isn't it, when you think about it," she says with a laugh. "I feel so fortunate to get the chance to sing his music. So if I'm in something new, that's great. I don't care if it's new or not new. I just like to sing his music." Peters, of course, would bring new dimension to the role of Rose years later in the 2003 Broadway revival of one of Sondheim's early musicals, Gypsy, which features lyrics by Sondheim, music by the late Jule Styne and a book by Arthur Laurents.

Bernadette Peters in Gypsy
photo by Joan Marcus

"You know, I mentioned that at [my fall benefit concert, Bernadette Peters: A Special Concert for Broadway Barks Because Broadway Cares]. I was saying to Arthur Laurents, ' Gypsy and West Side Story are competing as the best musical ever written, but what do you care? You wrote them both! And so did you, Steve!' Two blockbusters, right? Two of the very best musicals ever written." There was another especially notable Peters concert, a 1996 evening that marked the singing actress' solo Carnegie Hall debut and featured a second act devoted solely to the music of Stephen Sondheim. When asked about the process of learning so many new tunes for that sold-out evening, Peters says, "Basically, I'm learning [the songs] technically, but it's wonderful because you can figure out what's going on with the character at the same time, which helps you to learn the song, because he really writes for character. A quarter note is a quarter note for a reason, and it's usually what the character is feeling. The character's angry, or passionate, or upset — there's a reason why you're holding the note, or a reason why it's a short note. It's actually easier to learn because of that, because everything makes sense."

Working on new material with Sondheim, Peters says, is "also great [because] he explains it to you. He plays it for you, and he sings it for you. The most wonderful thing is to have the author there to ask questions. Imagine if we had Shakespeare there, and we could ask questions of Shakespeare. Well, we have Steve right there. And when you ask him questions, he really thinks it through and decides why it was written, and what his reasoning was, and what it means."

Peters says that Sondheim's songs are different from other composers "because he writes the music and the lyrics. It's combined. They're about very deep and interesting things. I'm always learning about life singing his songs. And I'm bringing myself to experiences that I like experiencing. The positive ones, anyway," she laughs, "over and over." Among her very favorites are "No One Is Alone" and "With so Little to Be Sure Of." "And every time I do a [concert]," Peters adds, "I always throw in more Sondheim. 'I want to sing that one! I want to sing that one!'" In fact, in her November concert at Broadway's Minskoff Theatre, Peters included two songs from Follies. Her performances of "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind" were so revelatory that someone needs to mount a production of Follies so that Peters can work her unique brand of magic in the role of the former follies star, Sally Durant Plummer. And, what does Peters think Sondheim's legacy to the musical theatre is? "Oh my God," she says. "Everything. I mean, he's someone that really changed the face of musical theatre. And at first, his shows seemed odd to people, but as we evolved, they make so much sense now. They were just so ahead of people's perception, I think . . . When we did the ten-year reunion of Into the Woods, my thrill was to sit in the middle of all that music, and listen to everyone sing that score. That's the thing about his music: When you have a great song, with great lyrics, great ideas, thoughts, feelings, it gets deeper and deeper — especially as you go through life and learn more about yourself."

DIVA TIDBITS
There was a moment during Marilyn Maye's performance this past Tuesday evening when I found myself moving my head and body back and forth to the music, and I looked around and most of the audience at Feinstein's at Loews Regency was doing the same thing. Such is the magic of the 81-year-old performer, who is currently playing the Manhattan nightspot through March 13. It is easy to see why the veteran singer was a favorite guest on "The Tonight Show" (she made a record-breaking 76 appearances on the NBC chat show): Maye is a gifted musician who boasts a vocal mastery like few of any age. She is also, simply, a joy to watch and listen to; in fact, the word "joy" is one that came to mind several times throughout her generous set that features a mix of standards ("The Song Is You," and a terrific Cole Porter medley), rarities (Blossom Dearie's great "Bye Bye Country Boy"), two Stephen Sondheim offerings ("Old Friend" and "Being Alive") and her own signature tunes ("Guess Who I Saw Today"). If, like me, you have never previously had the chance to enjoy Maye's talents, I suggest you head over to Feinstein's and watch the singer weave a magic spell over the audience. [Feinstein's is located at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street in New York City. For ticket reservations and club information, call (212) 339-4095 or visit feinsteinsatloewsregency.com and TicketWeb.com.]

This week we launched Celeb PlayBlogger, a new feature that will run sporadically in PlayBlog. Our first guest celebrity blogger was Tony Award winner Victoria Clark, the dazzling singing actress who won her Tony for her performance in Lincoln Center Theater's production of The Light in the Piazza. Clark is back at LCT in Andrew Bovell's award-winning family drama When the Rain Stops Falling, which will officially open at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater March 8. Clark blogged March 1-5. To read her entertaining entries, click here.

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