I've interviewed Bernadette Peters nearly a dozen times, and one thing I immediately learned about the award-winning actress is the only thing bigger than her talent is her heart. Late last week, I had the pleasure of chatting again with the recent Gypsy star about the July 10 Broadway Barks, the fundraiser she began six years ago with pal Mary Tyler Moore to find homes for animals in New York-area shelters.
"It was during Annie Get Your Gun, and we had just finished doing Gypsy of the Year for Broadway Cares," Peters explained, "and we thought, 'Gee, we made so much money [for BC/EFA], and it feels so good to do something,' we thought we should do something else. I'm, of course, very interested in animals and animals in the shelters — Mary Tyler Moore and I, that's our big passion. [The Annie Get Your Gun] stage manager, Richard Hester, said, 'Why don't we do an adopt-a-thon in Shubert Alley?' So we decided to get all the people in the Broadway shows who love animals to come and parade them and show everybody what great animals there are in the city."
Peters' interest in animals, dogs in particular, dates back to her childhood, when at age nine she and the rest of the Lazzara family welcomed their first dog into their home in Ozone Park, Queens. "It always involves Gypsy," Peters said with a laugh, "and the dog that we wanted was, of course, a little Yorkie, a little dog that Momma Rose used to carry around in Gypsy. I wasn't in Gypsy until I was 13, but I kept auditioning for it. But we couldn't afford a little poodle or a little Yorkie, so we went to the Bide-a-Wee, and we got a puppy that they promised wouldn't get to be too big! I guess she got to be about 35-40 pounds. Her name was Suzie, and she was great. She was some kind of retriever-terrier, and she was like the nana of the household. If anybody raised their voice, she'd [bark] at them."
Peters, who is still as passionate about animals as ever — she and husband Michael Wittenberg are the proud owners of two rescued pooches, Kramer and Stella — hopes to make New York a no-kill city. "There's no reason why these lovely, lovely companion animals should be euthanized," she said. "People sometimes have a strange perception of the animals in the pound. They're just wonderful animals that people had to give up — maybe they had to move or somebody died or somebody had a baby and the baby was allergic. These animals have been members of families, so these are great, great pets." Peters also explained that the ACC — what was once the City Pound — euthanizes a staggering 40,000 animals each year. "The ACC has to take everything and anything that comes to them, that the police bring in. I was there once, and they brought in a chicken! They have to take whatever's there, and there's no room for every animal. So, they have to unfortunately euthanize them." There is a bright spot, however, Peters said. "There's something that was formed called the Mayor's Alliance that's great — all the shelters in the city are connected with it. So we all work together now in tandem, including the ACC."
This year's Broadway Barks adopt-a-thon begins at 3:30 PM in Shubert Alley, with the presentation of pets scheduled for 5:30 PM. And, the fundraiser promises to be the most celebrity-packed ever. Among those set to be part of this very worthy cause are Gary Beach, Stephanie J. Block, Mario Cantone, Christy Carlson Romano, Patrick Cassidy, Michael Cerveris, Kristin Chenoweth, Veanne Cox, Paige Davis, Beth Fowler, Jordan Gelber, Neil Patrick Harris, Shirley Jones, Sandra Joseph, Isabel Keating, Eartha Kitt, Laura Linney, Swoosie Kurtz, Audra McDonald, Idina Menzel, Michael Mulheren, Donna Murphy, Denis O'Hare, Brad Oscar, Angie Schworer, Eric Stoltz, John Tartaglia, Jennifer Westfeldt and Rachel York. "Everybody knows about it now," said Peters, "and they love it! You might think, 'Oh, it's so exhausting to do between shows,' but because pets are healing, you get more energy from them. You feel so good. We used to have scripts, but now we just have the celebrities meet the animals they're going to bring onstage [before] the afternoon [begins], and then they can say whatever they want about the dog or the cat. They talk about it from their hearts. It's a beautiful combination."
Peters, of course, recently completed a year's run as Momma Rose — a thrilling, moving performance I caught five times — in the acclaimed revival of Gypsy. About the show's final, sold-out performance she said, "It was wonderful. It was just a great role. I wasn't thinking, 'Oh, this is the last time I'm doing this part.' I was really just fulfilling the needs of the character and playing the role." She also had nothing but praise for her co-stars: "It was a great cast — probably one of the most talented casts I've ever worked with. You're going to see all the young people go places, I believe. We loved our children that were in the show, and everybody cared about the show, and everybody kept digging deeper and deeper and kept going forward with [their roles]. When you have something that's written so well, you just keep going deeper into it, and it's so fulfilling. It was a real adventure."
Although the two-time Tony Award winner said that she's still mulling over the possibility of a Gypsy tour or a London production, for now she's busy catching up on theatre ("I saw Assassins. I thought it was so great. I know it's going to close, but I want to see it again. And, Avenue Q, which was wonderful. They're such talented people [in that cast] — they're amazing") and classic novels. "I'm reading a lot now," she said, "something I haven't done since I was a child, and I'm loving it. I'm currently reading 'Anna Karenina.'"
For those going through Peters withdrawal, however, take heart. The actress plans to release a companion piece to her Grammy-nominated Carnegie Hall CD this summer. "There's enough material there [for a second album], and I'm thrilled about that." Among the songs not heard on the original CD are Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Unexpected Song," a medley of "We're in the Money" and "Pennies from Heaven," the 1919 classic "If You Were the Only Boy (in the World)," Peter Allen's "I Never Thought I'd Break," Lesley Gore and Jack Weston's "Other Lady," a pairing of "The Hills of Shiloh" and "Faithless Love" as well as several Stephen Sondheim tunes — "They Asked Me Why I Believe in You," "Later," "With So Little To Be Sure Of" and "Children Will Listen." Peters' encore, "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas," was also not found on the first Carnegie disc.
But, for now, Peters is busily preparing for Broadway Barks 6, ready to step aside and let the dogs shine in the spotlight. "The dogs look so great, they're really the stars of the afternoon. They get up there on the stage, and they look so wonderful. We just want everyone to come and see them."
For additional information visit www.broadwaybarks.com.
I also had the chance to have a very quick chat with the legendary Barbara Cook, who returns to the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre July 12 for another two weeks of Barbara Cook's Broadway. The critically acclaimed show, which also recently played London's Gielgud Theatre, takes audiences on a tour of the golden years of Broadway. Tony winner Cook performs songs from — and reminisces about — this famed period of Broadway history. The brief Q&A with the former Music Man star follows:
Question: How was your stay in London?
Barbara Cook: Oh, it was fun, except I had a throat infection, so I missed some performances. That wasn't fun.
Q: Do you find any difference between London and New York audiences?
BC: I think American audiences are a little freer with their reactions — bigger reactions. London audiences are a bit more reserved, but not much, and I enjoy playing for them a lot. They're very loyal, that's for sure.
Q: After the great success of your Mostly Sondheim show, was it daunting to try to put together another show? How did the idea for Barbara Cook's Broadway come about?
BC: Yes, it was as a matter of fact. Well, you know the Sondheim had been so successful, and I think it's difficult when you have a big success like that, it's hard to figure out what you're going to do next. But we had to just do it. We were trying to think of a theme, and the people at Lincoln Center kept saying, 'Barbara, you've got to give us an answer. We have to advertise this thing.' [Laughs.] I said, 'All I can tell you is that I plan to do theatre songs that are actable,' and they came up with the idea of Barbara Cook's Broadway.
Q: In your show you joke about how you didn't know you were part of a Golden Age while it was happening. What do you think made it a Golden Age?
BC: Just the excellence of the work I think. Q: If you could go back in time and catch one performance that you missed or one performance that you'd like to see again, do you know what it would be?
BC: Well, I'm sure there are lot of them that I can't think of at the moment. [Laughs.] God, there were so many wonderful things happening of course. And there were always things I missed because I was working so much. It was a wonderful time.
Q: You also talk a bit about Sheldon Harnick rewriting the lyric for "I'll Marry the Very Next Man." Did he rewrite it for your current show?
BC: No, he rewrote it earlier when I wanted to sing the song again.
Q: Who do you think are some of the great songwriters writing today?
BC: Well, Adam Guettel is so talented. . .
Q: How do you prepare before you go out onstage?
BC: I sing little songs while I'm getting ready. I don't like doing exercises, so I sing little songs, whatever comes to me while I'm getting made up.
Q: When did you and Wally Harper meet?
BC: We met a long time ago, but I remember meeting him in 1973 and we started working together. I was doing a concert tour of Gershwin songs with several other people, and [Wally] visited us a couple of times.
Q: How much does he influence your performance?
BC: We do it together. He has a lot of influence and so do I.
Q: I know a lot of people who've taken your master classes sing your praises. I wonder what you've learned from them.
BC: Often when I do these classes, I'm working at the time. Then when I do the show at night I think I really need to follow my own directions, so it keeps me on my toes. [Laughs.]
Q: I know you're a big fan of Hugh Jackman and The Boy From Oz. What other shows have you liked this season?
BC: I haven't seen other shows this season. I went to the Met to see opera, and I went to see Hugh, and that's just about what I did last season. I'm about to see him again next week, that'll be number eleven.
Q: One final question: When people hear the name Barbara Cook, what would you like them to think?
BC: That I'm good — that I'm really good at what I do.
[Barbara Cook's Broadway plays Monday-Saturday evenings at 8 PM. Tickets are priced at $60. Visit www.lct.org for more information.]
Stephanie J. Block, who portrays Liza Minnelli in The Boy From Oz, will make her New York City nightclub debut next month. On Aug. 2 Block will offer her one-woman show, All Smiles, at Birdland. The evening will feature direction by Jim Caruso with musical director Billy Stritch at the piano. Cabaretgoers can expect to hear standards, a tune from Wicked, a duet with Stritch and a tribute to the late Peter Allen. Show time is 8 PM. Birdland is located at 315 West 44th Street, between 8th and 9th Avenues. There is a $20 cover and $10 food/drink minimum; call (212) 581-3080 for reservations.
After an out-of-town tryout at San Francisco's Curran Theatre in August, Dame Edna: Back with a Vengeance will settle down at Broadway's Music Box Theatre. Originally announced for the Broadhurst Theatre, where the Dame had planned to put "the broad back in the Broadhurst," that theatre will now house Billy Crystal's solo show 700 Sundays. According to the Dame's spokesperson, Edna will reside at the Music Box — previews begin Nov. 5 prior to an official opening Nov. 21.
And, finally, I was very happy to receive this e-mail mailing from the multi-talented Ellen Greene, who just completed her long-awaited solo debut recording: "Well, we did it. The album is done, and it's beautiful. Christian [Klikovits] arranged and produced the album, and his work is stunning. We couldn't have done it without Bernie Kirsh who engineered and mixed it, Scott Gordon & Doug Tyo (who asstisted), and Steve Hall who mastered it. Everyone was so wonderful to us and we so appreciate it. We did the piano and vocal tracks over two-and-a-half days of 12 hrs. each — one-half day for strings, horn, and background vocals — that day went 13 hours (three days total — ouch!). Then Christian worked for the next three days in his studio, around the clock — sweetening, adding organ, synth, and additional magic. Next, we spent two days — 13 hours the first day, then 22 hours the next — mixing the album. A few hours later we went to have it mastered. I'm exhausted again just telling you . . . even my hair hurts. Now it's in the hands of Rainbo Records. We are proud of the work and we hope you all will like it." Stay tuned for a release date!
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching, and be sure to look out for Diva Talk 'At Sea' next week!