In a career spanning more than 60 years, Bernadette Peters’ voice has filled Carnegie Hall, the Royal Festival Hall and the Sydney Opera House. It has earned her seven Tony Award nominations and two wins. It has elevated the work of some of the most illustrious composers of the 20th century: the soaring sunny highs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, the soapy emoting of Andrew Lloyd Webber, the complex curlicues of Stephen Sondheim.
And at this moment I’m listening to that celebrated voice imitate the sound of a dog over the phone. It’s not unmelodious. I won’t attempt to render it phonetically.
”Charlie sings,” Peters promises. Charlie won’t be coaxed, however.
Peters turns 66 in February. When she is not attempting a duet with her labradoodle-pointer, she speaks with the same warmth and vulnerable, girly, cooing quality that has won over audiences for decades.
It is all there in her famous concert-opening number, beckoning us closer with her sly, elongated purrs (”I’m … just … aaaaahhhh …”), sauntering cutely up to the melody (”… Broadway Baaaaaby …”), and building determinedly to a devastating climax. ”I didn’t sound like that as a child though,” she says. ”My voice was low and raspy and funny-sounding.” It was an unconscious imitation of her mother’s voice, which was constricted by swollen vocal cords.
Perhaps it’s this memory of a time before she found her voice that keeps Peters from taking it for granted. ”It was a gift,” she says.
”I always say that my singing teacher gave me a gift, because what she gave me was a way to express myself.”
Peters, born Bernadette Lazzara in Queens in 1948, first appeared on television when she was three. By the age of five, she was taking singing and tap dancing lessons. By nine, she was a member of Actors’ Equity under her new, less obviously Italian, more marquee-friendly surname, Peters.
By 13, she was understudying the part of Dainty June in a national touring production of the musical Gypsy. In five months on the road, she performed the role just once, she notes drily, ”when a stagehand hit the main actress in the head”.
It occurred to Peters only much later how well the show mirrored her own life at that time. The story that unfurls in Gypsy is that of a stage-struck mother desperate to turn her daughter into a star.
”I had an aptitude for it, but I’ve got to be honest and say the career was my mother’s idea more than mine,” Peters says. ”I never really liked being on the road. I missed home.”
There is no bitterness on her part about the time – ”no big deal”, her tone seems to say – but she is also unable to recall any fond memories.
”It was fine,” she says after a thoughtful pause. ”It was a hobby for me at that point. I was just play-acting. I was still involved with my friends at school and being a young girl and a pre-teen.”
She does, however, fondly recall growing up in a music-loving household, catching the likes of Frank Sinatra, Ethel Merman, Lena Horne and Ella Fitzgerald on The Ed Sullivan Show (”Thank God for The Ed Sullivan Show”).
It was in late high school that she finally fell in love with her singing and acting lessons and was overtaken by a genuine passion for performing. ”It was something that I realised I loved doing and wanted to continue doing.”
Once she was moving on her own momentum, there was no stopping her. Peters made her Broadway debut at 19 in Johnny No-Trump. The show was a colossal failure – it closed after one performance – but within the year, she had attained star status and won her first Drama Desk Award for Dames at Sea.
Tony nominations followed for her performances in On the Town and Mack and Mabel, but Peters sought new challenges.
She took a detour into film and television in the mid-’70s, winning a Golden Globe for Pennies in Heaven, and deploying her musical theatre-honed ability to look graceful in the face of extreme silliness in Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie, Steve Martin’s The Jerk and The Muppet Show. (That said, it is possible to spot her stifling a giggle as Martin licks her face in The Jerk. He and Peters were a couple for four years.)
She has kept up the screen work, but when she was finally wooed back to the stage in 1983, for Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, she sensed that she had returned to her rightful home. In the role of Dot, the frustrated mistress and model of artist Georges Seurat, Peters navigated breathless passages of prickly 16th notes and other musical ”surprises”.
”I was intimidated by Stephen [Sondheim], as everyone is of someone with such enormous talent. He writes both the music and the lyrics, so he’s always been clear about what he wants, and he’s prepared to argue for it.
”There were times when I couldn’t remember the words, but he would say, ‘I couldn’t do what you do! I couldn’t get up there and sing.’ He was very sweet.”
Apart from the technical challenges, the part was emotionally demanding. Peters embodied her character’s upset and rejection in a very real way in every performance. ”But that’s the fulfilling part,” she says. ”When something happens to you during the song.”
Sunday in the Park marked the beginning of a long and fruitful association with Sondheim. In the last 10 years, she has starred in acclaimed revivals of Follies, A Little Night Music and – demonstrating that if history doesn’t repeat itself, it at least rhymes – Gypsy.
She also originated the role of the Witch in Into the Woods, a role to be recreated by Meryl Streep in the 2014 film version.
(Peters laughs graciously when I announce plans to rally her fans together to picket outside cinemas. “Meryl Streep is wonderful,” she says. “They’ve done a great job of casting.”)
Sunday in the Park with George was followed by Tony Award-winning performances in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance and Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, which in turn catapulted Peters on to the concert stage in a big way.
She is now a regular on the concert circuit, relishing the chance to step out of character, perform her most cherished numbers and connect with her fans.
”It’s thrilling and wonderful,” she says. ”There’s no fourth wall. I get to talk to the audience and I get to choose the songs that I’ve been sitting backstage listening to during shows, or songs that have been running around in my head for years.”
She has a nightly preshow ritual she has kept up since performing Song and Dance: she consults her set list and thinks about what she can bring to every song.
”Each song has an experience and I find the experience in my own life to match up with it. I simply aspire to make it a fresh experience for myself and the audience. How does it relate to me today? How do I feel today? And how is this song relevant today at six o’clock as I go over it? I want to keep it fresh as can be. What new thoughts can I feel? What new insight can I bring to it? We bring on stage all the things that we are.”
When Peters sang Send in the Clowns in A Little Night Music a few years ago, for example, she wanted to express the weight of its long, disconsolate silences.
”Those pauses are wonderful for what’s going on in that moment, of what’s not being said, you know. I bring all that information with me into that song: that heartache, that loss, because I know …” For a moment, she seems on the verge of revealing something personal. ”Because I know the scene inside and out,” she says finally.
In 2006, her husband of nine years, Michael Wittenberg, died in a helicopter crash. She already had a benefit concert and a string of tour dates scheduled. The shows went on.
”It was three weeks after,” she says. ”If it was two weeks, I couldn’t have done it. And then there were other shows I’d committed to.” Her voice grows faint on the line. ”It was about putting one foot ahead of the other.”
She has certainly kept busy. With an active solo concert schedule and frequent television appearances, and the Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods video recordings still doing the rounds, her devoted following grows wider and younger all the time.
She has her own ways of showing gratitude to her fans. Peters has, perhaps without even realising it, gravitated towards songs in which she plays the part of the audience’s fairy godmother, imparting sage advice or offering comfort: the soothing reassurance of No One Is Alone, the delicate wisdom of Children Will Listen and the gentle urging of Move On, even the definitive fairytale lullaby When You Wish Upon a Star.
She is reluctant to play favourites with her songs – ”They’re all my children,” she says – but she does say that With So Little to Be Sure Of is one she especially likes to share in concert: ”Thanks for everything we did/Everything that’s past/Everything that’s over too fast.”
Lifted from the show Anyone Can Whistle, the song turns from a lovers’ farewell to an ode of gratitude to her audience, which seems to sum up Peters’ knack for seeming as if she’s not just singing for you, but to you.
”That’s absolutely the intention,” she says. ”Every night when you’re performing live, it’s different. You’re all in this together. Something wonderful should happen.”
Bernadette Peters is at Sydney’s Theatre Royal on April 2 and 3. Tickets are on sale now. She plays Her Majesty’s Theatre, in Melbourne on April 7 and 8, 2014.
This interview originally appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age in December 2013.