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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, October 25 2013 - Volume 41 Issue 43
Bernadette: An American treasure
Arts & Entertainment
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Bernadette: An American treasure

by Eric Andrews-Katz - SGN A&E Writer

BERNADETTE PETERS WITH THE SEATTLE SYMPHONY
BENAROYA HALL
October 25


Bernadette Peters is more than a triple threat - she's every actor's envious nightmare. Peters has made her mark in the movies, on television, and in a series of children's books. Her stage work has earned her eight Tony nominations and three awards. The classic porcelain-doll features and curly strawberry-blonde hair are easily recognizable as is her indomitable talent for acting in serious roles or musical comedy. She's worked with Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Steve Martin, and Martin Short creating some of the most recognizable roles on stage and film. Her work with animal charities is widely recognized and she's the author of several children's books. SGN caught up with this amazing artist as she got ready to take Benaroya Hall (accompanied by the Seattle Symphony) by storm!

Eric Andrews-Katz: Who were your earliest influences in becoming a performer?

Bernadette Peters: As a teenager I was inspired by Margaret Leighton and Katharine Hepburn, Frank Sinatra, and Lena Horne. As far as Broadway, I saw performances on The Ed Sullivan Show. There I saw Mary Martin and Ethel Merman. We couldn't afford to go to the theater. It was either take lessons or go to the theater, and I took lessons very early.

Andrews-Katz: At 13 you toured as a 'Hollywood Blonde' in Gypsy - starting a lifelong relationship with the works of Stephen Sondheim. What was your audition process like for this show?

Peters: I don't remember it, sorry. I do remember an audition I had for Bye Bye Birdie. They wanted teenagers and I was 12 years old. I was told to say I was going to be 13, and that way it wasn't a lie.

Andrews-Katz: Jerry Herman's show Mack & Mabel has such a brilliant musical score but hasn't worked on stage. Being the original Mabel, what do you think stands in the way of this show's success?

Peters: You know, I'm not totally sure. First of all, back then there was no such thing as a 'dark' musical. They hadn't done Cabaret or anything like that yet. This story involved drugs and murder, which is all based on the truth. It's a story about Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett. He created silent films and the Keystone Kops. First they said it was 'too dark.' Second they said that the Keystone Kops couldn't be done on stage, it just doesn't work. People said it worked in L.A. but when we moved to N.Y.C. it was in too huge an arena and the show got lost. Since then, shows aren't as afraid of the dark parts - produced today it could be very different.

Andrews-Katz: When you were approached to appear in a show based on an Impressionist painting, what was your general reaction?

Peters: James Lapine called me in San Francisco when I was doing my show, my club act at the Blue Room, Fairmont Hotel. We only had the first act then, but I was excited. I love to do Sondheim shows and Mandy Patinkin was already cast to play Seurat. I love that period of costume, that turn-of-the-century type of woman's clothes, like in the painting. I was excited but nervous because of the difficult music I knew I was going to have to sing.

Andrews-Katz: On Saturday Night Live in 1981 you sang a song called 'Making Love Alone,' and it raised eyebrows. Can you describe the reaction to that song?

Peters: There were a lot of reactions! It's funny because it's a very deceptive song. People think it's a lovely ballad and then they hear the lyrics and realize what I'm singing. It's a fun song to do.

Andrews-Katz: Song and Dance's first act is basically a one-woman musical. What challenges did you deal with in this show versus a book musical with a full cast?

Peters: You have to keep the story going. You never leave the stage and basically you have to rest your voice. You have to get enough sleep. You don't go out. You don't talk on the phone. You don't do anything like that - you just try to preserve your voice. I remember when they described the show to me, I said, 'What do you mean, there's just one person in the first act?' They said, 'Yeah.' I replied, 'REALLY!'

Andrews-Katz: In 1999 you and Mary Tyler Moore co-founded Broadway Barks. Can you tell us a little about the event and how it ties into your writing children's books?

Peters: It's become an adoption event! It was the first time all the adoption groups in N.Y. worked together. It was the grassroots people who come forward and make a difference, and to me those are my heroes - the people who do that. Starting 15 years ago we all worked together. New York only had six shelters [participating] then. Now we can barely fit into the alley and it's become an event. We try to raise people's awareness of how wonderful [shelter] animals can be as pets. We are getting much better but we still have to stop killing these animals. They don't have a mouth to speak up. They're called companion animals for a reason and are only here for us. They do have feelings and emotions and they understand. It's just morally wrong to kill them. We show the animals are spayed and neutered and people wait for the event now to adopt an animal. We are doing well. That's my passion: We've gotten New York to be a 'no-kill' state, and now we need to get it across the country. These shelters are rescuing animals and getting them out of danger and are wonderful.

Andrews-Katz: Your role as the Witch in Into the Woods has proven to be definitive. How active were you in the creation of this role?

Peters: I actually came into the show later on. Everyone else was cast. I came into it when it came to New York. Basically it was already formed. They wrote a new song for the witch towards the end, and then 'Children Will Listen' was added, and 'The Last Midnight.' Originally it was called 'Boom! Crunch!' I just remember in rehearsals the choreographer, Lars Lubovitch, had me tied up with ropes to get the way the witch is crumpled and rumpled. Once I got the moves down it got better.

Andrews-Katz: Playing Mama Rose in Gypsy allowed you to play another musical bio on stage. How did you prepare for the role based on the real Rose Havoc?

Peters: It was great because I got to speak to June Havoc [Rose's daughter, who died in 2010]. June contacted me and said that she's never reached out to anyone playing the role before, but wanted to reach out to me. She said her mother was little and had blonde hair, and was a real man-killer. June was very friendly and kind. A wonderful actress with a great voice. She sat down with me before I played the role, and discussed it with me. It was great to have that support. Rose used her sexuality; she used everything she had to get what she wanted.

Andrews-Katz: What kind of songs are you performing with the Seattle Symphony?

Peters: I'll be doing some Rodgers & Hammerstein. I'll be doing Sondheim. I'll be doing Peggy Lee's 'Fever' on the piano - I won't be playing it, but I'll be lying on top singing! I'll be doing songs that I connect to. There are certain songs that Steve wrote, or Rodgers & Hammerstein, where I like to be reminded of the sentiment of the song. I'll be singing 'Children Will Listen,' 'Some Enchanted Evening,' 'Send in the Clowns,' and my two songs from Follies - 'In Buddy's Eyes' and 'Losing My Mind.'

Andrews-Katz: If you could play any role - regardless of any limitations - what role would it be and why?

Peters: As far as musicals, I've done all the main musical roles. I might start looking into Tennessee Williams and things like that.

ABOUT BERNADETTE
Bernadette Peters was born Bernadette Lazzara in Queens, New York. Her mother started her in show business when she was three years old, and she obtained her Actors Equity card by age nine. Since then she has appeared on Broadway in more than 16 productions (musical and non-musical alike) and more than 33 film and TV features. She has recorded at least six solo albums and has appeared on more than 13 cast recordings.

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