When news broke that three-time Tony recipient Bernadette Peters would be taking over the role of Dolly Gallagher Levi—following the departure of Bette Midler—in the current revival of Hello, Dolly! beginning January 2018, the cheers of two people in particular could be heard reverberating in New York City; between Playbill staffers Andrew Gans, Senior News Editor, and Ryan McPhee, Managing News Editor, it was a tough call to determine whose euphoria was greater.
Both ardent followers of Peters’ career and admirers of her craft, we asked Gans and McPhee to, separately, put together their definitive list of the seven Bernadette Peters songs they could not live without. Below is the hearty debate, and 14 performances of their choosing for you to delve into. Whether a Bernadette aficionado or novice, consider this the beginning of your descent down the Bernadette Rabbit Hole.
OUR EXPERT CONTENDERS:
Andrew Gans has been an ardent admirer of the many talents of Bernadette Peters for years and has interviewed the Tony-winning actor numerous times for his Diva Talk and Favorite Things columns, as well as for features in Playbill Magazine. Choosing only seven favorite songs upon which Bernadette Peters “has left her indelible stamp seemed an almost-impossible task, since I could easily pick seven tunes from Song and Dance alone, so I decided I would opt for the seven that I have probably listened to the most over the past 30 years.”
Ryan McPhee is a Bernadette Peters enthusiast whose first exposure to the legend was the filmed production of Into the Woods. He has since seen her a number of times on the Broadway and concert stages. He often wonders if she’s still trying to sell her house in Florida and may or may not have a red curly wig buried in his closet.
(Whose list do you agree with more? Tweet us @playbill with #BernadetteSeven and your pick: #TeamRyan or #TeamAndrew.)
Our experts’ choices in alphabetical order:
“We Do Not Belong Together”
Sunday in the Park with George
Surprisingly, I came to discover Bernadette Peters through Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita. Because I had loved that score, which featured Tony winner Mandy Patinkin as Che, I decided to buy the recording of Patinkin’s next Broadway outing, Sunday in the Park with George. But it was Peters, who co-starred in the Stephen Sondheim musical, that got my attention. I had remembered her from the Mel Brooks film Silent Movie, but was unaware of the singular beauty of her singing. I have vivid memories of listening to the Sunday recording on the stereo in our family room, and her simultaneous mix of powerful and delicate tones and a sound that is uniquely her own pierced the heart of this at-the-time high school student. The track I played repeatedly was “We Do Not Belong Together,” a duet for Peters and Patinkin. There is so much emotion in Peters’ voice as Dot sings this heartbreaking plea to Seurat. Her vulnerability shines through, and even on an audio recording you can visualize the three-time Tony winner belting through her tears. For this writer, no one has ever matched the warmth, humor, and voice that she brought to the dual roles of Dot and Marie.
Song and Dance
The promise of Peters singing the work of the composer of Evita was a tantalizing prospect, so I eagerly awaited the 1985 New York debut of Song and Dance, which I first caught during previews, subsequently returning three times. Peters’ performance remains one of the highlights of my 40-year theatregoing history. Each time I attended, there were more nuances in both her acting and singing of the role. I wish her star turn had been preserved for PBS; as great as the cast recording is, it fails to capture just how funny she was delivering the letters home. I have often found with roles Peters created that no one finds as much humor as she. I remember her drawing laugh after laugh during “English Girls,” and the trills and other vocal flourishes she added to the score later in the run, unfortunately, were not preserved. She was also heartbreakingly real, delivering “Tell Me on a Sunday” with palpable pain, and her self-discovery at the end of the show was as thrillingly sung as it was emotionally honest. Watching her performance in the show's first act was one hour of complete joy, and the vocal highlight was her definitive 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 my favorites is her rendition at her sold-out concert at London's Royal Festival Hall.
“Let Me Sing and I'm Happy”
The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
Peters actually 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!” And, I'd have to agree. 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”
Into the Woods
I was lucky enough to catch Peters' definitive performance as The Witch twice during the original run of Into the Woods, and no actor I've seen has ever mined the role 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, crooked-fingered 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 above, was preserved for PBS and DVD.
“No One Is Alone”
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 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 above performance, during a tribute to late Shubert Organization President Bernard Jacobs, illustrates her artistry as a song interpreter.
“Not a Day Goes By”
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, whose intensely focused version of Merrily We Roll Along's “Not a Day Goes By” was a turning point in Peters’ performances. Standing before the sold-out crowd, the actor seemed to leave behind the girlish charm that informed her work, and here she was, all woman, her vulnerability and her hurt palpable. In fact, if any song is a perfect example of Peters' craftsmanship, it may be this one. She starts softly, gaining momentum until finally letting her rich, warm vibrato shatter the room as she explosively sings, “You're still somehow part of my life. And you won't go away. So there's hell to pay. And until I die, I'll die day after day after day after day. . .till the days go by.”
Another milestone in Peters’ stellar career was her performance as Rose in the Sam Mendes-directed revival of Gypsy at the Shubert Theatre, where Peters seemed to put aside her endearing persona and fully delve into the psyche of the powerhouse that is Momma Rose. I caught the production five times, beginning with the show's first preview and continuing through its final performance. It was always a completely moving experience, an emotional journey through life's possibilities and disappointments, dreams realized and dreams unfulfilled. As thrilling as the performances were when the show opened, Peters and her co-stars somehow managed to continue to grow in their roles, finding more and more dramatic and comedic moments, while subtly shading and coloring their work. Peters’ performance of “Rose's Turn” remains one of my great theatregoing experiences. Her gut-wrenching delivery of the impeccably crafted song 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 needing—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 above.
I am as big a Stephen Sondheim fan as anyone, but if you had asked me in 2010 which of his classic tunes I thought I never needed to hear again, it would have been “Send in the Clowns.” That is, until I heard Peters’ version when she and the late Elaine Stritch stepped into the revival of A Little Night Music. Peters poured her heart and soul into a teary-eyed rendition 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—rapt by Peters' monologue-in-song—erupted into thunderous applause. Again, it was another reminder of the remarkable range of Peters' 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. I can hardly wait to hear what she does next year with Hello, Dolly!’s “Before the Parade Passes By.”
“Making Love Alone”
The Tonight Show, 1989
The song—an ode to, uh, self pleasure—offers the perfect blend of Peters’ sultry vocals and impeccable comedic timing. What starts as a cool, sexy torch song akin to “Fever” (see below) becomes an irreverent ditty about exactly what the title suggests, complete with some especially present fabric choreography.
“Overture/Take That Look Off Your Face”
Song and Dance, 1985
While the reprise of “Take That Look Off Your Face” from Song and Dance now serves as the standard lyrics for solo performances of this song, the optimism Peters projects in the show’s opener is infectious. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s energetic overture helps—and is the perfect accompaniment to the vision of Peters taking the stage with the lights down. The overture comes to a sudden halt, the lights come up to subdued arpeggios, and Peters launches into (essentially) a solo opera—and with an English accent.
Adelaide Cabaret Festival, 2009
Bernadette Peters' concert banter is nothing if not consistent. So consistent, in fact, that every time she sings the blues staple "Fever," it's the first time. And the jump on the piano? Definitely improvised. Never done in the other countless times she's performed this song. (I would know.) Nevertheless, she performers it every time with an allure that will, in one moment, make a gay man question his sexuality, and the next, rewind the clip so he can attempt to recreate her piano-top moves.
Royal Festival Hall, 1998
This performance came five years prior to Peters taking the stage as Rose in the 2003 revival of Gypsy. When she finally tackled the role, she gave a performance unlike any of her predecessors or successors—one that seemed to draw more parallels between June and Rose's past life. In this particular performance, you hear her hunger for the role. Rose's urgency is Bernadette's urgency. Again, her introductory banter enhances the experience, as Peters admits to making up a credit in her bio—and offering an apology to the woman she snubbed in the process. I often wonder where Susie is now.
Sunday in the Park with George (Filmed for American Playhouse), 1986
In a scene in Sunday in the Park with George, the title artist marvels on the way Dot "catches light." In this song, Peters shows the audience exactly what George means. As she sings to Mandy Patinkin’s George, Peters' beaming Dot radiates appreciation of his capabilities as an artist, reverence for the legacy he's tapped into, and a plea for him to continue doing so. In a beautifully timed moment (around 1:50), a fleck of light hits one of Dot’s buttons, giving her an ethereal sparkle. It's a touching display of balance, light, and harmony—in a perfect park.
“Send in the Clowns”
A Little Night Music, 2010
"Send in the Clowns" was written specifically with a simple melody and (technically) easy-to-sing phrases, which allows the actor to shine in the heartbreaking moment. Peters manages to hold a note with sustained vibrato, but present it in a way that reads as dialogue, words delivered with anger, tears, and sorrowful acceptance in a way singing can rarely accomplish. Behind those textures she imbued an added layer of painful subtext. Desiree, a woman searching for stability after "so many years of muddle," marked Peters' return to Broadway following the sudden loss of her husband.
“Thank You For Being a Friend”
Bernadette Peters in Concert, 1979
Come on—it doesn't get more delightfully campy than this. Sporting a lilac jumpsuit and bouncing around the stage, Peters belts out the Andrew Gold number (six years before it became the theme song of The Golden Girls). Try not step-touching along each time she hits the refrain. As she herself sings, thank you thank you thank you, Bernadette.