For as long as I can remember, I have loved Bernadette Peters. And who hasn't? Her luscious voice and compelling vulnerability, combined with old-school show business know-how, have made her a top Broadway star through decades of changing tastes, while her seemingly ageless beauty and undeniable sex appeal have helped establish her as a well-regarded entertainer in the mainstream of pop culture. Other than a minor hit on the pop charts with "Gee Whiz" in 1980, Peters' impact as a recording artist has been mostly limited to musical theatre fans, but within that realm, her presence has been impressive.
Click through to read my top Bernadette Peters albums.
"Not A Day Goes By" (From "Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall")
Probably the definitive Bernadette Peters recording for me, this is certainly my favorite version of "Not A Day Goes By." It understandably became a staple of Peters' repertoire (effectively reprised as a brassy instrumental theme for her curtain call in concert) and is always a crowd pleaser. "Not A Day Goes By" is the perfect showcase for the fragile, heartbreaking pathos in Peters' voice. Her sound is so distinctive that the words feel organic and her own, so that you believe her and you're moved. Then, when she discovers the anger beneath the sadness — in full belt voice — it's thrilling.
Sunday in the Park with George (Original Broadway Cast Album)
I do not begrudge Chita Rivera her 1984 Tony Award for The Rink, but she should have tied with Bernadette Peters for Sunday in the Park with George. Peters' performance as Dot/Marie is a master class in the dramatic acting and singing called for in the modern musical theatre Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine were ushering in. Right out of the gate, from the challenging solo opening title song, there is no room for grandstanding. Every moment must be earned with the purest integrity and Peters rises to the occasion beautifully, ultimately fulfilling the almost superhuman task of returning as a sort-of fantasy version of Dot to sing Sondheim's indelible gift to artists and lovers everywhere, "Move On."
"Bernadette" (1992 Solo Album, Combining Tracks From 1980's "Bernadette Peters" and 1981's "Now Playing")
Despite opening with "Broadway Baby," "Bernadette" is a very un-Broadway album, finding Peters in a cooler, jazzy pop groove (surrounded by some world-class musicians including Lee Ritenour on guitar and even Peter Allen on piano) in which she is able to seamlessly bridge the gaps in an eclectic collection of songs spanning several decades. She is in absolutely terrific voice, pouring out the cream in an exquisite take on Leiber and Stoller's Elvis Presley hit "Don't" and serving up some of the best belting of her career in the stunning "Other Lady." Some more favorite tracks are "Pearl's A Singer," "Carrying A Torch," "I Don't Know Why (I Just Do)"/"Mean To Me" and "I Never Thought I'd Break," and they're all great.
Mack & Mabel (Original Broadway Cast Album)
I remember when I was in middle school, I knew of Bernadette Peters' performance in Mack & Mabel before I actually found the CD (at Aron's Records on Highland, for any Los Angelenos nostalgic for the 90s). It is a gross understatement to say it was worth the wait. From her first appearance singing the wistful-then-joyous "Look What Happened To Mabel" through the ballsy and bombastic "Wherever He Ain't" to the gut-wrenching torch song "Time Heals Everything" (and especially in my personal favorite, Mabel's searing reprise of "I Won't Send Roses"), Peters delivers a riveting performance that makes the most of Jerry Herman's first-class lyrics and memorable tunes. When Mack & Mabel played its brief original run, it must have been exciting to witness what had to be obviously the beginnings of a Broadway supernova. Time-traveling back via the cast album, it's rewarding to hear her — instantly recognizable and as clear and winning as ever.
Sondheim, Etc.: Live At Carnegie Hall (1997 Solo Album)
"Sondheim, Etc." is the Bernadette Peters disc I would like to have with me on a desert island, as it includes, among its many excellent tracks, stellar live renditions of some of Peters' big songs from her stage roles. The disc opens with my all-time favorite recording of "Broadway Baby," which Peters expertly builds from coy cooing to a thunderous bellow. Another favorite for me is Peters' rip-roaring "Some People," followed by a slew of Sondheim songs — including some surprising choices — all sung with beauty, strength, thought and feeling. A fun inclusion is "Making Love Alone," the comedy number Peters performed on "Saturday Night Live" in 1981, which is still hilarious to this day.
"Evening Primrose Suite" (From the Mandy Patinkin Album "Dress Casual")
Mandy Patinkin gave Bernadette Peters fans everywhere a gift when he invited her to co-star in a suite of songs from Sondheim's 1966 television musical "Evening Primrose" on his 1990 album, "Dress Casual." It was dream casting, as the music affords Peters the chance to sing in her sweet, upper-middle register, a range where most women sound interchangeable, but where Peters' idiosyncratic voice conveys personality, warmth and truth. The result is the definitive recordings of the semi-obscure Sondheim gems, "I Remember," "When" and "Take Me To The World."
Into the Woods (Original Broadway Cast Album)
For many of us who grew up watching (and memorizing!) the wonderful American Playhouse video of the original cast of Into the Woods, Bernadette Peters' performance as the Witch is baseline Broadway. Within the opening number/title song, "The Witch's Rap" would be a challenging tongue-twister even without Peters' savvy use of a slight New York accent, but such personalization furthers Sondheim and Lapine's almost anachronistic treatment of Grimm's fairy tales, and it makes the Witch relatable to the audience early on. This pays off handsomely in Peters' moving performances of "Stay With Me" and "Lament," where her passion pushes to the break of her voice and heart.
"I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" (1996 Solo Album)
As close to a contemporary pop (or "Easy Listening") album as we're likely to get from Bernadette Peters, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" brings together covers of singer-songwriters and even a few showtunes under the umbrella of a mellow, reflective vibe, which suits Peters perfectly. In this reserved mode, it's impressive how much feeling Peters invests in "Running On Faith" (originally performed by Eric Clapton) and the Beatles' "Blackbird." Other highlights include a fun take on Sam Cooke's "Cupid," a gorgeous, guitar-only "What's The Use Of Wond'rin'" (from Carousel) and the definitive recording of "No One Is Alone" (from Into the Woods).
Song and Dance (Original Broadway Cast Album)
The Broadway cast album of Song and Dance could more appropriately be called "Song" as it only represents the first act of this evening which combined Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-woman song cycle, Tell Me On a Sunday, with a related ballet choreographed to his orchestral concert, "Variations." Tell Me On a Sunday was written for British singer Marti Webb, and comparatively, Peters' not-really-pop sound makes her voice less suited for power ballads like "Tell Me On A Sunday" and some of the more 1980s material in the score. Nonetheless, Song and Dance was elevated as a piece of theatre by Peters' distinguished performance and her unique acting and singing make most of the songs on the album a delightful listen, almost entirely due to her exemplary delivery, sparkling with charm and full of feeling. I'm especially fond of her touching tenderness and honey tones in "Come Back With The Same Look In Your Eyes" and "Nothing Like You've Ever Known."
(Ben Rimalower is the author and original star star of the critically acclaimed Patti Issues. Read Playbill.com's coverage of the solo show here. Visit him at benrimalower.com and follow @benrimalower on Twitter.)