When it was announced Stephen Sondheim and Hugh Wheeler’s A Little Night Music would return to Broadway for its first-ever revival in 2009, it seemed impossible any two leading ladies could generate more buzz than original stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Angela Lansbury, who took the stage as aging diva actress Desiree and disapproving mother, Madame Armfeldt. Of course, that was before the announcement of their successors, stage legends Bernadette Peters and Elaine Stritch, the two Sondheim muses breathing acclaimed new life into the production. The arrival of beloved Tony Award winner (for Song and Dance and Annie Get Your Gun) Peters, whose last Broadway outing was in 2003’s Gypsy, in particular prompted critics and fans alike to revisit the revival. Reviews quickly rolled in declaring her performance “not to be missed,” a “must-see,” a “masterpiece” and “the part she was born to play.” With the actress, who is also famously an animal advocate (she co-founded of Broadway Barks, which places animals in adoptive homes), now comfortably settled into her new home at the Walter Kerr Theatre, Broadway.com checked in with Peters to talk about her unexpected return to the Great White Way, her ironic allergy and the performers she’ll drop everything to see.
So, as the story goes, you and Stephen Sondheim are on the phone and he casually mentions you should play Desiree on Broadway. What was your first reaction?
I thought it was great, but was surprised—we were talking about something else entirely, and all of a sudden he goes, "Did they ever call you about replacing [Catherine Zeta-Jones]? Because I think you’d make a great Desiree." I hadn’t heard a thing about it, but that got the ball rolling quickly. And here we are.
This is the first time you’ve ever replaced someone on Broadway—did you have any concerns?
No. And maybe that was dumb. [Laughs.] I thought it would be wonderful. I mean, you think to yourself, “What is this [role] really? A song and a half? This will be easy.” Then you’re playing it and realize it’s a three-hour play. And it really is a play—the book is fabulous. Then there’s that divine music. I’m in awe of it. I leave the theater wanting to go home and listen to the album because it’s so beautiful it just gets stuck in your head.
Which numbers get stuck in your head?
It changes all the time. “Soon.” “A Weekend in the Country.” They permeate you.
You singing “Send in the Clowns” has gotten a remarkable amount of press. Has it surprised you that a single song drew that much attention?
I suppose it does. I’m just happy anyone’s enjoying it. I don’t really read the press. I hear when things are favorable and I certainly hear when things are not. Past that, it’s just my job to do the show every night and focus on that.
In what ways do you relate to Desiree the woman?
I find something [relatable] within myself with all my characters. With Desiree, it’s that she’s dissatisfied with her life. I think at some point we all get to that point—it’s the only way change happens. It’s not a bad thing, and I’ve certainly felt it myself.
Is there anything about Desiree you cannot relate to?
That everyone is always talking about her! “Oh, Desiree is so perfect! She’s so pretty, she’s so this, she’s so that!” That’s not something I’m used to.
So what is Bernadette Peters’ personal favorite "night music"?
I think it would have to be something classical for me. There’s this thing called Symphonic Sondheim I just love to play. It’s by Don Sebesky, who took and orchestrated beautiful symphonic versions of [Sondheim’s] work. One of them is “The Sweeney Todd Suites.” I like to put is on when it’s snowing out—I look up out the window and see the wind blowing, and it’s that ba-dum ba-dum ba-dum ba-DUM from the overture. I get so excited. “It’s snowing! Put on Sweeney Todd!”
People are calling your performance in Night Music a “must-see.” Who are the performers you’ll drop everything to go see?
Well, speaking of Sweeney Todd, Michael Cerveris anytime he does Sondheim. The same goes for Mandy Patinkin—he’s electric onstage. Vanessa Redgrave, certainly. There’s an English actress who hasn’t been over here for a while, Eileen Atkins, and I love her. [The late] Natasha Richardson—she was so brilliant in A Streetcar Named Desire I went to see her twice. Harry Connick Jr. It’s so hard to single any one person out. Oooh, but Sting! Sting, too. I love him.
Speaking of great performers, has working with Elaine Stritch been what you thought it would be?
She’s so wonderful! I really mean that. From day one I’ve loved her. She’s brilliant. To have the opportunity to work with someone who knows so much is a great gift. She’s pliable—her comedy leaves space for so many things to happen. It’s a pleasure to learn from her.
You started learning about performing as a child actress. At what point did your career feel like it belonged to you, not to a parent or anyone else?
I had a wonderful singing coach named James Gregory, who has since passed on. I was a teenager in high school when my sister, who was also his student, began taking me to see him. There were wonderful afternoons of just singing my feelings during [our lessons], working out all the things a teenager goes through that way. It was around then that I started thinking this, singing and expressing one ’s self, was a great thing to do. I think it must have been around then that it felt like my [career path] and I was pursuing it.
What were your career goals at that young age?
You know, I never had goals! They make me nervous. I’ve learned from experience that if I do have an odd moment where I say, “I’m going to do this, I’m going to get this part, I’m going to make something specific happen,” it never happens for me, personally. The way things happen for me are usually a roundabout sort of thing—like Steve [Sondheim] just calling and asking me about Desiree.
Can you recall a specific example, besides Night Music?
Well, there was Mack and Mabel. I auditioned and didn’t get it. So I booked another job. One day the show’s composer, Jerry Herman, called me. He said, “Are you in town? Don’t leave town!” But I couldn’t stay in town because I was leaving for work elsewhere that very day. He was disappointed, but that’s the way it works. So I’m on the plane waiting to take off and the captain comes over the loud speaker and says, “Ladies and gentlemen, we’re having engine problems and you’ll have to exit the plane until we fix it.” I get off the plane. We didn’t have cell phones in those days, so I call my agents to let them know I’m delayed. They said, “Wait, don’t hang up—[Mack and Mabel producer] David Merrick is on the other line.” Suddenly I’m being told not to get back on that plane, because I’ve got the lead in Mack and Mabel. If the plane hadn’t been delayed, I might not have gotten that call at all. I’m telling you, it’s very strange.
You felt there was a little divine intervention there?
It does start to feel like, “Well, what does the universe want me to do next?” But it usually makes good decisions for me.
How does years of the universe delivering good things effect your perspective?
I want to be good—as good as I can be. So now when I get an opportunity, I look at it closely and go, “Why am I getting this opportunity now? What can I learn from it?” I did that with Night Music, you know? I go with it and learn what I can.
Do you still actively have to seek out work at this point in your career?
Sometimes my agent actively submits me for something. But a lot of the time people say, “I think Bernadette would be good for this,” and then call. It works both ways. I’m very lucky that when I am free, I do concert dates. I earn my living that way. The rest of the time little gifts, like A Little Night Music, just appear as this did.
Between concerts, shows, media appearances, etc., where do you squeeze in a personal life?
When I’m doing concerts, I don’t stay on the road. I do the concert and come back home. But when you’re doing a full run of a show, like I am now, it’s very difficult to have anything like a personal life. All you have are Sunday nights and Monday, and by then I’m pretty tired out.
That’s not even factoring in your animal advocacy work, like with Broadway Barks.
Do your dogs come to the theater with you?
No, sadly they stay at home—they’re too big! Also, weirdly, I’m allergic to animals, so it’s best they not be in the dressing room.
You’re allergic to animals? That’s ironic, isn’t it?
It is! In my house, we’re fine. There’s enough space and air that [pet dander] doesn’t get to me. But in a dressing room it’s much smaller and their hair gets caught in the carpet. Suddenly I can’t breathe as well!
Has your animal advocacy has inspired the Night Music cast? I hear [co-star] Leigh Ann Larkin adopted a dog.
It’s true! Though that adorable little dog is now competing with her other dog for attention, so who know knows how it will work out. But the whole cast has been great in supporting that cause for me. They were even with me at Broadway Barks, bringing out dogs from the shelter we work with to help get them adopted.
There have been so many comments, especially recently, about how you don’t look anywhere near your age [Peters is 62]. Are the dogs your fountain of youth?
Of course! Anything that is healing is [helpful], and dogs certainly are healing. That’s a good way to look at it—that the dogs keep me young. I like that.