Thursday, November 29, 2012

Reel Thoughts Interview: Songs of Bernadette

Few Broadway stars generate the unadulterated love and devotion in their fans that Bernadette Peters does. Patti Lupone, Ethel Merman, Liza Minnelli, Betty Buckley and Bebe Neuwirth all have their obsessive fans, but Peters is in a class by herself, thanks in no small part to her frequent collaboration with musical genius Stephen Sondheim. Whenever she is asked why gay audiences love her so much, she always quips, “Because they have great taste.”

There is much more to Peters’ appeal, which lucky Scottsdale audiences will discover when the icon brings her musical evening to the annual Scottsdale Center for the Arts benefit ARTrageous on December 1st. A look at Peters’ calendar shows that she is selective with the number of shows she’ll perform, which makes her appearance this weekend that much more special.

Along with her long time collaborator Marvin Laird, Peters will entertain the audience with music from her long career, and even promises to lounge across the top of the piano while doing a sultry version of Peggy Lee’s “Fever”.

Of course, if you can’t score tickets, you only need to turn on NBC’s deliciously addictive drama Smash to see Ms. Peters playing Megan Hilty’s mother, a Broadway star whose success and perfectionism have scarred poor Ivy (Hilty). Peters hinted that after living in her mother’s shadow, Ivy has to deal with her mother being in the show with her. “You try to make a name for yourself, and then your mother whose shadow you live under is in the show!” Peters said, laughing. “Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman wrote me a wonderful song, and I’m going to do another one, but I don’t know what it is yet.”

The sixty-four year-old powerhouse is guaranteed to give a show legs or keep it running longer than its original star, which is what happened when she gave a devastating performance as Sally in Sondheim’s Follies on Broadway and, before that, took over the part of Desiree in Sondheim’s A Little Night Music from the well-regarded Catherine Zeta Jones.

A well-known animal welfare advocate, Peters co-founded the charity Broadway Barks with her deaqr friend Mary Tyler Moore. The annual event brings out all of Broadways brightest stars like Angela Lansbury and others who donate their time to help unwanted animals find new homes.

Ms. Peters phoned from her home in New York City just days after Hurricane Sandy had devastated Manhattan and the rest of the Northeast.

“I’m very lucky because I live on the Upper West Side and we made it through very well, but friends who live downtown are still without power. But I have another friend who lives all the way down in Tribeca and one of the parking attendants in the garage lost his life. The water must have come rushing in and he drowned.” She posted a link to Broadway Cares on her web site to help fans donate to the victims. “They are an amazing organization. The word “cares,” they really mean it. They really do whatever they can when disaster hits.”

Peters and Moore hit upon the idea to found Broadway Barks when Peters was starring in Annie Get Your Gun. Now approaching its fifteenth year, the event is a fun way for the public to meet their Broadway idols and rescue pets from the shelters.

NC: I’m thrilled that you’ll be in Scottsdale in December. Do you have some favorite songs that you will be singing for us?
BP: There are certain ones I love just hearing the sentiments of like “No One is Alone” and “Children Will Listen.” Those are important things in life, and just for me to hear them again is a great reminder of how we should be thinking about each other and our lives. I do Rodgers and Hammerstein – “Some Enchanted Evening” – and I do “When You Wish Upon a Star” and I do some Sondheim as well.

NC: I flew out to NYC just to see you in Follies, and I was blown away.
BP: Thank you. That’s quite something, that show, isn’t it? I’m bringing two songs from Follies also.

NC: How did you become the go-to woman to bring Sondheim’s songs and characters to life, and how do you identify with his works?
BP: You know, I’m just so fortunate that he gives me so many things to sing about. He writes the music and the lyrics and he says exactly what the character is feeling. He writes the notes which expresses the passion and he writes the words that express the emotion of the moment. He writes about really great stuff... what a gift he is to us! He’s a national treasure, we’re just so blessed to have him.

NC: You must hear this a lot, but you are so iconic in all the roles you have created; how does someone with your talent and resumé still find challenging work?
BP: I trust the universe! (Laughing) And then things come to me. When I plan something, forget it, it never happens. Right now, I’m doing Smash. I am having fun with that because it’s an interesting role.

NC: I just saw the trailer for the film Coming Up Roses. It looks terrific.
BP: Thank you. It’s loosely based on the director’s story. She’s a fifteen year-old girl and I play her mother who has emotional issues. Back in those days, they didn’t really put names on them. She’s not only bipolar but also emotional, scary issues and the girl takes care of her. It’s sort of sad. But family triumphs in the end. It’s a very touching story, I think.

NC: I was touched to see your support of Spirit Day. What else would you like your GLBT fans to know about your support of our issues?
BP: Well, it’s interesting, I just came back yesterday from performing on my “dream cruise” which was that it never left the port and my audience was a gay audience. It was the most wonderful, lovely experience. But in the end I go out in the audience and sing a lullaby and I thought, “Why is this different?” They’re just so open and willing and eager and open. I think that their spirits are just so open, it’s really a beautiful thing. That’s what I felt from the audience, this great warmth. It was lovely, just lovely.

5 Other Places to See Bernadette Peters:
  • All’s Fair: This 1976 sitcom by two of the writers on I Love Lucy, Maude and All in the Family cast Peters as liberal photographer Charley Drake who is dating conservative writer Richard Barrington, played by Richard Crenna. “Richard Crenna really knew about scripts. I just felt honored to be in his company.”
  • Silent Movie: Before The Artist, comedy genius Mel Brooks filmed an almost silent movie starring Peters, Marty Feldman, Dom DeLuise and every star in Hollywood in hilarious cameos. “He pushed the envelope, but it was always funny. I think what happens today is that they’re shocking, but they’re not funny.”
  • Gypsy: YouTube videos recall Peters’ amazing performance as Mama Rose on Broadway. “I loved that role. It was like going into therapy... it was like the best therapy I ever had. I sort of lived that life because I was on the road with my mother and my sister in that show.
  • Into the Woods: PBS recorded Peters’ performance as the witch in Sondheim’s twisted take on Grimms' fairy tales, which predated TV’s Once Upon a Time by two decades. “That’s another show that I feel so fortunate to have done, and I’m so glad they recorded it because it’s so funny. You don’t ever get to see it when you’re in it, but I finally watched it and thought, “What a good idea for a show! This is great!” But kids across the country studying theater got to see it and Sunday in the Park with George. And I just think it’s the most beautiful score.”
  • The Jerk and Pennies from Heaven: Peters partnership with Steve Martin produced the iconic idiot comedy The Jerk and the unusual musical Pennies from Heaven, which also includes a dance number by Christopher Walken. Peters won a Golden Globe for her performance in the latter.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.

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