Front Row Q&A: Bernadette Peters
On a life spent in showbiz, caring for shelter animals and singing Sondheim.
On April 13 & 14, Bernadette Peters returns to UConn’s Jorgensen Center for the Performing Arts in Storrs to perform in its Cabaret Series. For more info, call (860) 486-4226 or visit jorgensen.uconn.edu/events.
You've been on the road quite a bit lately.
I've been performing my solo show since the end of January, after Follies closed. I had to make up all these concerts I had canceled twice already, because I had replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones in A Little Night Music; then Follies came to Broadway.
What kind of accompaniment are you traveling with these days?
Sometimes I have a large orchestra, sometimes just nine pieces—which is a newer development. I'm not sure which I'm bringing to Storrs.
Have you ever played any instruments yourself? Some of the writeups I've read about your live show suggest you play piano on "Fever."
I don't have that talent; I wish I did. My pianist for "Fever," is fantastic, though.
Tell us more about the show.
I sing a lot of Stephen Sondheim, which people seem to enjoy. I've added two songs from Follies to my repertoire, "In Buddy's Eyes" and "Losing My Mind." And classics like "When You Wish Upon a Star" and Rodgers' and Hammerstein's "Some Enchanted Evening."
What songs give you the most pleasure to sing?
I love all music. I was talking with Jonathan Tunick, a great orchestrator who worked on my albums of songs by Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein. He has a swing band he wanted me to sing with but I'm actually not available on the date he had in mind. Anyway, we were discussing all kinds of swing, particularly the song, "Why Did I Tell You I Was Going to Shanghai When I'd Rather Be with You Tonight?" [laughs] I'm up for singing anything that's great, with lyrics that take me on an interesting journey that the audience can go on with me.
Over the years I've come to think of you as singing most everything but, say, Rolling Stones songs.
There was a point in my teenage years when
I had a recording career and was dabbling in contemporary pop—not Rolling Stones-style hard rock, but I still adore Aretha Franklin. I did a benefit for The Hole-in-the-Wall-Gang camp not long ago when I sang "Natural Woman" with Carole King, and it put me back in that mental place. I've done it all.
What is it about Stephen Sondheim's songs, that they connect so successfully with listeners on an emotional level?
It's really awesome, isn't it? What's startling about him is that the words and music of each show can be so different, take on an identity that reflects their unique subject matter. He bites into them like an actor playing a part; he's writing them in character each time. You know exactly what's going on with the character each moment; he's helping that person express his or her emotion. And he writes abouit subjects that are truly meaningful. I sing "Children Will Listen," because it's an idea that's worth hearing over and over, and telling the audience over and over—that no one is alone, and all of those things. I never get tired of it; it's always interesting to sing.
I always think about you in the same way I do someone like Julie Andrews, in that you've both been in show-business your whole lives. Is this something your fans are aware of?
I don't know if they're entirely aware of that. Only if they saw me on television years ago; then they'll say, "I remember seeing you on the Carson show" or "I remember when you had a TV series." And sometimes people say, "I didn't realize you sang," because they've only seen me on TV or in a movie.
What started you off as a singer?
I think singing is just inside you. When I was little, there was a juke box in this place we went to, and I'd just stand in front of it and sing along to whatever song was playing. My mother said I also used to sing along with performers on television.
We all sing in the shower, but don't necessarily make the big step of going professional, however.
My sister actually started performing first; she ultimately went to the High School of the Performing Arts in New York City. My mom put me in the business when I was really little, but I had no idea when I was singing on TV that it was live. All I knew was that I was singing, and that these big things—I didn't know they were cameras—were moving in front of me.
Did you ever sing for your family?
I never sang for my relatives—I was always shy in front of company. I always sang in a performance setting, not that I "got" what that was. The TV studio was where I knew I was supposed to sing.
How old were you when you appeared on "Name That Tune?"
Around 8. The first show I did was "Juvenile Jury." I appeared on the pilot, and that's available on kinescope, as part of one of those "Where Are They Now?" packages. It was the episode on which I said, "I don't like taking buses, but I like riding in taxicabs." I was so young I don't really remember that one. But I do remember a show from about six or eight months later. Each kid had to have a problem that a jury of other kids would solve. My problem was that I didn't like getting needles from the doctor. But in reality, I didn't really mind them all that much, and I kept thinking that this problem wasn't important enough to me. It wasn't dramatic or true enough. Needles may have been bad, but I withstood them very well.
When the host of the show would go off script and talk to me about other things, I loved it. I was comfortable and I would just talk.
Have you ever been shy onstage?
No, because there's always a fourth wall there.
Now you're on NBC's new series, "Smash." Tell us about your role.
I play the mother of Megan Hilty, who got the role of Marilyn in the workshop. I'm a Broadway performer of some note, because when I walk into a room they all go crazy; they know who I am. And here's this daughter who's in my shadow trying to have a career, but when I come in they don't even look at her. She and I don't have the greatest relationship, because when she was growing up I was working most of the time. And she thinks I don't want her to be in show business.
It sounds like a fun role, in which you can be kind of a diva.
It's written very well, this show. Theresa Rebeck, whose play Seminar is now on Broadway, also worked on "Law & Order," so she knows the territory.
Having worked extensively on stage, as well as in TV and the movies, do you have a preferred medium?
To me, it's most important to be where the writing is the best. I must say I do love singing. But on this show the writing is really interesting, touching even, so it was fun to perform.
As a singer, how do you keep your voice in shape?
Just by using it. I don't smoke; never have. I'm aware that when I'm working, I can't use my voice in other ways—I can't talk in loud places, can't go to parties. I usually go to a party, say hello and exit, because if I stay I won't have the voice. You're talking over everyone. Talking on the phone wears out your voice; in cars there's ambient sound. You just won't have anything left for a show. It's also important to get sleep.
Do you exercise, worry about diet?
I'm always exercising—I think we've all learned that it's something that's good for the body, anyway.
Have any guilty pleasures?
Every so often—not a lot lately. I like the idea of feeling good. I used to really like sugar, but I don't have the same craving anymore. We've been on the road for months and that's what a show does, gets you into a routine that's very healthy. You sleep eight hours, arrive at the theater at a certain time, eat a certain way. In this show we're doing a tap dance, so our regimen ends up being very healthy. I think a routine is good, like running a treadmill before you go to work. It's harder for me when I'm not in a show, because I don't have an enforced schedule.
You've done the show Gypsy from different perspectives, as a young professional and most recently as Mama Rose. Has that affected your outlook on the show business life?
Doing that show was the best psychotherapy I ever had. It did prompt me to look at my life from a whole different angle. When I played Mama Rose, I had the pleasure . . . June Havoc contacted me, and said "I nvere spoke to anyone who was doing the role—though she said she was friends with Tyne Daly—"but if you'd like to talk with me I'll talk with you, because you are the one who most resembles my mother as a real person." Which gave me a lot of information to go forward on, because everyone always thinks, "Oh, it's the Ethel Merman role"—and it is, but in actuality this woman was small and had blonde hair and was a man-killer. That's why Herbie would follow her around; he was totally in love with her. June told me, "I remember when Herbie first saw my mom, he was at the bottom of the stairs, she was at the top and I saw the look on his face." That's why they had that sexual relationship, because she was a very sexual person.
I work with the New Haven Animal Shelter, and have followed your efforts on hehalf of New York's shelter animals and in establishing "Broadway Barks" . . .
My passion is to see New York City's shelters adopt a no-kill philosophy, develop compassion for those animals—but they're nowhere near that right now. I know I won't be able to make that happen alone. "Broadway Barks" is in its 14th year, and it was the first initiative that got all the rescue groups to work together in one place. My heart goes out and hat goes off to these groups, because they started as individuals who said, "I want to change something." That's how movements begin.
Since we've started talking about this, both of my dogs have come up to me and are leaning against me. They want to get in this conversation.
Have you found that there's more awareness of shelter animals these days?
Oh, sure, it's definitely getting there. Everything takes time, and it took people time to recognize that shelter dogs are great dogs. The awful thing now is that because of the economy, some people can't afford to keep the dogs they already have, and we're seeing more purebreds in certain shelters because their families are surrendering them. I have my two favorite types of dog—one's a shaggy dog and the other is a pit bull.
I've become really fond of pit bulls.
We need to change people's perceptions of the breed. At the turn of the 20th century, the pit bull was the family dog. But nobody remembers that, because it was so long ago, and then these awful men came along and victimized them. I wrote a children's book about Stella, my pit [Stella Is a Star!]—it's about a pit bull who thinks no one likes her so she masquerades as a "pig of the highest order." While we were working on it, my editor would come to the house and see Stella and say, "But she's not a pit bull, right?" because Stella is so sweet.
Do you think you might ever write a memoir?
Possibly, when I have something to say. I think you have to have learned something in life—though I guess you keep learning as you go along. Perhaps when it gets to the point when I feel I have a good handle on something, I'll do it.
What are your plans after this tour?
Right now, I'm looking forward to some time off. Even just a month, which I think will come in March or April. Because I haven't stopped, and I'd love to get my apartment painted and things like that.Front Row Q&A: Bernadette Peters