Aside from her talent -- and, of course, that's a big aside -- the most impressive thing about Bernadette Peters is how she combines sex and innocence in her persona. Never has there been a performer who exudes such overt sexuality, with prominent bust and revealing necklines, while maintaining an innocent, little-girl character. This is most prominent in her concert appearances, but it also colored her portrayal of Annie Oakley. She certainly had more youthful vulnerability and sex appeal than Ethel Merman.

Calendar watchers will recall that Merman was 37 years old when she created Annie Oakley and Peters was at least 50, but Peters was much more child-like. I saw Merman in it and loved her, but her mature image couldn't compete with Bernadette's pubescence.

She accepts this compliment sweetly: "I was a child performer, you know, and my teachers used to tell me to create my own character, to be different from anyone else. This is my nature. I guess I have some of each of those sides within me. I know I look sexy, but I try never to be lascivious. That's the difference. And I always treat the sexiness with a sense of humor."

Did any of the men in her life ever object to her plunging necklines? "Yes. My father did. He always wanted to know what I'd be wearing for my concerts, and I knew he was concerned that it'd be something revealing, so I never told him. He just died this year [2000.]"

Her parents launched Bernadette -- born Bernadette Lazzara -- as a child performer at the age of three. They gave her singing and piano lessons. "My father didn't push me as much as my mother. She made me study piano and my father used to say: "Can't you hear her? She's terrible!' I agreed with my father. I wasn't angry with him for saying that. Around age eight they let me quit the piano. But the advantage of those years of studying was that I learned to read music."

Peters' mother wanted to be an actress, and her mother didn't allow it, so she re-directed her ambitions into her children. She sent Bernadette's older sister, Donna, to New York City's High School of the Performing Arts and started Bernadette in music at an even earlier age. Donna De Seta is now a casting director.

Peters knows that she looks good and looks young: "I do have a youthful quality about me." She revels in her seductive image, because she felt unattractive when she was a teenager. "I remember the 60s, and I didn't like them. I didn't look right. The attractive look, then, was tall and very skinny, with straight hair, like Twiggy, and I was short and definitely not skinny and I hated my curly hair."

I asked if her husband had any objections to her revealing outfits. "No. He has a great sense of himself, and that's necessary if you're going to be with someone who's always being recognized. And someone who's older." She married Michael Wittenberg in 1996 -- the first marriage for either of them. He was 34 and she says she was 48, although Stephen Holden in The New York Times reported in 1996 that she was 52. Wittenberg is a senior portfolio manager at Smith Barney. Talking about being recognized, the first meeting of the two of them was memorable. "I was dressed up, in front of my apartment building on West End Avenue, waiting for a date who was late. Michael came walking down the street and saw me. We had never met, but he recognized me. He said later that he always had a crush on me. That evening he was on his way to a charity event and was in a tuxedo. So he walked up to me and said: `Are you ready to go?' How's that for a sense of confidence and a sense of humor? Then I saw that he had a loose button on his jacket and I offered to sew it back on."

Now that they've been married four years, Peters says she's beginning to feel as if they ought to have children. If they do, it will be by adoption. "Because there are so many children out there in need of homes, and because of my age."

Bernadette was a child performer but, she's careful to point out, not a child star. "Because of that I didn't have a let-down when I got older. I just grew up in the business." At 13 she went on the road in the ensemble of Gypsy. But after she entered high school she stopped performing. "I didn't work for four years. I studied. Then at age 17 I got my first job Off Broadway." In 1967 she appeared in two Broadway shows, George M and Dames At Sea and was recognized as a new star.

Peters has the distinction of being chosen by such diverse composers as Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim to star in their shows. She created silent film star Mabel Normand in Herman's Mack and Mabel, Seurat's model, Dot, in Sondheim's Sunday in The Park with George and the Witch in Sondheim's Into The Woods, and she starred in the American premiere of Lloyd Webber's Song And Dance.

She has won two Tony Awards, for Song and Dance and for her Annie Oakley, and she's been nominated five other times, for On The Town (the 1971 revival), Mack and Mabel, Sunday in the Park, Into the Woods and The Goodbye Girl.

Her voice, like her personality, runs the gamut from little-girl sweetness to bombshell belting. When Peters opened in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun in 1998, Linda Winer wrote in Newsday: "Peters, our most under-utilized throwback to the era of virtuosic musical-comedy stardom, brings the same rigorous precision, wit and sense of discovery to this chestnut as she has brought to her cherished edgy women of Stephen Sondheim. She seems to enjoy the sensation of living in her skin."

Since leaving Annie Get Your Gun in September 2000, Peters is doing concert dates. She goes to Toronto to shoot a Hallmark Hall of Fame telecast, a non-musical script by Doug Palou and Samantha Silva based on the Prince Charming story. Then she'll record an album of Rodgers & Hammerstein songs. There's a new Broadway show planned for late in the 2001-2002 season, but she says she can't reveal anything about it yet.

[END]

Key Subjects: 
Bernadette Peters, Annie Get Your Gun; Michael Wittenberg
Writer: 
Steve Cohen
Writer Bio: 
Steve Cohen has written numerous pieces for This Month ON STAGE magazine and Totaltheater.com.
Date: 
September 2000