May 2017 - Cover Story: The Legendary Bernadette Peters
In high school drama, if you dreamed of becoming a Broadway star, you studied Bernadette Peters’ seminal performance in the darkly delightful musical, Into The Woods. Peters is a legend personified, with a dazzling career that spans five decades, highlighted by a string of accolades, including (among many nominations) 3 Tony and 3 Drama Desk awards. Albuquerque will have the opportunity to witness her greatness when she performs for a fundraising event at Popejoy Hall on May 21, 2017. Her upcoming appearance had this writer excited to take a look back at the start of her career. Mrs. Peters graciously shared her story with us.
The woman whom Broadway would happily come to showcase began her life as Bernadette Lazzara, the youngest of three in her family. Her mother started her in the acting trade at the age of three. By nine, Lazzara (whose surname, to avoid ethnic stereotyping, became Peters when she received her Actors’ Equity Card) had already appeared on such shows as Name That Tune and Juvenile Jury. Her parents gave her sound advice that helped carry her through. “My parents told me to be myself and they will also support me. I mean, that’s the best advice you can get, right?”
In addition to familial support, Peters' home city had an appreciable influence on her passion for theater and the thrill of performance she felt in her bones. Living in the Big Apple, Peters found herself (and her burgeoning talent) surrounded by inspiration. “Well, I lived in New York—Queens, New York—and theater was what you took part of.” She even recalled her first performance. “I remember a photo of me in a bunny outfit performing at Carney Hall for Easter.”
As her career grew, Peters took direction from watching her idols. “I looked up to Katharine Hepburn….I saw Carol Channing do “Hello, Dolly” the last time when she did it,and it was amazing—I bowed down to her. She was a true performer. But I looked at different avenues for inspiration when it came to performing.” Along the way in her career, Peters had many mentors and teachers, many with memorable attributes. “I didn’t have teachers until high school. I did have some interesting people that taught me prior—a lot of smoking and drinking,” she said with a giggle. “But my drama teacher, David Legrant, and music teacher, Adrienne Angel—I learned a lot from them.” That education has led Peters to become a case study for future high school students who dream of walking the Great White Way.
She would continued to build her legacy,performing in such classics as On the Town, Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, and Stephen Sondheim’s Gypsy. When it came to Broadway, Peters and Sondheim created magic, with Sondheim’s sense of story and Peters' ability to transform his music through unique and powerful characters. For her, it is an honor she is proud to continue to take on. “Sondheim can be a challenge. But I love it. His music transcends, and everyone can relate to his words. I did. I love the way he writes. He takes a topic and develops it so deeply and fully. I can never get tired singing it.” Hopefully, neither tires of the other any time soon, given the powerful success of their work together, such as Sooner or Later, Broadway Baby, and Witch's Lament.
Peters also found a niche on the silver screen, appearing in over 33 films, including Annie, Pennies from Heaven, and It Runs in the Family. When I mentioned my husband’s and my appreciation for her comedic side in The Jerk, Peters shared that comedy should just be a carefree, fun experience. “I remember when I played Gracie next to George Burns,” shared Peters. “He told me, ‘Never try to be funny, just let it flow.’ I don’t know—I think I’m funny!” That advice seems to ring true, as Peters continues to make us chuckle with her quick wit and flawless delivery.
Peters found success on the small screen, as well, with guest appearances on Will and Grace, Law & Order: SVU, and Ugly Betty. I found myself falling in love with a television musical called Smash that had an ensemble that was a Broadway lover’s dream. But the dream was short-lived, as Smash only lasted two seasons. Peters enjoyed her time on the show and was happy to work with such a stellar cast. “I loved working on Smash, especially since I have a love for Megan Hilty. She is a wonderful singer and performer, and I enjoyed my time with her. Smash was a wonderful experience. I got to work with amazing actors like Anjelica Huston and Christian Borle, and they had such terrific writing. The show has to be expensive to production with the talent that they had, but it was a wonderful show to be a part of.”
Bernadette Peters' talent continues to shine on two critically acclaimed hits, Mozart in the Jungle and The Good Fight. On Mozart and The Good Fight, Peters plays two strong female characters, and she is enjoying every minute of it. “Mozart is a very creative show, and my character, Gloria, is a strong female lead who knows how creative Rodrigo is, but remembers that she has a job to do as President of the Symphony. What it comes down to, what brings us all together, is the love of music. Lenore [on The Good Fight] is a woman that will do anything to protect the ones she loves, especially her daughter, even if it’s not always good or right, and the way the writers develop Lenore, you never know if her intentions are good or bad. Both characters are a joy to play.” And both shows are a joy to watch.
Just finishing with a memorable performance with the Boston Pops and starring as Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Peters shares what projects she has coming down the pipeline. “I just finished The Good Fight. I have lots of upcoming concerts and I’m just about to start filming the fourth season of Mozart in the Jungle.”
For a woman who has had a spectacular career in theater, film, and television, you would think that when it comes to what she would be remembered for that her many stellar performances would come into play. But in glorious style, Peters continues to impress. An avid champion of animals, Peters used this moment to share what she wants her legacy to be and what is important to her. “I would like to be remembered for helping animals. People are learning more every day that dogs are more than just a pet. They can sniff out cancer and seizures. They’re more than animals, they’re companions, and I want the world to know that.” Peters’ love for animals reveals a humble individual focusing on others when it comes to where her legacy will stand.
Albuquerque is thrilled to welcome Bernadette Peters to Popejoy Hall on May 21 for her performance to raise funds for the theater. Attendees of the show can expect a lot of fan favorites. “The show definitely has something for everyone. We’ll, of course, do some Sondheim and some of the other shows I’ve been in. It will be an entertaining night.” As can be said of all of Bernadette Peters' performances, it is a show not to be missed.