Interview with Bernadette Peters, July 15, 2006, for Legends of Boadway Compilation
"The true ..” Broadway baby” Of the Legends of Broadway.
the incandescent Bernadette Peters made her Broadway debut as a serious ten-year-old from Ozone Park, Queens, playing Tessie in the company of a City Center revival of The Most Happy Fella in 1959. She grew up in show business, appearing in everything from Name That Tune (on which she was a winner) to the national tour of Gypsy with Mary McCarty as Mama Rose. Peters' real breakthrough on Broadway came in the spring of 1968 in George M!, followed later that year by the show that made her a star - Dames at Sea. While her next Broadway musical was a legendary flop - a musical version of Fellini's film La Strada (1969) - Peters won her first Tony nomination for a 1971 revival of On the Town, and a second nomination in 1974 as Mabel Normand in Mack and Mabel. She spent much of the next decade working in film and TV - she won a 1981 Golden Globe for Pennies from Heaven - but made a triumphant return to Broadway in Sunday in the Park with George in 1984. She has since appeared in Song and Dance (1985), Into the Woods (1987) and The Goodbye Girl (1993), and acclaimed revivals of Annie Get Your Gun (1999) and Gypsy (2003). A seven-time Tony nominee, Peters was a winner for both Song and Dance (for which she also won the Drama Desk Award) and Annie Get Your Gun. She has also won Drama Desk Awards for her performances in Dames at Sea and the play Sally and Marsha** (1982)[**she was nominated, but did not win, for Sally and Marsha], as well as a Theater World Award for George M! Her performance in the television broadcast of Sunday in the Park with George won her a 1987 Cable Ace Award. Bernadette Peters' concert performances and solo recordings have made her one of the most celebrated theatrical singers of her time, and-with Mary Tyler Moore-she founded Broadway Barks, a group that supports and encourages the adoption and well-being of shelter and rescue animals.
QUESTION:Your career began just as the "golden age of Broadway" was ending. What was it like to enter the business at a time when musical theater was in transition, when rock defined pop music, when the old stars were leaving the scene?
ANSWER: The first musical I did as an adult on Broadway was George M! with Joel Grey in 1968. He had just become a big star in Cabaret, and I thought, "This is great!" I was in something wonderful. But the show was about a patriotic time in our country, exactly at a time when we were all very dissatisfied. And Broadway was changing, New York was getting very dark. After a while, it made me go out to LA, where the work was, though I actually did La Strada and On the Town on Broadway then. And I was having a grand time, getting a lot of validation. But I wasn't in any hits because there were no hits - that wasn't until time passed, some things changed, and I came back in all the Sondheim shows. So I started to work in television and films, concerts and nightclubs.
QUESTION: When did you first know your voice was so distinctive?
ANSWER: I've lived with it my whole life, and it's my voice, so I never really thought about it. Actually when I was a little, little girl, I had sort of a deep voice, because I didn’t speak correctly. And then I had to learn to kind of sing and use it correctly. Sometimes people would say, “Oh, listen to her cute voice!” I never thought I had that different a voice. When I sang, that’s what came out.
QUESTION: Your voice has carried you through such a wide range of material on Broadway, but you have maintained that pure, sweet, vulnerable sound. How have you managed that?
ANSWER: At this point, I really have to give applause over to my singing teacher Adrienne Angel. When I came back into New York to do Sunday in the Park With George I started studying with her, and she really put me on the right track. She gave me the greatest gift, and that was the ability to be able to use my instrument. She gave me the ability to sing a large score, with a large range. And she taught me that during Song and Dance, when I sang the whole first act myself, every single song. Every day I’d take a lesson, and she’d put me back in alignment. She really taught me how to sing during that show. It is the equivalent of singing an operatic role. Eight times a week.
QUESTION: Which performers influenced you when you were growing up?
ANSWER: Thank God for the early days of television. Sometimes I think I’ve seen a Broadway show, and then I realize, “No, I saw it on Ed Sullivan as a kid." I saw Ethel Merman there, I saw everybody from all the Broadway shows and people like Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett - the great, great, great singers. I grew up on television.
QUESTION: What do you learn from other singers like them? Is it phrasing? Is it the way they approach a song, psychologically?
ANSWER: I just think you recognize someone telling the truth. I remember a singer named Felicia Saunders. She actually sang "This Nearly Was Mine," and it was amazing. When somebody stuns you like that, grabs your attention and makes you watch - they're telling the truth. Or else it's just so charming, in an uplifting way. When I was growing up we didn't have money to go to Broadway shows, so I saw these singers on television. We had money for lessons, and that was it. So when I finally saw Carol Channing in Hello, DollY!, it was the last time she did it. And I was totally inspired by her, totally. It was late when I got to see her, but she was genius - the way she ate those cream puffs! She was Charlie Chaplin, and I was lucky to have seen her, I have to say. Never got to see Mary Martin on stage - well, I did see her on television in Peter Pan. And I went to bed crying because I couldn't fly.
QUESTION: How did you become involved in Dames at Sea?
ANSWER: My first summer away from home, I did summer stock in Mount Gretna, Pennsylvania, and I met a choreographer there who worked at the Caffe Cino. When I got back to the city, he called me and said, "We're doing this show at the Caffe Cino, and I think there's a role you'd be right for. Will you come in?" I remember thinking that I had to find the Caffe Cino. Because it was on Cornelia Street, which is one block long, and I had to find that. When I got there, Helen Hanft was on the stage doing [Tom Eyen's play] Why Hanna's Skirt Won't Stay Down for her relatives who were in town that afternoon. That's where I met the director, Bob Dahdah, and everybody else. I don't remember if I sang - I must have. Anyway, I took on the role, and I had the best time in my whole life. The audience was so great I couldn’t wait to change and get back onstage to say my lines. And then we went legit, so to speak, because Caffe Cino was Off-Off-Broadway. So it moved to Off-Broadway, and I did it there.
QUESTION: When did you know this would be a breakthrough role for you?
ANSWER: I never thought that. Everything is such a roll of the dice. I always felt that, whatever happened, I was enjoying myself. When we did Dames at Sea Off-Broadway, at the Bouwerie Lane Theater, we had the perfect theater. It was a long bowling alley of a theater, with a tiny little stage. I entered from the back of the house, and we had this proscenium arch that opened a foot for the production numbers! I remember thinking, “I’m just having a great time.”
QUESTION: You have worked with some of the greatest contemporary songwriters on Broadway–Stephen Sondheim, Jerry herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber. Is there one who you think particularly “gets” you as a singer?
ANSWER: I have to say I love singing Sondheim. His songs say so much, on so many levels. It’s a pleasure to sing them. I miss them if I don’t sing them for a while.
QUESTION: What was your first contact with Sondheim?
ANSWER: I went in for Sunday in the Park, but it wan’t with him, it was with James Lapine, who wrote the book and directed it. I was doing my act at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, and I got this call. They sent me a couple of scenes because the script wasn’t finished. And I found it very interesting. I spoke to James, and I said, “And who’s going to play George?" For some reason, I had in my mind this very name, because when he said, "Mandy Patinkin," I said, "That's who I had in my mind." It was weird, but I thought this was wonderful. We did a workshop at Playwrights Horizon to really try it on for size. That was a lovely, lovely, lovely experience. And, of course, the work totally intimidated me. It was a particularly hard show to learn.
QUESTION: The role of Dot seems so tailored to your personality and what you could bring to it. Were you involved in the evolution of the role, or were you just presented with it?
ANSWER: With just one thing, I was adamant. I said that she's got to be a strong person, for him to be in love with her. That's why she leaves, because she knows who he is. That's all; the rest was the writers.
QUESTION: The score seems to fit you as a singer.
ANSWER: When Steve knows what someone's voice is like, he writes for it. I think he said once that he originally wrote George low and Dot high. Then when he had Mandy he realized he had to reverse it, because of what our voices could do. So he had that in mind when he voiced it. Working with Steve is wonderful. He's very kind, very open. He hears what you say, and he gives wonderful notes. The blessed event is that you have a writer, a composer who can tell you what he intended.
QUESTION: You have tackled some classic roles, especially in recent years -- Rose in Gypsy, Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun - -but also early in your career, as Hildy in On the Town. Where do you begin with that challenge?
ANSWER: I start with the words, the character. I totally start with the character. I don't think I consciously erase memories, but I really do start fresh - from the words on the page, what they're saying to me and how I would interpret them. You don't ever want to be a carbon copy of somebody. If it happens you're doing it like somebody, it still must always come from a real place. I'm remembering now that I did see Tyne Daly in Gypsy, but that wasn't in my mind at all. It was just off the page. When I was a girl, I was in a road company of the show, but I didn't see Ethel Merman play it. I had Mary McCarty in my ear then but that all went away quickly. I always heard her from the wings or the intercom. I never saw her from the front.
QUESTION: The flip side is that you have created roles other actresses now reinterpret. Is it odd to experience that?
ANSWER: I really haven't seen a lot of them. I didn't see Reba [McEntire] in Annie Get Your Gun, though that's not a role I originated... oh, I did see the revival of Into the Woods with Vanessa Williams. And I enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed her, and I could see where James smoothed out some things, made things better. But...that's really it. The Song and Dance song cycle was on television but that was just before I did it, so I didn't watch it.
QUESTION: How has singing onstage changed in your experience? Broadway shows today are so heavily miked and sonically contrived. Was it like that when you began?
ANSWER: No. I remember we were not miked in George M! We would try to make sure we were near the foot mikes, and we would project. Think about hitting the wall at the back of the theater - which is a technique unto itself. The first time I remember using body mikes was in Mack and Mabel. That made it easier, because you could move around the stage and not have to worry about where the mikes were. You could be farther back. What I like about being miked is that you can get more nuance and subtlety in the singing. You always hope you have a great sound engineer, because you have no control over that.
QUESTION: Most of your recordings in this collection come from original cast recordings. Those are usually made early in a show’s run. Is it frustrating to put your performance down so soon? Chita Rivera said she’d like to be able to record a cast album a litle later, after she’s lived with the role for a while.
ANSWER: Oh, absolutely. It would be so much better to do it later on, but it just doesn’t work that way. You do discover things. That’s what I love about a run in a show–you keep growing, and it becomes such a part of you. It’s a wonderful experience. So, yeah. I’d rather do the album at the end of the run.
QUESTION: The Witch in Into the Woods was a departure for you, especially after Dot in Sunday in the Park With George and Emma in Song and Dance. What was the challenge in creating a three-dimensional person out of a non-specific character?
ANSWER: James [Lapine] really guided me to make sure that she was a real character, because he was the one who said she’s the voice of wisdom. The Witch is is the voice of reason. Certainly, in the end, when she sings the last midnight, she’s telling the truth. At first, of course, I was dying to play it more comically, but he wouldn’t let me.
QUESTION: Mack and Mabel is one of those great “what if” shows. It failed, but there continue to be efforts to revive it and fix it. What is it about that show that makes people unwilling to let it go?
ANSWER: The music, the music, the beautiful music. It’s a great score. From the get-go: “Movies Were Movies.” And there was Robert Preston...you know, you just wanted it to work so badly. But the score’s amazing. The story’s amazing, too, but it was dark for that time. Gower Champion directed it, and he was brilliant. That was another thrill–to work with him. I said before we opened, “I love this so much that even if we’re not a hit I would do the whole thing all over again.” People had a hard time accepting the story about a movie star who’s a drug addict, who mainlined and Oded, you know? And there’s a murder. It would be more interesting now.
QUESTION: When you look at the original production–the material, the cast, the production–you have to say, “What happened?” Was it a fault of timing?
ANSWER: That was part of it, I think, and it was just dark. People wanted a happy ending, so they even put a happy ending on it. I wonder if it would work now if they just left the whole thing dark, from beginning to end–or maybe it would do well in a concert version.
QUESTION: Do you remember the first time you encountered Sondheim’s music? Was it Company? Or Follies?
ANSWER: That’s a good question. Probably Follies.
QUESTION: Does the quality of his work hit you all at once, or does it take some time to sink in?
ANSWER: I know that anything he chooses to write about, he’s going to find something I want to know. Otherwise, he doesn’t even take it on. I know there’s going to be something wonderful in there. I’ve loved everything he’s done.
QUESTION: Is it particularly demanding material to sing – difficult or grateful–in a technical sense?
ANSWER: He’s like an actor/writer, because he writes the character. In Sunday in the Park, for instance, you would know that if a character’s angry, the song is going to be angry, which is harder on the voice. He always says, “Oh, my God, I couldn’t do what you guys do.” He’s so charming and so sweet. I remember once in Sunday in the Park–it must have been early on in previews - there's that tag at the end of the first song, where I repeat things over and over and over. And I lost my words. But I still came in, and I ended the song. He said afterwards, "I know you didn't sing the right words, but you knew exactly how much to add, how many times to repeat it, and you finished correctly. How did you do this?" And I don't know!
QUESTION: Do you remember the recording sessions for those cast albums?
ANSWER: They were fast. Now, when we do them later on - I think we had two days on Annie Get Your Gun, so that was better. And it won a Grammy. It was so hard back in the old days. They always recorded the first Sunday after the show opened. No day off. It's a little more thoughtful now, but it's still crazy.
QUESTION: Are there other roles that you look forward to playing?
ANSWER: After you do Rose in Gypsy it's tough. Jerry Herman came backstage after he saw it and said, "This is the crown in your career." That's the role, you know?
Excerpts from an interview with Bernadette Peters on July 15, 2006, conducted by David Foil.
Nope, I didn't have to retype, as I just used my scanner, which is also a little photocopier, and scanned the document into my computer word-processing software. Only one page would not scan properly, and that is typed. Then, I just remove all coding that the scanner puts in. A one-pager like the introduction probably takes 15 seconds to scan and 1 minute for me to clean up.
Thanks, Jean, so much of interest in that interview. I'm always fascinated when artists of Bernadette's stature are asked such interesting work-related questions. It irks me a little when interviewers waste an interview opportunity by trying to probe into the interviewee's personal life. The subject of the interview will only divulge what they want to divulge and follow a tried and true "script" that we have heard oh-so-many times before (yawn) and so much of it is probably semi-fiction anyway.
But interviews such as this one are truly fascinating to people like myself who admire the craft and technique of such a dedicated and talented woman.