Bernadette Peters, the three-time Tony-honored actress who has spent a lifetime enchanting audiences around the globe, is now examining the entertainment world from a different angle.
Peters, who was most recently on Broadway in the Tony-nominated revival of Follies, can now be seen as Gloria — chairwoman of the board of a New York symphony orchestra that has just welcomed new conductor Rodrigo (Gael Garcia Bernal) — in the debut Amazon series "Mozart in the Jungle."
The award-winning artist recently told me that "Gloria is interesting because she's management — she runs the symphony, she's the president and the chairwoman, so she does the fundraising and the hiring and the firing, but she also loves the artistry of it. More than anything, she really just wants to be close to all the artistic people, but they hold her at arm's length because she's management, and it makes her crazy! The new conductor does things unexpectedly — you don't know what he's going to do, and that's the reason she hired him, but it also makes her crazy. He decides his office is going to be down in the basement because he wants to be close to the sounds of the ground, the sounds of the earth. Then, she goes to a rehearsal, and there's no rehearsal because he moved the whole rehearsal to an empty parking lot in Harlem, which she didn't know about, and then she has to go and bail them all out of jail."
Peters said she is enjoying the chance to play a character who happens to be situated on the other side of the stage. "It's great because I know what has to get done on the management side," she said. "You have to present something the public will come to see, and yet I understand the artist side of it and the creative process and how beautiful that can be. I understand she's torn. She's got a push-pull thing going on, and yet you really want that, you want the unexpected to happen up [on stage], unexpected in a good way."
The Sunday in the Park with George star did a bit of research before tackling her latest role, explaining, "I spoke to the fellow who runs the New York Philharmonic. [He said] that the conductors want to make the choices of pieces that they want to play, but management knows which pieces will bring the public in, so there's always that little bit of a struggle." Unlike network and cable TV, where new episodes of series are broadcast weekly, Paul Weitz's "Mozart in the Jungle" released its complete first season earlier this week. As for other differences? "It's not much different, except there are not so many restrictions on you. The networks really like to have a lot more to say before you even get on camera," Peters said with a laugh. "So this is different that way, and also [Amazon trusts] the creative team. They give the notes after and before they edit, but I think they're very happy with it."
The Broadway favorite is also happy with this new experience and full of praise for the creative team and her fellow actors. Malcolm McDowell, who plays outgoing conductor Thomas, Peters says, is "divine. He's creative, and he just knows what to put up there on the screen. He's powerful, he's knowledgeable — he's everything. He can ad-lib, and he's just fun. And, Gael Garcia Bernal is totally free, and that's another thing that's great to see in a television show, or a streaming show, whatever you call it!"
"[The writing is] really good, and it gets better and better and better. To me it's poetic — it's funny and yet it's still poetic. Also, [executive producer] Roman [Coppola] directed one episode that was shot with one camera, seven separate chapters. Very beautiful. I love the writing because it's not arbitrary – there's nothing just for shock, it's just creative and unexpected."
Is Peters herself a fan of classical music? "I can't tell you the [names of the] pieces, but I adore it, I love it," she said. "Music strikes something in your soul, and they've chosen pieces carefully in this. I'll go, 'Oh my God, can someone get me that for Christmas?! I love that!'
"[Producer] Jason Schwartzman works on the music very carefully," Peters added. "He really picks it carefully, so that's why the music that's chosen is so beautiful."
With all her theatre fame, it's easy to overlook Peters' numerous television credits; she is, perhaps, the only Broadway actress of her generation to have worked with talents as diverse as Carol Burnett, George Burns, Bing Crosby, Ed Sullivan, Bob Hope, Mike Douglas, Bea Arthur and, more recently, has enjoyed guest-starring turns in "Grey's Anatomy," "Ugly Betty" and "Smash." Should she come across one of her older TV performances, Peters said she usually doesn't stop to watch, but if it's short, "I might watch it. When I see myself, I learn so much — I [think] what I would do differently. I used to love variety shows, where you would do a number and then we would go and watch it because it was taped. Then I'd think, 'Oh, I know how to do this," and then I'd go back and change it or do something different." When she sees some of these old clips, does she remember filming them, and does she feel like she's a different person today? "I usually remember doing it, very much so. Was I a different person? Definitely!" Peters laughed.
Peters, who is most associated with the work of Broadway giant Stephen Sondheim — having starred in productions of Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Anyone Can Whistle, Gypsy, Follies, A Little Night Music and the City Center engagement of A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair — recently had the chance to revisit the role of Woods' worldly wise, but crooked-fingered Witch in sold-out reunion concerts in Los Angeles. This writer was lucky enough to have caught Peters' definitive performance as The Witch twice during the musical's original run, and no actress has ever mined the role for all its darkness and humor while delivering the score with a mix of beautiful head tones and a thrilling, soaring belt.
Peters, who said the reunion had the feel of a "rock concert," explained, "When you go back to something that you've known, that you've done, you bring all your lifetime or the living that you've done since and the creative process that you've learned to it, and it's so good to begin with, it's just thrilling."
She believes the Sondheim-James Lapine musical has enjoyed such longevity, including innumerable school productions as well as the current 10-actor Off-Broadway production and a Disney film, because "it deals with fairy tales. That part of it makes it very appealing. I don't know if they realize in the beginning that it can be dark, but it deals with life...I think children have to understand there are the good things in life and things that aren't as good. And, the lessons in it are so amazing [in the lyrics] 'No one is alone' and 'Children will listen' and 'Someone is on your side, someone else is not.' But yet you are not alone because someone is on your side. He teaches us so much."
Peters had the chance to re-examine several songs from the score during the LA reunion, including the haunting "Stay With Me," which she hadn't performed in several years. "It's interesting to sing full throttle like that because I haven't done that in a while, and it's like getting up to speed or a muscle that you're exercising. It was interesting because I didn't sing to Rapunzel, she wasn't there, so I sang it out [to the audience]. It was fun to rethink it."
About the possibility of returning to Broadway, Peters said, "If something is irresistible, then, absolutely, I would do it. I like that schedule."
Until the happens, the New York native, who infuses all her work with great humanity and exudes a palpable warmth that spreads over audiences, is concentrating on "Mozart" and "Broadway Barks," the annual dog and cat adoption event she co-founded with pal Mary Tyler Moore to find homes for pets from city animal shelters. In fact, the actress and author is putting the finishing touches on her newest children's book — following the best-selling "Broadway Barks" and "Stella Is a Star" — to benefit the charitable organization. Her third book, which is due in the spring, is "about Charlie coming to live in the house with Stella. There's a lot of sibling rivalry. It was our 16th year [of 'Broadway Barks'] — it's amazing. And, Braille Tales is pretty amazing. It's now going global — we're talking to UNICEF, we're sending [the books] to schools all over the world, because Braille is a universal language. I'm very thrilled about that."
And, as she writes her children's books, has Peters considered chronicling her own award-winning career in a memoir?
"People have spoken to me about it," she said. "I feel like when I'm ready to — and maybe it will be soon, I don't know — I'd like to give [readers] something to hold onto in life — 'This is what I've learned.' That's what I'd like the book to be, not just the history."
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to [email protected].
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.
PHOTO ARCHIVE: Celebrating Bernadette Peters' Greatest Stage Hits: