DIVA TALK: Catching Up with Tony Winner and "Living Proof" Star Bernadette Peters

News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.

Tony winner Bernadette Peters.
Tony winner Bernadette Peters.

BERNADETTE PETERS
It was an exceptionally busy summer for two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters, who also recently added best-selling children's author (for the Blue Apple Books tome "Broadway Barks") to her lengthy list of accomplishments. Peters, who spent the summer touring her concert act to several cities throughout the country, also filmed an emotional and critically acclaimed guest appearance on the season premiere of the ABC hit "Grey's Anatomy" and a role in the powerful new Lifetime film "Living Proof," which debuts Oct. 18 at 9 PM ET.

"Living Proof," which charts Dr. Dennis Slamon's creation of the breast cancer drug Herceptin, boasts a starry cast led by Harry Connick, Jr. as the UCLA doctor, with Peters, Jennifer Coolidge, Regina King, Tammy Blanchard and Trudie Styler as some of the breast cancer patients who were involved in the early drug trials. Also featured in the film, which was produced by Renée Zellweger, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, are Angie Harmon, John Benjamin Hickey, Swoosie Kurtz, Paula Cale Lisbe and Amy Madigan.

"I had worked with Craig and Neil before," Peters said earlier this week. "The last time was on 'Cinderella' on television with Brandy. When this script came up, they offered me the role. It's such an important movie, and these women have such important stories to tell." Peters says she was deeply affected when she originally read the script. "They made the requirements [for the later drug trials] so stringent that . . . some of the women who were helped [by the drug in the first trial] . . . couldn't continue with the study, which I found heartbreaking."

Peters says filming "Living Proof" was an emotional experience, but her co-stars were a joy. "[Harry Connick, Jr.] is great. I always knew he was so talented. He's one of the most talented and funny people and he's also one of the kindest — he's a darling guy. Everybody was great in it. And, Regina King, at the end of the film she just killed in this movie."

Bernadette Peters in "Living Proof"
photo by Skip Bolen, Lifetime Networks, 2008

Peters plays Barbara, an art teacher, who, though initially reluctant to take part in the study, was completely cured by Herceptin. As in her stage work, Peters is able to choose from an expansive emotional palette to color the character, and her performance — which is moving, humorous and ultimately spirit-raising — is a striking reminder why we need to get the actress back on the Broadway stage. Peters had the chance to meet the woman whose story was the basis for her character. "[Barbara] came to the premiere [of the film]," says Peters. "I met her at the lunch, and I just burst into tears."

The Song & Dance and Annie Get Your Gun Tony winner also had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Slamon, whose life-saving work is the focus of the film. "I sat next to him at the lunch. He couldn't stand all the attention — he's really about being in the laboratory. He's so close to finding a cure for ovarian cancer, and people in his group are working on a cure for prostate cancer, too. They're about two years away from both. Now he's going to go back and find out why Herceptin works so well for some people and not for others. When I said, 'You have to go back and deconstruct it,' his eyes lit up! 'Yes that's right! I have to go back and deconstruct it and figure it out, pull it apart, why it works for her…' That's what he lives for."

At the premiere Peters also had the chance to join Connick, Jr. in song. "I sang 'No One Is Alone,' which resonated so, and then Harry wrote this song called 'Song for the Hopeful,' which is really a prayer, and we sang it that way. He has a recording of the song with a choral group and rhythm under it, but he and I did it just slow and beautiful. It was such an honor to sing with him. I've always admired him."

Peters explains, "What I really came with from this film was there is a drug [Herceptin] I had never heard of, and I realized that some little girl who is watching Lifetime is going to hear about it, and she's going to think, 'Oh, my God, this could save my mother's life. This could save my life.' There are options out there that can save women's lives. That's what's so important about this movie. I haven't had cancer touch my life — I've been very lucky. I do have a dear friend, but she's been cancer-free for about 15 years now. Women that have friends [with breast cancer], they have heard of the drug. But people who haven't, haven't heard about it. It's an important drug that people don't know about. It's an important option. So many women watch Lifetime. It's going to save so many lives."

Peters in "Grey's Anatomy"
photo by ABC TV

Peters says it was while she was filming "Living Proof" that the script arrived for the recently aired season-premiere episode of "Grey's Anatomy." "The weird thing was," Peters says, "here we are doing 'Living Proof,' and we talk about the Fire and Ice Ball. That's the event to raise money for breast cancer, and then as I'm finishing this up, I get the script for 'Grey's Anatomy,' and my character is in a limousine accident going to the Fire and Ice Ball." By the time she began filming her "Grey's Anatomy" guest role, about which there is already Emmy buzz, Peters says the script had been totally rewritten. "But [the rewritten version] was great. The writing is wonderful, and I loved working with Kathy Baker. Most of my scenes were with her, and we worked really well together." One of the rewrites included a name change of her on-screen husband: He would now be called Michael, which was also the first name of Peters' late husband, the investment adviser who was killed in a helicopter crash in 2005.

When she read the revised script and noticed the name change, Peters says, "I thought, 'Oh, I'm just not going to say anything.' I'll just do my work." Peters says, however, the name didn't affect her emotionally while shooting the scenes. "You'd think it would," she admits, "but it really didn't because [the actor] so didn't look like Michael."

When asked to describe the differences and challenges of acting for the camera versus acting onstage, Peters says, "You have more time onstage. You have more time to figure things out, more discovery time. If it's a musical, you have a little less time because there's more to fit in in the day. There are musical numbers and staging and a lot more people involved. . . . In [film and television], you basically have to do your work before you get there, especially on this movie ['Living Proof']. We shot it in a really short amount of time. It was like three weeks, and we stayed on schedule. . . You get a rehearsal on the day of. You rehearse it, you figure it out, and then you bring in the crew to look at it because they have to light it. And then you go away and they light it, and then you come back and you shoot it. . . . It's all about capturing the moment when the cameras are rolling. It's about being as available to yourself and being in the moment, catching the moment and surprising yourself as much as you can. . . . [In theatre] you have the first four weeks to sort of explore and find your character. And the joy of being in the run of a play is you get to go deeper and deeper and deeper into it, which is really amazing."

Peters also enjoys sharing her concert act with audiences around the country. For those who've heard Peters on recording or watched her many television musical appearances, the excitement of her rangy belt and the ethereal sound of her rounded, golden soprano tones are evident. We also know the power of her interpretative skills, yet enjoying her live in a concert setting is a wholly different experience. Not only does she bring all of the aforementioned qualities, but Peters is also a thrilling entertainer who possesses a natural warmth that seems to spread throughout whatever venue she is performing. By the end of a Peters concert, one feels uplifted by the charms and good spirits of the multi-talented actress. In the next few months, Peters will bring her concert to cities in Maryland, Washington, Colorado, Florida, Texas and Pennsylvania.

The newest additions to her show, which features heavy doses of Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein as well as tunes from her many award-winning performances, are the jazz standard "Fever" and the classic Disney tune "When You Wish Upon a Star." "I've also added the Sweeney Todd organ [music] before I sing 'Johanna,'" Peters says. "I went to Disney Hall, and they had an organ in the wall. Every time I've gone to one of those theatres, I've always wanted to use the organ . . .so we hired an organist to play it. The whole hall shook. It was so exciting." (Peters says her next solo album will likely feature a trio of musicians performing a mix of standards.)

Kramer doll and "Broadway Barks" book

Peters is equally excited about her second children's book — based on the life of her dog Stella — and the debut of a new plush toy based on the character of Kramer (her other rescued dog) in her best-selling book "Broadway Barks." "[The Kramer toy is] adorable," says Peters. "It's like the illustrations in the book. It's beautiful. I'll be at FAO Schwarz [Nov. 8] starting at one o'clock [to promote the toy], and I can sign the bottom of the toy, I can sign the book. They make great Christmas gifts, and the money goes to shelter animals." Peters has also penned her second song; her first, "Kramer's Song," now serves as an encore to her concert act. "I couldn't believe it, but the [second] song came out," she laughs. "[The songs] are like my little miracles." "When you think that ten years ago, [ Mary Tyler Moore and I] started [the pet-adopt-a-thon charity] Broadway Barks with six shelters and eight animals adopted. Last year we had 26 shelters because that's all they could fit [in Shubert Alley]. Now we even have vans up and down the street, so the animals can be in there, too. We have cats available also. Last year we adopted 100 animals, and this past year we adopted 125 animals. So people finally understand, "Come to Broadway Barks, come to the adopt-a-thon event and adopt!" And I am so proud that the event belongs now to the Broadway community. It's their event, and they look forward to it. Nathan Lane came this year, and last year Angela Lansbury opened it. They come, and they love it. It's really pet therapy. Pets make you feel amazing. They're really creatures here for us to make our lives better. They're very healing."

Mary Tyler Moore and Bernadette Peters at Broadway Barks 2008
photo by Aubrey Reuben

As for her own dogs, Peters says that Kramer is particularly fond of music. "His tail will wag in time to the music. He loves when I sing to him. He loves his song ['Kramer's Song'] …If I'm rescuing dogs, and they're in the back of the Jeep, they may be barking and carrying on. If I start to sing the song, they quiet down and go to sleep." And, does Peters have plans to return to the Broadway stage? "There are some things in the air," she says, "but it's got to be worth doing eight shows a week, something really exciting or something I want to do. I'm really enjoying doing the television that I've done [and] the concerts, which I love doing, and writing these books and raising money for my charities, which are shelter animals and Broadway Cares and a school called Standing Tall, which is a school for severely immobilized, handicapped children. So that's really how I'm spending my time, but I'm pretty amazed that I'm writing these books and the songs are coming out and I get to perform them!"

[Peters will appear with her rescue dog Kramer at FAO Schwarz, 767 Fifth Avenue at 58th Street, Nov. 8 at 1 PM. She will read her book "Broadway Barks," answer questions and autograph copies of the book and the new Kramer plush toy, which will also be on sale. . . For Bernadette Peters concert dates, visit www.bernadettepeters.com. . . . For more information about "Living Proof," which debuts Oct. 18 at 9 PM ET on Lifetime, visit www.mylifetime.com. Encore air dates are Oct. 19 at 8 PM and Oct. 20 at 9 PM.]

DIVA TIDBITS
The Roundabout Theatre Company will present a one-night-only gala concert reading of Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's Tony Award-winning A Little Night Music Jan. 12, 2009, at the Nokia Theatre Times Square. Scott Ellis ( She Loves Me, 1776, Curtains) will direct the 7:30 PM performance, which will boast the talents of Natasha Richardson (Desirée Armfeldt), Victor Garber (Frederick Egerman), Christine Baranski (Countess Charlotte Malcolm), Laura Benanti (Anne Egerman), Marc Kudisch (Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm) and Vanessa Redgrave (Madame Armfeldt). Additional casting will be announced shortly. Musical director Paul Gemignani will lead a 27-member orchestra with orchestrations penned by Jonathan Tunick. Tickets, priced $150-$2,500, will be available through Oct. 30 through an arrangement with American Express. Beginning Oct. 31 tickets will go on sale to the general public by calling (212) 719-1300 or by visiting www.roundabouttheatre.org. (Premium and reception tickets include an exclusive cast party following the performance.) The Nokia Theatre Times Square is located at 1515 Broadway at 44th Street. Tony Award winner Laura Benanti, who is currently starring in the acclaimed revival of Gypsy, will host the Drama League's fifth annual Fall Festivities Concert Nov. 17 at the Metropolitan Room. The 6 PM concert will spotlight new and upcoming musicals both on and Off-Broadway. Attendees can expect to enjoy performances from the casts of 13, The Musical; A Tale of Two Cities; Irving Berlin's White Christmas; Sessions; and Angels, among others. Performers will include James Barbour, Maya Days, John Hickock and Kerry O'Malley. Tickets, priced $45-$60 (Drama League members) and $100 (for non-members), are available by calling (212) 244-9494, ext. 5. There is also a two-drink minimum. The Metropolitan Room is located in Manhattan at 34 West 22nd Street.

"Brady Bunch" star Florence Henderson, who bowed on Broadway in Wish You Were Here, will play a limited engagement at Feinstein's at Loews Regency Nov. 5-8. Henderson's act, entitled All the Lives of Me . . . A Musical Journey to New York City, will feature songs from Oklahoma!, South Pacific, The Sound of Music and Annie Get Your Gun. The singing actress will also offer anecdotes about "a life on the boards of Broadway and the Brady set." Show times are Wednesday and Thursday at 8:30 PM and Friday and Saturday at 8 and 10 PM. Feinstein's at Loews Regency is located in Manhattan at 540 Park Avenue at 61st Street. For reservations call (212) 339-4095 or visit www.ticketweb.com.

Tony Award winner Barbara Cook's latest solo recording, "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder," will arrive in stores Nov. 11 on the DRG Records label. To celebrate the new disc, Cook will make an in-store appearance at the Lincoln Triangle Barnes and Noble Nov. 13 at 4 PM. The celebrated singer-actress will perform songs from the new CD (she will be accompanied by musical director Lee Musiker) and will also autograph copies of the recording. Cook recorded "Rainbow 'Round My Shoulder" July 30 at Legacy Recording Studios in Manhattan. Grammy winner Hugh Fordin — president of DRG Records Incorporated — produced "Rainbow," which features arrangements by Musiker, who also conducted the band. Cook will also join fellow Tony winner join Audra McDonald for a one-night-only concert at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre Oct. 19. Entitled Audra McDonald & Barbara Cook: Broadway Voices for Change, the evening of song serves as a fundraiser for the grassroots organization America Votes. Show time is 8 PM. Tickets, priced $50-$99, are available by phoning (212) 239-6200 or by visiting telecharge.com.

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