DIVA TALK: Lost In Her Charms - an Interview with Bernadette Peters

Silence. Not the word usually associated with the bundle of talent that is Bernadette Peters, the Tony Award-winning actress currently starring as Annie Oakley in the eagerly-awaited revival of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at the Marquis Theatre. Nevertheless, that is exactly the effect Peters has on the audience when she wraps her golden voice around the Berlin classic, "Moonshine Lullaby," halfway into the musical's first act. As Peters makes the song her own, adding a trill here and a vocal inflection there, she extracts a poignancy in the lyric not found by the role's originator, the indomitable Ethel Merman, and the audience is caught completely under her spell.

Silence. Not the word usually associated with the bundle of talent that is Bernadette Peters, the Tony Award-winning actress currently starring as Annie Oakley in the eagerly-awaited revival of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at the Marquis Theatre. Nevertheless, that is exactly the effect Peters has on the audience when she wraps her golden voice around the Berlin classic, "Moonshine Lullaby," halfway into the musical's first act. As Peters makes the song her own, adding a trill here and a vocal inflection there, she extracts a poignancy in the lyric not found by the role's originator, the indomitable Ethel Merman, and the audience is caught completely under her spell.

Don't be fooled, however: With a revised book by Tony winner Peter ( Titanic) Stone that employs a Wild West show-within-a show concept, Peters also consistently sends the audience into convulsions of laughter. Arguably the most talented comedienne in the musical theatre today, Peters manages to extract a laugh from most every line she delivers. Just listen to the way the audience roars when her character -- who learns to read during the course of the show -- laboriously sounds out the name of her love and rival, Frank Butler. "It just happened in rehearsals one day," Peters says modestly of this comical bit. "I was just fooling around, and it kind of came out."

It was during the show's out-of-town tryout at Washington's Kennedy Center that Peters spoke about her newest role, which is very loosely based on the sharpshooting feats of the legendary Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses. "The interesting thing about [Annie] and me," relates Peters, "is that she had one thing she could do very well, but in her private life she was different than in her performing life. She was a performer, but in private she was kind of quiet. And, that's like me because I'm not an extrovert really."

AGYG marks Peters' eighth Broadway outing since her debut in 1968's George M! It was in the 1980s, however, that she became synonymous with the best the musical theatre had to offer. Her reintroduction to the world of musical theatre began with a glowing, heartfelt portrayal of Dot in Stephen Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George, which displayed her talents as both a singer and an actress. That was followed by a tour-de-force performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance, which brought her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, and she reconfirmed her status as one of the most exciting performers of her generation as the Witch in another Sondheim musical, Into the Woods. Since that time she has returned to Broadway just once, opposite Martin Short in the Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch musical The Goodbye Girl, for which she received her fifth Tony nomination.

During the past two decades, Peters had frequently been offered leading roles in musical revivals, but she was averse to the idea. "When revivals used to be done," says Peters, "they were often done in a way that was a 'walk down memory lane,' which I didn't like. For me a show has to unfold in front of you for the first time no matter if it's an old show or a new show. So that was the idea behind [ Annie Get Your Gun] with all the creative people involved, and that's why I was interested in it. And," she continues, "when I read the script, I saw a wonderful character there. I saw this pure spirit who says what she's feeling and doesn't hold back, which is pretty refreshing these days."
Not only does AGYG enable Peters to portray this talented free spirit, but she also gets to sing a score chock-full of Irving Berlin gems: "There's No Business Like Show Business," "Doin' What Comes Natur'lly," "You Can't Get a Man With a Gun," the aforementioned "Moonshine Lullaby," "They Say It's Wonderful," and that's just in the first act. Does she find such a rigorous vocal routine tiring? Says Peters: "You know, it's not [tiring] because it feeds me back so much, and it's fun to do . . . During Song & Dance [vocal coach Adrienne Angel] really taught me how to sing -- she gave me a great gift. She taught me how to sing so I could really use my instrument, so if I hear something I can hit it, and I know it will be there."

Peters also has high praise for AGYG's director, Graciela Daniele, who has earned ten Tony nominations for her work on such shows as Ragtime, Once on This Island and The Rink. "Graci's wonderful," Peters enthuses. "She makes it a creative, open place, and boy that's important because you get the best out of everyone like that. You get all the creative juices flowing. She's very open and she has great ideas, and she recognizes when [someone else's] idea is good. I adore her." Peters is equally enthusiastic about her hand-picked co-star, Tom Wopat, best known for his role on TV's "Dukes of Hazzard," but who has also appeared on Broadway in I Love My Wife and more recently as the hard-boiled detective in Cy Coleman's City of Angels. "Tom's got a beautiful voice, and he's a great guy, easy to work with and also wonderful onstage. I think he's a perfect Frank Butler." And her co-star tosses a similar bouquet with this compliment: "I can't think of anyone else," says Wopat, "who has the range that she has onstage, musically and acting. She's got all the comic, all the dramatic, and it's amazing to see. It's a delight to work with her."

In addition to her work on Broadway, TV and in film, Peters maintains a thriving concert career that brings her to many of the finest venues around the country and the world. In fact, she recently reprised her critically-praised, sold-out Carnegie Hall concert for London audiences, and the results will be broadcast this spring on PBS stations around the country. The concert featured a second act devoted solely to the songs of Stephen Sondheim, a composer whose work seems to fit Peters' voice and style perfectly: "I just love the way he writes," says Peters. "He takes on a topic. He writes it so fully and deeply that it's always a feast. You never get bored singing it -- there are always layers and layers to go into." When rehearsals began for AGYG, Peters was actually a bit hesitant to delve into the Irving Berlin canon and leave Sondheim, at least for now, behind. "I was telling Steve," she admits, "that I'm really going to miss [his] lyrics and hearing these thoughts, and I was afraid to move to Irving, but I had forgotten that I had always loved Irving, and forgot how much. I just love these songs, especially 'Lost in His Arms,' which I think is such a great song."

And, in whose arms does Peters get lost you might ask? Between The Goodbye Girl and AGYG, the actress took a stroll down the wedding aisle for the first time, marrying investment advisor Michael Wittenberg. "Now I have a husband to go home to," Peters explains, "[and marriage has] been great. It's been like this secure, rooted place, so it allows my tree to branch out. I've never worked as much since I've been married, taking risks and doing things." Wittenberg also shares her love for animals; in fact, the couple recently adopted two puppies, a pit bull named Stella from the CACC and a mixed terrier called Kramer -- for the way he slides into a room like the "Seinfeld" character -- from the ASPCA. Peters devotes a portion of her time to the well-being of animals in the city, and she is also heavily involved in a handful of AIDS-related charities, including the Gay Men's Health Crisis, for which she performed her brilliant solo Carnegie Hall concert. "[Book writer] Arthur Laurents called me [a few years ago] and said, 'We're opening the Roof Garden [at GMHC], and we need somebody to come over and be glamorous,'" Peters says with a laugh. "I went there and I thought, 'God, this is a beautiful place. This is a peaceful and important place for people, to get quiet within yourself,' and I was very impressed with that to begin with. And, since then Arthur would call me with ideas. I'm also involved with Broadway Cares and God's Love We Deliver. It's all important."

For now, Peters is happily back on Broadway, where she has added another talent to her already impressive list: sharpshooter. The real Annie Oakley was a fabulous shot, and Peters studied this skill before rehearsals began. "It was a little shocking," she reveals, "because it hits you in the face. You have to hold it to your cheek, and the rebound hits you in the face." Did she hit the target? "Well, yes," Peters adds with a smile, "but I didn't know it because my eyes were closed." And, it seems, she's hit the target again with her latest Broadway outing. A bull's eye, in fact.

**Note: Bernadette's upcoming TV appearances have been changed. Peters will now appear on "Live with Regis and Kathie Lee" on Tuesday, March 23 on ABC. She will join the ladies of "The View" (ABC) sometime in April. Stay tuned for that air date.

IN OTHER NEWS The uniquely talented Betty Buckley will begin her first major stand at the Cafe Carlyle, the cabaret room in the Carlyle Hotel, on March 16. The two-week engagement concludes on Saturday, March 27; call (212) 570-7189 for reservations . . . Donna Bullock, who currently stars as Mother in the Broadway company of Ragtime, had this to say- to In Theater writer Marc Miller--about her role's predecessor, Marin Mazzie,: "The one thing I can say about Marin is that when I saw her early on in Toronto, I learned a lot All I had was a script, and the music. The performance informed a lot of things that I'd been hearing directorially. But then I completely forgot it, of course, because I started building my own, and I saw that we're completely different. For one thing, I'm older than Marin. Obviously, I don't have a huge voice like Marin; I'm a smaller, frailer being. We're apples and oranges. But in terms of choices, I think we both serve the play."


BB concert line-up:
April 17 at the Lehman Center for the Perf. Arts in Bronx, NY
April 23 at the College of New Jersey in Erwing, NJ
May 3 at the Orchestra Hall, Symphony Center in Chicago, Ill.

On March 5, 6, and 7 Patti LuPone will bring her new concert act-- Matters of the Heart--to Baltimore, where she will appear with the Baltimore Symphony; call 410-783-8000 for tickets. (Also, La LuPone will join opera star Bryn Terfel for a concert version of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd to be held at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall from May 4 to May 6 in the year 2000. The performers will be backed by the New York Philharmonic, and the event, which will be recorded, will celebrate Sondheim's 70th birthday.)

March 12 brings Mason to the Tilles Hall at Long Island University. Her 8pm concert is sold out that evening, but tickets are available for the 10 pm show; call (516) 299-3100. And, Karen will return to the Davenports Cabaret in Chicago for a three-week run beginning March 17. Call (773) 278-1830 for reservations.

Those super Side Show stars, Alice Ripely and Emily Skinner, will be on hand at the New Voices Theatre Ensemble's benefit on Monday, March 1 to sing selections from their acclaimed new CD, "Duets." The benefit, which will include cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, the women's performance and a silent auction, will be held in the Penthouse Suite of the Royalton Hotel on West 44th Street in NYC. Tickets are priced between $50 and $1,000 and may be purchased by calling (212) 539-4525. The New Voices Theatre Ensemble is a not-for-profit company that produces original and classic works at Synchronicity Space in Soho . . . Ripley will also perform her cabaret act at the West Bank Cafe (42nd St. and 9th Avenue) on Sunday, February 28 at 9:30 pm. There is a $15 cover; call (212) 695-6909 for reservations.

The 13th annual MAC Awards, the Oscars of the New York cabaret scene, will honor Barbara Cook and her musical director, Wally Harper, with a Lifetime Achievement Award on Monday, April 5 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall. Betty Buckley, another MAC Award winner, will perform as well. And, Liza Minnelli, who will receive the MAC Board of Directors Award, is expected to perform with Billy Stritch. Tickets range from $20-$100 and will be available at the Town Hall box office and through TicketMaster, beginning about March 1. For more information about MAC, call (212) 465-2662.

This annual concert to benefit the Phyllis Newman Women's Health Initiative of The Actors' Fund of America will be held on Monday, March 1 at 7 p.m. at the Shubert Theatre (225 West 44th Street). At this point, the remarkable one-night-only event will feature these "dames": Loni Ackerman, Joy Behar, Kate Burton, Ayodele Casel, Lea DeLaria, Dorothy Delay, Patricia Elliott, Melissa Errico, Amanda Green, Uta Hagen, Joan Hamburg, Dee Hoty, Anne Jackson, Marcia Lewis, Tisidii Le Loka, Nancy Lemanger, Anna Manahan, Saeka Matsuyama, Sally Mayes, Anne Meara, Donna Murphy, Bebe Neuwirth, Phyllis Newman, Christiane Noll, Nancy Opel, Christine Pedi, Daisy Prince, Faith Prince, Denise Roberts, Mary Testa, Marisa Tomei, Rachel York and female cast members from virtually every show. For tickets, call the DAME LINE at 1-888-DAME-TIX (1-888-326 3849); tickets range from $40 to $1,000.

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

by Andrew Gans
e-mail me at agans@playbill.com

Diva Talk is dedicated to the memory of Matthew Shepard, 1976 -1998.