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Bernadette Peters on Losing Her Mind in the New Movie Coming Up Roses and Her Thank-You Note to Sondheim

Bernadette Peters on Losing Her Mind in the New Movie Coming Up Roses and Her Thank-You Note to Sondheim
Bernadette Peters & Rachel Brosnahan in 'Coming Up Roses'
'I try to find characters that surprise me, because then the audience will be surprised, too.'

Bernadette Peters was nominated for a Tony as Gypsy’s Rose and drove her TV daughter Megan Hilty nuts in Smash, but neither of those diva turns compares to the mayhem she causes in the indie film Coming Up Roses. Peters plays Diane, a former summer stock actress whose mental illness wreaks havoc on her daughters in mid-1980s New Hampshire. In a performance devoid of vanity, Peters veers between suicide attempts and nutty stunts, such as showing up unannounced at her older child’s wedding to deliver a surprise rendition of “Sunrise, Sunset.”

“I tried to be honest in every moment,” Peters told Broadway.com of Coming Up Roses, due for limited release on November 9. (The movie has nothing to do with Gypsy, despite its title.) “I try to find characters that surprise me, because then the audience will be surprised, too.” And despite Peters’ experience playing domineering moms, this role was particularly harrowing: “The day I had to hit my 15-year-old daughter [played by Rachel Brosnahan, niece of designer Kate Spade], it was shocking to find that anger in myself.”

Peters is headed back to the second season of Smash [debuting in February 2013] as Broadway star Leigh Conroy, a role she calls “really, really fun.” Although NBC insists she not discuss her character’s possible involvement in the show’s Marilyn Monroe musical, Peters says, “Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have written a beautiful song for me. I’m in two episodes so far, with maybe a third coming up, so we’ll see what happens.”

Of course, no chat with Bernadette Peters would be complete without mentioning her incredible collaboration with Stephen Sondheim, including acclaimed recent Broadway performances as Desiree Armfeldt in A Little Night Music and Sally Durant Plummer in Follies. “Funnily enough, I had never even thought about A Little Night Music,” she says. “The character has only one song, and I always come to roles through the songs. But my singing teacher said to me, ‘That’s your role.’ And she was right: It was a perfect, wonderful role.”

As for Sally in Follies, Peters reflects, “There was even more to her than I had thought, because a lot of that script is about what’s not being said. Sally is such a sad character: She marries a guy who is never there, he’s stepping out on her, and she’s dreaming about what life could have been like with Ben. She got stuck at 19 years old.” Surveying Sondheim’s works, Peters notes that Sweeney Todd’s Mrs. Lovett is still left to conquer, “but they did that [on Broadway] not long ago. I once learned 'The Worst Pies in London,' and the details in that song are incredible.”

Having starred on Broadway in five shows composed or with lyrics by Sondheim (including Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George), Peters says, “I just feel fortunate to be able to share his words [with audiences]. Any song you take on of his, you’re going to get so much nourishment back. I do ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ and ‘Losing My Mind’ in concert, and he gives so much to work with. I wrote him an e-mail recently and said, ‘Thank you for giving me something to sing about.’”

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