Three-time Tony recipient Bernadette Peters, who last graced the Broadway stage in the title role of the Tony-winning revival of Hello, Dolly!, boasts a Broadway résumé like few others; in fact, like Ethel Merman and Mary Martin before her (both of whom played Dolly), she is among that tiny group of stars whose name is synonymous with the musical theatre. Among her most memorable Broadway outings: Hildy, the cabdriver who can also cook in the revival of On the Town; ill-fated silent-screen star Mabel Normand in Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel; Dot, the model and mistress to Georges Seurat in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s stunning Sunday in the Park with George; English hat designer Emma, who arrives wide-eyed in America in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance; the wise, but crooked-fingered witch who regains her beauty but loses her powers in Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods; single mom and one-time dancer Paula, who finds love in her own apartment with an actor named Elliot in the Marvin Hamlisch-Neil Simon-David Zippel musical The Goodbye Girl; the spirited, but naive Annie Oakley who eventually gets a man with a gun in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun; the stage mother of all stage mothers, Rose, in the classic American musical Gypsy; former Follies star Sally Durant Plummer, married to Buddy but longing for Ben, in the acclaimed revival of Follies that originated at the Kennedy Center; actor Desiree Armfeldt, whose emotional availability arrives too late in Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler's A Little Night Music; and the aforementioned Dolly Gallagher Levi, who decides she is ready to rejoin the human race after helping many others find their own happiness in Hello, Dolly!.
Peters won her Tonys for her performances in Song and Dance and Annie Get Your Gun, and she was Tony-nominated for her roles in Gypsy, The Goodbye Girl, Sunday in the Park With George, Mack & Mabel, and On the Town. She is also the recipient of the 2012 Isabelle Stevenson Tony Award. Equally at home in comedic and dramatic roles, Peters is also one of the most beguiling concert performers. Watching this open-hearted actor perform in concert is a reminder of the remarkable range of her interpretative powers and the astonishing array of feelings she can instill in a listener with a voice that mixes rich chest tones with a crystal-clear soprano.
As Broadway remains temporarily closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, it seemed like a great time to look back at the career of this stellar artist. Enjoy these show-stopping performances while much of the country is asked to #StayatHome.
Medley from On the Town
Peters received her first Tony nomination for playing cabdriver Hildy in the 1971 Broadway revival of On the Town. Years later, in a PBS broadcast celebrating the work of Leonard Bernstein, she offered a medley of tunes from the classic musical. Peters is in terrific voice here, powerfully belting "New York, New York," bringing a palpable sense of joy to "I Can Cook Too" while delivering "Lonely Town," "Carried Away," and a particularly beautiful "Lucky to Be Me" with great emotion.
"Something" by George Harrison
Peters performed this song from The Beatles' 1969 album Abbey Road on a 1977 TV program; it was long before she played model Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, but she already knew the power of concentration and stillness.
"Time Heals Everything" from Mack & Mabel
In 1974 Peters created the role of silent-film star Mabel Normand opposite the Mack Sennett of Robert Preston in Jerry Herman's Mack & Mabel. Although the new musical ran less than 100 performances, the production did give Peters, who was Tony-nominated for her performance, one of her signature tunes, the aching "Time Heals Everything." On the 1987 Tony Awards, Peters offered a particularly heartbreaking rendition of the tune in a tribute to the late Preston.
"Other Lady" by Lesley Gore and Ellen Weston
If you caught Peters perform in concert in the '80s and '90s, you most likely heard this ballad, which she recorded on her debut solo album in 1980, Bernadette Peters. Here, the Queens native brings to full life the story song on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.
“We Do Not Belong Together” from Sunday in the Park With George
Dot in Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine's 1984 Pulitzer Prize-winning Sunday in the Park With George was the first of three roles in the 1980s (followed by hat maker Emma in Song and Dance and the Witch in Into the Woods) that catapulted the Broadway favorite into the tiny pantheon of musical theatre greats. There is so much emotion in Peters’ voice as Dot sings this heartbreaking plea to the Georges Seurat of Mandy Patinkin.
“Unexpected Song” from Song and Dance
Peters won her first Tony for her tour de force performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance. The vocal highlight of the show's first act was her show-stopping version of “Unexpected Song,” which displays both the power of her belt and the beauty of her upper register in the climactic final note. Peters has performed the song numerous times throughout her career, and one of the most exciting is her rendition at her sold-out concert at London's Royal Festival Hall.
“Let Me Sing and I'm Happy” on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Peters made numerous appearances on The Tonight Show when the late Johnny Carson was host. This performance of Irving Berlin's “Let Me Sing and I'm Happy” in June 1987 provoked Carson to exclaim, “Damn, you’re good!” What's so wonderful about Peters’ performance is she takes a standard and completely reinvents the tune, adding a bit of blues and a touch of syncopation. She also builds the song expertly, bringing newfound emotion to the lyrics. Just listen to the power of her belt in the final verse as she sings, “And if my song can start you laughing, I'm happyyyyyyy!”
“Stay with Me” from Into the Woods
Peters' mined the role of The Witch in the original 1987 Broadway production of Sondheim and Lapine's Into the Woods for all its darkness and humor while delivering the score with a mix of beautiful head tones and a roof-raising belt. That vocal power was clearly on display in “Stay with Me,” and it’s to Peters’ credit that—even dressed as a haggard witch—she can still make you feel so much for the character. She thrillingly belts most of the song, but it's her final “with me,” sung in delicate head tones, that pierces the heart. Thankfully, her performance, which can be viewed below, was preserved for PBS and DVD.
“Not a Day Goes By” from Merrily We Roll Along at Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall
In June 1992, Broadway's best turned out to celebrate Stephen Sondheim in Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall, which was recorded and subsequently broadcast on PBS and later released in stores. The roster of performers included Dorothy Loudon, Betty Buckley, and Patti LuPone, among many others, and all the artists brought their A-game, including Peters, with an intensely focused version of Merrily We Roll Along's “Not a Day Goes By.” Standing before the sold-out crowd, her vulnerability and her hurt palpable, the song is a perfect example of Peters' craftsmanship. She starts softly, gaining momentum until finally letting her rich, warm vibrato shatter the room.
"Some People" from Gypsy
In 1996, Peters made her solo concert debut at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, a benefit concert for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness the sold-out evening, which boasted a second half devoted solely to the songs of Sondheim, will remember the concert’s first-act finale, Peters’ thrilling rendition of one of Gypsy’s classic songs, “Some People.” As Peters belted her way through the Styne-Sondheim tune, it became clear that one of Broadway’s most-loved stars was ready to tackle a role miles apart from most of her previous Broadway endeavors. Watch her performance at the Manhattan venue below.
“Rose’s Turn” from Gypsy
In the Sam Mendes-directed revival of Gypsy at the Shubert Theatre, Peters seemed to put aside her endearing persona and fully delve into the psyche of the powerhouse that is Rose. Her gut-wrenching performance of “Rose's Turn” reaches its climax in the word “well” that precedes, “Someone tell me when is it my turn? Don't I get a dream for myself!” The frustration, the longing, the wanting, the need—all the love and success that Rose has been unsuccessfully searching for her entire life—finally explodes in this belty “Well.” Peters' performance is so dramatic that she can't wait until the rest of the sentence to explode: The explosion comes early in “Welllll!” and it's frighteningly intense. Watch her performance of the song at the 2003 Tony Awards below.
"In Buddy's Eyes" from Follies
One of the highlights of the Tony-nominated 2011 revival of Follies was Peters' simple, moving rendition of the Sondheim gem "In Buddy's Eyes," which she first performed at her 2009 sold-out benefit concert at the Minskoff Theatre, A Benefit for Broadway Barks Because Broadway Cares.
"Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music
When Peters and the late Elaine Stritch stepped into the revival of A Little Night Music in 2010, Peters poured her heart and soul into a teary-eyed rendition of the Sondheim classic that entranced audiences, and she somehow managed to make the song completely and startlingly fresh. Her compelling, poignant, and touching performance wove a spell over the audience until their complete silence erupted into thunderous applause.
BONUS: “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods
Although Peters didn't sing the tune in Into the Woods, her rendition of “No One Is Alone” is strikingly beautiful. Her take on the Sondheim song, especially in these difficult times, underscores life’s uncertainties and despairs, but more so the possibility of a revitalizing human connection. A staple of her concert act, Peters’ stillness both haunts and moves. The performance below, during a tribute to late Shubert Organization President Bernard Jacobs, again illustrates her artistry as a song interpreter.