"The greatest gift" Peters goes deeper and deeper into Sondheim's characters Interview by Michael Portantiere "Broadway Baby" is one of the many songs by Stephen Sondheim that Bernadette Peters has sung in her career. The phrase "Broadway Baby" is also a sweet sobriquet for the lady herself.

Having made several appearances on television in her early childhood, Peters understudied the role of Dainty June in the second national tour of Gypsy at age 13, then went on to win a 1968 Drama Desk Award for her performance as Ruby in Dames at Sea and a Theater World Award for what was essentially her 1968 Broadway debut, as Josie Cohan in George M!

Peters' association with Sondheim, which began with that long-ago tour of Gypsy, has continued and deepened over the decades. She created and put an indelible stamp on the roles of Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George (1984) and The Witch in Into the Woods (1987), and she appeared as Fay Apple in a benefit concert presentation of Anyone Can Whistle at Carnegie Hall (1995). She played the mother of all stage mothers when she starred as Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy and was applauded for her beautiful performance as Desirée Armfeldt when she succeeded Catherine Zeta-Jones in the 2009 revival of A Little Night Music.

She has also sung Sondheim songs in myriad concerts, club acts and benefit events, most recently delivering a deeply emotional rendition of "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along in Sondheim: The Birthday Concert at Avery Fisher Hall in 2010.

Now she's back on Broadway as Sally Durant Plummer in Follies, reprising the part she first assayed when this acclaimed production premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in June 2011. Peters granted an interview to “The Sondheim Review” in October 2011, about a month after the show's triumphant Broadway opening.

Michael Portantiere: Before I ask you anything else, I must compliment you on the gorgeous soprano notes you display in "Too Many Mornings" and other songs in Follies. You've always been known more as an alto/mezzo belter. Where have you been hiding those high notes all these years?
Bernadette Peters: I've been hiding them in my head! It's funny, when I was rehearsing for Sunday in the Park with George , my singing teacher, Adrienne Angel, gave me some opera arias to work on. I was apprehensive. I said, "Am I really going to be singing in my head voice?" But she said, "You're a soprano!"

MP : Over the years, have you regularly exercised your upper register when you vocalize?
Peters: Oh, yes, I always go up there, because that's the way to preserve your voice. When I was in Song and Dance and I had to sing the whole first act by myself, with all that belting and all that emotion, my voice would get really tight, so I would do therapeutic vocalizing with Adrienne every day. I kept working on the high notes, very gently.

MP: I've been trying to remember if you ever before sang high soprano in your career, and the only thing I came up with was that little bit in Dames at Sea, in the "Star Tar" number.
Peters: That's right, the obbligato!

MP: Anyway, it was nice to hear that part of your voice in Follies. Have there been any changes in your interpretation of Sally since the opening in D.C.?
Peters: Well, as you get to know the script and the characters, you can go deeper and deeper. What's hard about this script is that you have some dialogue or a song, then you go off for a while, and then you have to come back on with the same intensity with which you left. We all agreed that it was a challenge to keep the emotion going while we're offstage. The scenes are short in Follies, but it's a very emotional story. You have to find the reality of the characters in those little scenes.

MP: Did you work up a bio for Sally, for acting purposes?
Peters: Yes — where she came from, what happened in her life. First I had her coming from Long Island, but then I changed that. I thought it would be more interesting if she came from the Midwest and then had to go back to the Midwest with Buddy, because the Follies closed and she had no other options. I think she and Buddy lived in Brooklyn for a while, and she thought maybe they would be okay. But then they moved to Phoenix, where there's nothing. He became a traveling salesman, so he was never home. She put all of her energies into her sons and became an overbearing mother; they couldn't stand it, so they left. And Sally was left sitting alone in Phoenix with nothing to do but obsess over Ben, the man she thought she should have married.

MP: I interviewed Danny Burstein [who plays Buddy] during rehearsals for the Kennedy Center run and, at the time, he felt Sally and Buddy's marriage would not survive what happens at the Follies reunion. What do you think?
Peters: Well, in D.C. I thought maybe it would survive, but now I've realized how deeply she goes into her hopelessness at the end. You know, there's a version of the script where Buddy is more of a cheerleader for Sally, but we don't use that version.

MP: Also, in the original script, Sally references the fact that she has attempted suicide more than once. Those lines aren't in the script you're doing, but did you use that information as part of the history you created for Sally?
Peters: No. But in my interpretation, it's certainly something that could happen for her in the future.

MP: How strong is Sally's grip on sanity?
Peters: Very fragile. She needs something so badly, and she's so disappointed, that anything can throw her emotionally.

MP: I'd like to ask you about your experience playing Desirée in A Little Night Music. In some ways, that was an atypical role for you. Did you find it a stretch?
Peters: No! It's funny, I hadn't thought about that role much before I played it, but my singing teacher always said, "That's your role." It turned out to be really wonderful for me.

MP: One of the most impressive things about your performance was that you sported a lovely, light, very natural sounding British accent, which seemed just right even though the character isn't British.
Peters: Thank you. I wanted to fit in with the rest of the company, who were speaking that way. And, of course, my leading man was English. So I worked on the accent, and then I toned it down a bit.

MP: Your rendition of "Send in the Clowns" has already become the stuff of Broadway legend. Had you ever sung that song before?
Peters: I sang it for a short time in my nightclub act. Now that I know what it's really about, I don't think I'll ever do it again unless I set it up with some of the dialogue. The song takes you to such a beautiful place, emotionally and dramatically. I don't think you can just get up and flip it off; you have to let the audience know what's happening.

MP: You've performed many Sondheim songs out of context in various venues. Do you find it difficult to do so, given that so many of the songs are quite specific to the particular characters and situations?
Peters: I haven't found it difficult, but it's a different approach. For example, I had been singing "In Buddy's Eyes" in my concerts, but without the verse, which is really a scene in itself. I would just do it from the chorus. Now I'm married to it this way. I love Sondheim's songs; they really speak to me. The music and lyrics are so well written, and each song has such a strong intent.

MP: Had you seen previous productions of Follies or Night Music?
Peters: I saw the Roundabout Follies and the Encores! production. I saw a concert version of Night Music years ago, and I saw the show with Catherine [Zeta-Jones] and Angela [Lansbury] before I went into it. I'll never forget: The show started, and I thought, "Oh my God, the man who wrote Company and Sunday in the Park with George and Pacific Overtures wrote this, too." When I was in the show, I was enveloped by all of that glorious music. It took my breath away. It's the same with Follies; yesterday, I couldn't get "The Road You Didn't Take" out of my head. In my concerts, I usually do the songs I didn't sing in the shows: "No One Is Alone," "Broadway Baby."

MP: I'm glad to hear you single out "The Road You Didn't Take," because I've always felt that it's somewhat underappreciated.
Peters: Yes. The greatest gift I have in doing these songs is being able to talk with Steve about them. It's like getting the chance to ask Shakespeare, "What did you mean when you wrote that?" Steve came to rehearsals [of Follies] and would explain the songs to all of us. It was, like, "Wow." What a blessing.

MP: Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are among Sondheim's most beloved works, but there were pre-opening problems with both shows. Was everyone involved hopeful that they'd turn out well in the end?
Peters: Yes, I think so. The first act of Sunday was so beautiful and such a revelation, like a show unto itself. It took Steve [and James Lapine] a while to finish the second act, but I think Steve likes to write during rehearsals. He sees what's happening onstage and decides what's needed here, what's needed there. But he always finishes in time!

MP: As I recall, at least one song was added to Into the Woods very late in the game.
Peters: Well, we had "Boom, Crunch," and that was changed to "The Last Midnight." I remember being handed the song and James telling me, "I'd really like to put this into the show tomorrow." I said, "Tomorrow?!" I didn't know when the critics were coming, but we had to get the song up and running. I remember seeing people in the wings, watching and listening when I sang it the first time.

MP: You have a very respectable movie career, and your performances in the Broadway productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods are preserved on video. Only three of Sondheim's shows have been made into theatrical films: A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd. I've heard that you were up for the role of Mrs. Lovett in the “Sweeney” movie. Can you confirm or deny that?
Peters: Well, I think there were many people up for it! [Laughs] But I actually thought [Helena Bonham-Carter] did a great job.

Supposedly, Aaron Sorkin is working on a film version of Follies.
Peters: Oh, he is? What a good person to do it. He's so talented. I think Follies would make a great film. It's a very dramatic story.

MP : Do you suspect that we might ever see films of Sondheim's other shows?
Peters: Maybe someday. People are always looking for great material. The thing is — I don't want to misquote Steve or put words into his mouth — but I think his feeling is that he wrote these shows for the stage. If he was going to write something for film or television, he would write it differently.

MP: He has said that he's not a fan of most of the Hollywood adaptations of Broadway musicals, including West Side Story. But he's very happy with Sweeney Todd, because he feels the film was stylized in just the right way.
Peters: Yes, I thought that really worked on screen. There is a way to do it! Steve's songs are like scenes within themselves, and I think that's why the movie of Sweeney Todd holds your attention the whole time. It's not like, "Oh my God, now they're stopping to sing."

MP: By the time this interview is published, a cast album of the new Follies will have been released by PS Classics on two CDs. How did the recording sessions go?
Peters: Very well, I think. Did you know the album has gone to number one on Amazon as a pre-order? First it was number two below Wicked, and then it went to number one. The recording includes all of the dialogue, so when you put it on, it will be like having a theatrical experience. I'm so happy that this production is so great. There are 42 people onstage and 28 musicians in the orchestra, all of the leads are wonderful, the show looks gorgeous …

MP: And isn't it heartening that it's doing so well at the box office?
Peters: It is heartening — that the audience is filled with people who've loved Follies for years and also with young people who are seeing it for the first time.

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Key Subjects: 
Bernadette Peters Stephen Sondheim, Follies, Into the Woods, Merrily We Roll Along, Sweeney Todd.
Writer: 
Michael Portantiere
Publication Credit: 
This article first appeared in The Sondheim Review (sondheimreview.com)
Date: 
December 2011