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 adds 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 completely under her spell.
But don’t be fooled: With a revised book by Tony winner Peter Stone that employs a Wild West show-within-a-show concept, Peters also consistently sends the audience into convulsions of laughter. Arguably the most gifted comedienne in the musical theatre today, Peters manages to extract a laugh from most every line she delivers. 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.”
Peters spoke about her newest role, which is very loosely based on the sharpshooting feats of the legendary Phoebe Anne Oakley Moses, during the show’s out-of-town tryout at Washington’s Kennedy Center. “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.”
Since her Broadway debut in 1968’s George M!, Peters has become synonymous with the best of the musical theatre, offering glowing, heartfelt performances in Jerry Herman’s Mack and Mabel, Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance (for which she won a Tony Award). She has been nominated for the Tony five times, most recently for her starring role opposite Martin Short in The Goodbye Girl, the 1993 musical adaptation of the Neil Simon film.
Although she has frequently been offered leading roles in musical revivals, Peters had always been averse to the idea. “When revivals used to be done,” she says, “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. That was the idea behind [Annie Get Your Gun], 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.” Not only does Annie Get Your Gun enable Peters to portray this free spirit, but she also gets to sing a score chock-full of Berlin gems: “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Doin’ What Comes Natur’lly,” “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun,” “They Say It’s Wonderful” -- and that’s just in the first act. Does she find such a rigorous vocal routine tiring? “It’s not [tiring] because it feeds me back so much, and it’s fun to do . . . During Song & Dance [vocal coach Adrienne Angel] 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 and The Rink. “Graci’s wonderful,” she 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. I adore her.” In addition to her work on Broadway, TV and in film, Peters maintains a thriving concert career, recently reprising her brilliant solo Carnegie Hall stint for London audiences (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’s 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 AGYG rehearsals began, Peters was actually hesitant to leave Sondheim, for now, behind. “I was telling Steve 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. I just love these songs, especially ‘Lost in His Arms,’ which is such a great song.”
And, in whose arms does Peters get lost? After The Goodbye Girl the actress took her first stroll down the aisle, marrying investment advisor Michael Wittenberg. Marriage has “been great,” she says. “It’s been 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.”
Peters devotes a portion of that busy schedule to the well-being of animals in the city, and to a handful of AIDS-related charities, including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Broadway Cares and God’s Love We Deliver. “It’s all important,” she says.
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 you have to hold [the gun] to your cheek, and the rebound hits you in the face.” Did she hit her target? “Well, yes,” she adds with a smile, “but I didn’t know it because my eyes were closed.”
And she’s hit the target again with her latest B’way outing. A bull’s eye, in fact.