FEATURE: ‘Broadway Baby’ – The extraordinary career of Bernadette Peters

Born Bernadette Lazzara in February 1948, New Yorker Bernadette Peters has become a byword for Broadway glamour.

Starting her career at just 3 years old, Peters secured her Actors Equity Card aged 9. Changing her surname from Lazzara to Peters to avoid typecasting, Bernadette appeared as one of the Hollywood Blondes in a national tour of Gypsy in 1961.

In 1964, Peters won the role of Liesel in The Sound of Music. After graduating, Peters began to find steady work in off-Broadway productions. Her Broadway debut came in 1967, appearing in Johnny No-Trump by Mary Mercier. While the play closed after one performance, her next role – Josie in George M (playing opposite Joel Grey) – won her the attention of the theatre community, plus a Theatre World Award.

Joining the off-Broadway production of Dames at Sea in 1968, Peters performed as Ruby. For this parody of 1930’s musicals, Peters won a Drama Desk Award. The leading roles started coming Bernadette’s way, with Peters appearing in On the Town in 1971. Her role as Hildy gave Peters her first Tony Award nomination. Peters then made the decision to move to Los Angeles to take advantage of the opportunities in film and television work.

At first, the move appeared to be well-timed. Bernadette appeared in The Jerk with a role written for her by Steve Martin, and won a Golden Globe for her role in 1981’s Pennies from Heaven. Getting significant screen time in the 1982 adaptation of Annie, starring Albert Finney and Carol Burnett, Peters then made the surprising move back to New York.

Becoming increasingly frustrated with Hollywood’s expectations of her, Peters wanted to return to Broadway. With her petite frame, curls and unique voice, Peters risked being cast in the same roles. With theatre, she saw a chance for something more.

In 1983, Peters began attending a workshop run by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine. They were working on a new production – Sunday in the Park with George. It was going to be a musical based on the life of artist Georges Seurat. The show, with its daring and sophisticated take on what a musical could be, won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama (at the time, only the sixth musical to do so). Peters received her third Tony Award nomination, with her performance being praised as “radiant” by New York Times critic, Frank Rich.

It is interesting to note how many times the careers of Peters and Sondheim intersect. A lyricist and composer whose early work includes West Side Story and Gypsy, Stephen Sondheim’s musicals have challenged and provoked the theatre-goer. A deliberate step away from the sentimentalised lyrics of mid-century musicals, Sondheim deploys the darker shades available to a songwriter, creating a catalogue of minor notes and big emotion.

Described as one of the best interpreters of his work, Peters not only conquers the Sondheim lyrics, she inhabits them. To successfully read Sondheim requires the ability to find the emotion, whether it’s laid out on the page (Follies) or hidden in the pause between words – the lyric unspoken (Company). It’s a popular misconception that Sondheim’s work is overly intellectualised, but Peters’ interpretation forms a compelling argument for us to consider the musical as complete only during the act of performance itself. The actor is the final piece of the puzzle.

Working with Andrew Lloyd Webber in 1985, Peters won her first Tony Award for her role in Song and Dance. She was not only hitting her stride, but her ability to interpret lyrics was getting her noticed.

In 1987, she created the role of The Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Finding the heart in Sondheim’s technically demanding score, Peters was finally being recognised for her work. Aged 47, she became the youngest person to be inducted into the Theatre Hall of Fame. Entering her fifties, Peters’ career soared further with a second Tony Award for her performance in Annie Get your Gun. The revival, which debuted in 1999, opened to mixed reviews but Bernadette sold it – the public came anyway.

In 2003, Peters was nominated again for another Tony. Starring as Mama Rose in Gypsy, Bernadette recreated a role previously inhabited by Broadway legend Ethel Merman. Peters won, not by competing with Merman, but adapting the role to her own strengths. Pulling out the vulnerability in Mama Rose, Bernadette stretches it to breaking point.

The revivals kept coming, and in 2010, A Little Night Music saw Peters take on the role of Desiree Armfeldt. Another Sondheim production, the New York Times review for Peters’ performance is the stuff dreams are made of: “for theatre lovers there can be no greater pleasure than to witness Bernadette Peters perform the show’s signature number, Send In the Clowns, with an emotional transparency and musical delicacy that turns this celebrated song into an occasion of transporting artistry.” Not bad for a day’s work.

In 2011, continuing to capitalise on the growing trend for revivals, Peters played Sally Durant Plummer in Follies, receiving a Drama Desk nomination for her performance, and in 2017, took on the lead role in Hello Dolly! following a phenomenal run with Bette Midler. A performance dubbed “sadder, but wiser” by critics, Peters used real-life experience to create a poignancy in Dolly Levi. Here, Dolly is not the merry widow, but a woman scratching around for something – anything – to fill the silence.

In 2012, New Dramatists (a group supporting emerging playwrights), presented Peters with a Lifetime Achievement Award. In summing up her achievement, they described her as “…always [bringing] out the best and richest in the work of her composers and writers.”

This statement captures, quite neatly, what Peters is all about. Her career exemplifies is how a performer can remain relevant, if they are open to change. From a period that covers the high point of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s career, to the revivals that have garnered huge success in the 2010s, Peters has survived, not just by virtue of talent, but because she has evolved. The theatre industry itself has struggled to adapt to the changing profile of its audience, but in the spate of recent revivals, there is more at work than selling a sure-fire hit. There is little argument that some songs have aged better than others, but the continuing success of composers such as Sondheim prove that when it comes to songs such as Send in the Clowns, there is no expiration date. It goes beyond contemporary taste, and yet when performed by Peters; the lyrics stripped back and exposed, it feels utterly of the moment. Whether you’re hearing a song for the first time, or you can recite the words by heart, artists like Bernadette Peters are crucial to the ongoing success of musical theatre. As we move further into a virtual age, the connection between an artist and their audience becomes not only powerful, but necessary.

Moving into concert work, Peters has been touring her cabaret act, An Evening with Bernadette Peters, to unanimous critical acclaim. Her 2016 concert at London’s Festival Hall is now available on YouTube – with Peters’ performance of Unexpected Song having been viewed over 670,000 times.

Now in her seventies, Peters has lived through the mixed fortunes of musical theatre by keeping ahead of the game. Choosing to blend stage work with concerts, film and television, Peters has become the modern, multi-platform artist. Moving away from the early days, where industry insiders were keen to label her as the cute one; the baby-face with the kewpie-doll voice, Peters has reclaimed her identity in the changing theatre landscape. She is a woman now working on her own terms. It takes a brave artist to step away from the familiar and rebrand, but that is exactly what she has done.

Peters’ concert performances today are all about the smoulder. The skill she brought to interpreting Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics is perfectly suited to the intimate setting of a concert. The full belt of the Broadway voice isn’t always what’s needed – with a smaller audience, persuasion is key. In the Royal Festival Hall concert, Peters delivers a masterclass in her performance of Broadway Baby. Breathing the lines into the microphone, the effect may be Marilyn Monroe, but Peters isn’t fooling around. This is a teasing, masterful rendition of the Follies hit. Give the audience what they want, she says – just not all at once.

Peters’ sound is the culmination of a life spent working with the best in the business. But paired with her impish sense of fun, her performances cannot help but be thoroughly and proudly individual. Her ability to move us from high emotion to belly laughs is down not only to talent, but instinct too. Peters returns to the stage armed with experience, and a piercing intelligence that sees the lyric, hears the melody and understands just what’s needed.

Bernadette Peters – the UK tour commences on 10 June 2019. Details and tickets available at Bernadetteinconcert.com

Helen Tope | Image: Kurt Sneddon

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