In Conversation: Bernadette Peters

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Since coming to theatrical prominence in the mid-’70s and attaining even shinier status the following decade (thanks largely to her work in the original production of Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park With George), Bernadette Peters has occupied an unusual dual position. She’s both a very particular type — a bona fide Broadway star, one of the few remaining — and in her warmth, humor, and vulnerability, utterly unique as a performer. “I understand that other people might see something special in what I do,” says Peters, dressed all in black, her famous red curls flowing over shoulder, and speaking (graciously, cautiously) from a meeting room in her publicist’s office in midtown Manhattan, “but I don’t think I’m the one who can say what that is.”

Peters, 69 years old and a three-time Tony Award winner, is currently starring in an acclaimed Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly!, having taken over the title role from Bette Midler, as well as the new season of Amazon’s Mozart in the Jungle. “I never think about things like legacy,” she says. “I don’t think that’s how you should think about what you do. For me, the thing is always the work I’m doing now.” She twists the chunky black ring she’s wearing. “That’s why I love the theater so much — the only thing that matters is that night’s show.” Though, as she’ll explain, a few other things matter too.

You’re stepping into the lead role of Hello, Dolly! in the middle of its run, which is relatively rare for a performer of your stature. But this isn’t the first time you’ve made that move. Do you think other stars’ reluctance to do it is just about professional competitiveness?
Well, I only did it once before, with A Little Night Music. I never know why other actresses take a role or don’t. I do think there’s going to be less and less resistance to doing it, because roles like Dolly are classic, and they’re roles that can be played by actresses my age — which there aren’t necessarily a lot of. But really it’s not about taking over from another performer as much as it is that you’re taking on a role. It’s like if you were doing Shakespeare: You play Hamlet because you want to play Hamlet. It doesn’t matter who else has done it. The real question I’m asking when I decide to do something is whether or not I want to experience a character’s journey. Dolly is such an uplifting show, which I think the world needs right now, and that played a big part in my deciding to do it.

Do you ever find yourself wanting to do work that addresses the darker or more divisive sides of this moment?
The way I address it is by doing lighter things. Even with Mozart in the Jungle, I didn’t want to do heavy-duty, dark television — there’s too much uncertainty out there. I want to do entertainment that’s lighthearted and funny, because that’s reality, too. Life is not all conflict. It’s important to use entertainment to make people feel good, rather than use it to cause people to sit around worrying about the world.

So you see escapism as emotionally useful?
I don’t know if I’d call it “escapism.” There has to be emotional balance to our lives, and entertainment can provide that. Wasn’t it during World War II that people went to the movies more than ever? They wanted to feel good. Entertainment — like Hello, Dolly! — can be uplifting without being sappy. There can be a purity to uplift that’s quite beautiful.

Have you always felt this way? Was your attitude the same back in the late ’60s and early ’70s when you were getting started?
I actually started in this business when I was 5 years old.

I’m thinking more of the days of Dames at Sea. Isn’t that when you really first made a name for yourself?
It’s true that Dames at Sea was an important show for me, but what specifically that was happening in the world are you referring to?

Vietnam, the counter-culture. All those things.
It’s interesting to think about how what’s happening in the culture might make a show hit or not, but it’s impossible to know the connection between those things. Maybe some people didn’t want to watch Dames at Sea during such a difficult time. That show was a pastiche of 1930s movies and the movies I watched as a child were musicals from the ’30s and ’40s. I knew who Ruby Keeler was, you know? That’s what I loved. That’s why I was drawn to that material.

Why did you connect so strongly as a young person to material that was already considered old-fashioned? Was pop culture not giving you something you wanted emotionally?
I did sing popular music in high school, but what happened is that I discovered the choices as a performer that would allow me to live emotionally where I wanted to live. Every performer has to make that discovery. Where that realization comes from, I don’t know. Part of it must be what I was exposed to as a kid. When I would come home from school at four o’clock, I’d watch the “Million Dollar Movie” on television — it was always a classic musical. The beauty of that work was incredible. Hollywood was maybe a little more concerned with the overall visual beauty of the film in those days. It was all just so lovely to watch. And then to see an actress like Judy Garland being so natural in the middle of all that beauty? It was magical.

Was Hollywood success ever a goal for you?
Years ago, I did move out to L.A. to try and see what I could do. I guess it was the late ’70s. New York was going downhill as a city in those days, so I figured I’d better go to L.A. and try to work in television. I did end up doing a lot of episodic TV, but I learned very quickly that the writing wasn’t great — certainly not like it is now. I just didn’t care for the work I was getting, so I stopped trying to get it.

There’s the old belief that Hollywood doesn’t really know what to do with performers who are good at more than one thing. Is it possible that being able to do both comedy and drama — and also do them while singing and dancing — meant that people weren’t thinking of you for parts that only needed one of those skills?
That could be, but you have to understand that I never made it in Hollywood to where I was being regularly considered for mainstream roles. And from my perspective, there was always something wrong with the material I was getting offered. I kept getting offered things with nudity, for example, and that’s not something I was going to.

Weren’t you on the cover of Playboy around the time you’re talking about? How does that jibe with the feelings you’re describing?
Yes, I was on the cover but I knew I wouldn’t be nude in the magazine, so I thought, well, okay. You know, I remember back then I was offered the lead in a film that wound up being very successful — I don’t want to mention which one — and I didn’t do it for this reason. I just didn’t have the sensibility I needed to make the things I was being offered work for me.

Was that realization frustrating or liberating?
I was relieved! I’ve always had a strong sense of myself and with what I was comfortable doing. I also always felt that I’d be able to find work. I’ve never had that actors’ anxiety about not being able to find the next job. Maybe it’s because I started in the business at such a young age. So I wasn’t at all upset about not finding work I loved in Hollywood, because I was confident I’d be able to find that work somewhere else. When I came back to New York after a little while in L.A., I was able to do very successful Broadway shows. I knew there was a career here for me, which allowed me to avoid taking Hollywood work that I might feel embarrassed about. I’m happy with the work that I’ve done in film and television, and it’s because I was careful about what I chose to do.

You were only a child when your mom encouraged you to become a performer. Was theater something you fell for immediately or did you have to learn to love it?
It was something I fell in love with over time; I can’t tell you exactly when it happened. I think it was the words on the page that I fell in love with first. But the important thing to know about performing and me is that there’s nothing else I can do! There’s nothing else I had an aptitude for or interest in — aside from animals. But my mother always said I could quit performing any time I wanted, and I always had a life outside of it. I mostly thought of performing as a hobby until I went on the road with Gypsy when I was 13 and ended up with a career. It happened to be the right one.

What was it like to do Gypsy again as an adult? I imagine that given your personal history playing Mama Rose might’ve kicked up some feelings. 
Rose in Gypsy was like going through therapy for me.

How so?
Playing Rose helped me put a lot of emotions to bed.

What sorts of emotions?
There was so much lacking in Rose and that’s why she had to prove herself through her children.

In ways that reminded you of your mom?
Let’s just say the role was very interesting for me.

Are there other roles you’ve played that were similarly interesting?
That one was the most.

All right. Can you tell me about the process of coming into a production that’s already been going?
Well, you do think, Would I want to follow Bette? She was magnificent in it, and I wasn’t sure of the answer to that question. But after I was asked to do it, the first thing I did was read the script, which I liked. Then I went back and read the original source material, which was a play, The Matchmaker. I thought that was beautiful.

And that’s what made you want to do it?
Not so fast. Then I went to the Lincoln Center library and watched a production with Carol Channing. She was magnificent wasn’t she? So after doing that preparation, I felt like I was looking at a well-written show, drawn from beautiful source material, with a wonderful story, and I thought that maybe I could take the role somewhere. That’s when I said “okay.”

Where did you feel you could take Dolly?
Not anywhere radically different. Bette and I are two different people, so things are naturally going to come out of us in different ways. It’s more that I felt confident that I could tell this woman’s story. She’s got a great sense of humor, and she thinks fast, but she’s also on her journey of deciding to rejoin the human race after being a widow.

I know you don’t like to talk much about your personal life, but would you say that being a widow yourself affected what you could bring to the role?
I would say it was something I could connect to.

Beyond the role of Dolly, did your husband’s accident change your feelings about your work?
No.

What about your life?
Nope.

Okay, I understand. Did you draw on Bette’s or Carol’s vision of Dolly for your performance?
I think you have to look at every role as a blank slate, where you’re going to do you. It’s hard enough figuring out how to do that without also thinking about what other actresses have done.

You mentioned earlier that your only interest outside of performing was animals. This is probably a ridiculous stretch, but do you see any links between those two interests?
That’s a really interesting question. I haven’t thought about that before. I do think I have a lot of empathy, and I use that in my work and my life. I tell you what about animals though: They have wonderful instincts. There’s an honesty I admire. But I don’t think there’s any direct overlap between my work and my life in that way.

Can you tell me about a favorite dog?
Well, here’s the thing: You love your last dog and you think, I’ll never love a dog like that again, and then a new dog comes into your life. I had two dogs — a girl and a boy — and the boy, Kramer, passed away. The girl, she’s a pitbull, took his mat and pushed it up against the front door, waiting for him to come home. Isn’t that heartbreaking? And one day at five in the morning, I heard her crying and I got up and I saw her looking at Kramer’s empty bed. She was grieving. So I realized I had to get her a dog, maybe before I was ready for one. So I found one — a shaggy dog because I always loved Tramp from Lady and the Tramp — and this new dog comes in and I go, “Well, you’re pretty cute and smart, but who do you think you are? You’re not Kramer.” Then of course I fell in love with the new guy. Each dog has its own charm. They’re all so special. These beings — they’re beings! — they come and live with you and they’re such a gift.

Just to go back to the subject of different performers playing the same role: I’m assuming you’ve seen other productions of Sunday in the Park With George? What’s it like to see what other actresses do with Dot and Marie?
I saw the show last year and loved Annaleigh Ashford. She found a lot of laughs in it, which was charming. This subject is so interesting for me, because when I was doing that show, I would have my experience onstage and then people who’d been in the audience would come backstage and they’d had this other experience that I was envious of. They’d go, “I broke down and cried when you did the first act” And I’d think really? The things they reacted to were different than what I would’ve thought. So I couldn’t wait to see the show as an audience member and not a performer. And now I’ve seen two different productions since I was in it and, damn it, I got emotional in exactly the same place both times.

Which place?
There’s a moment in the show, right near the end, when the characters bow to George. Now, why would they bow to him? I guess it’s because in that moment he’s the source of creativity. They wouldn’t be unless he’d drawn them.

What memories stand out of working with Mandy Patinkin? Is he as much of a handful as he seems?
Oh, I love Mandy. I don’t know if I have any good stories, but he’s just very, very intense. That’s why he’s so great on television. That camera is right up in his face. You see the intensity and he’s like boom, coming right out of the screen.

In what ways are you a better musical-theater performer now than you were in 1986?
Well, I’m still learning. I’m always reading books on acting. I just read Sandy Meisner’s book. I never stop picking new things up. Sometimes it’s just little practical things. It could be something as simple as where I could be looking in a scene. Like, if we’re in a scene, and I’m talking to you, and a television is behind you, I can look at that television and it doesn’t mean that I’ve left the conversation — things like that. Or with Meisner, I wanted to know what the hell that famous exercise is about. You know the one I mean?

The repetition exercise?
Yeah, the one where you say, “I’m fine today” and your partner says “I’m fine today” and you don’t change the line until something happens. It makes you stay in the moment. That’s the stuff I find interesting to read about.

Were you interested in acting technique when you were 13? Did it take time to think of what you were doing as a craft you could consciously improve at and not just a talent you possessed?
There was a big shift in thinking as I got older, oh yeah. As a child you’re free, you’re free, you’re free, and then, suddenly, you become self-conscious about what you’re doing. I remember when I was a kid, I was on a kids’ TV game show called Juvenile Jury, and the idea was that you had a problem that you had to speak to a jury of children about and they’d figure out how to solve it. My problem was that I didn’t like to take the bus, I only wanted to take taxi cabs. Which was true.

Is it still?
[Laughs.] I’m still spoiled in that way. But I was on the show and for whatever reason they said I had to think of a different problem. I said, all right, I don’t like getting needles from the doctor. But the truth was, I didn’t really mind needles. So then I was thinking, My problem’s not going to be good enough because it isn’t “true.” But I went ahead with it anyway, and then the host of the show was asking me questions about needles, and I just loved it because I had to be spontaneous. So I was already aware of the potency of being alive to the moment. The hard part is that over time you get more and more self-conscious and it can be harder to access that potency. But hopefully you also realize that the way to be comfortable onstage is to get out of your own way. It’s difficult to do, but it’s also what acting is all about.

Do you have to recalibrate your performance when you have a sense that maybe the show around it isn’t quite working? I’m thinking of The Goodbye Girl, which wasn’t well received critically.
It’s not like you try and go bigger or anything. You’re still playing the same character. As a performer, it can be hard to know when something’s not working as a whole piece — rather than individual scenes — because you’re not out there in the audience seeing the thing in its entirety. With The Goodbye Girl, we kept working on the show and working on it, so obviously we knew it had to get better. We’d have things in, then take things out. I don’t know. That show was taken from a movie, and the stage is a different animal than the screen. It’s not easy to translate between them.

Is there a role you look back on as being the one that first allowed you to show how much you were capable of in musical theater?
I don’t think I ever thought of roles like that. That’s a bad way to approach roles. I remember hearing another actor once, talking about getting a certain role, and saying, “If this role doesn’t do it for me then nothing will.” And even then I went, “That’s not the way think about it.” You have to do your best to fulfill the role, not fulfill yourself. It’s all got to be a matter of putting the character onstage, as alive as that character can be. It can’t be about anything else.

Are certain roles more fulfilling than others?
This is making me think of when I did A Little Night Music. Someone said I should do Desirée. I thought, She has one song! That song was “Send in the Clowns,” which, I didn’t even know what it was about. It took me some time to see how perfect that song was. But by the time that show closed, I thought I’d never sing it again because it was so special in its place. I couldn’t imagine singing it outside the show. Then I was invited to an event honoring Stephen [Sondheim] and I had to sing something for it. So I figured out a way to make that song work for me in that setting, and now, of course, I do it every night in my concerts. The point is that you can’t know how you’re going to feel about a role or a song or a show until you’ve done it. It’s like the saying: “Man plans, God laughs.”

Is there any part of you that wishes that more of your theatrical work were preserved? How does the ephemerality of what you do color your thinking about your career?  
It doesn’t. For each audience, the show is happening for the first time that night. So as a performer, you have to bring it like youre doing it for the first time that night, too. You and the audience have to take that trip together. The ephemeral aspect of it is what’s exciting to me.

Do you think theater is more hospitable to women performers than Hollywood? You pointed to Dolly as a part you could play at your age, and it seems like the aging-out process for Broadway stars isn’t as harsh as it is for movie and TV stars.
You know, they always said that you can stay a star longer on the stage because the stage is far away from the audience and lets you look younger for longer blah blah blah. It’s hard to say. I think there’s more acceptance in Hollywood now for women over 40 than there used to be, and more good work. Maybe it’s because there’s less focus now on that overall beauty that I was talking about earlier with the old musicals. Which is a good thing. Look at Three Billboards and Frances McDormand: She’s a total force on the screen, and that forcefulness is what you’re taken with, not whether or not she’s wearing makeup.

What about behind the scenes? Is misogyny any less rampant in the theater?
I was thinking about this recently and I’m sure it’s not, but I’ve been lucky. I haven’t experienced any of the horrible things that other woman have experienced in Hollywood or in the theater. I think it’s because of my manager, Tom Hammond. He would go with me to any meetings I had; he was with me most of the time. I remember people saying, “God, your manager is so protective.” I have to think people knew that about him and left me alone because of it.

I have two fairly obscure credits of yours that I want to ask about, just because I like the names of the shows. The first is Johnny No-Trump from 1967.
That was a wonderful experience. Sada Thompson was in it. Brilliant actress. Matthew Broderick’s father, James Broderick, was in it too — also brilliant. I remember going out into the seats to watch during a dress rehearsal and my mouth fell open because I couldn’t believe what was happening onstage it was so amazing. But that show also didn’t have much of a run. Those were the days when there was no money put aside for advertising, so a show ran or failed on one review: the New York Times’. It’s not easy to have a successful show now, but oh god, things were even more tenuous back then.

And how about one called The Girl in the Freudian Slip?
[Laughs.] Boy, I don’t even remember what the show was about. Interesting title, though. Actually, I remember something: It ran one night.

Almost every piece written about you makes a point of saying how nice you are. Is the stereotype of the Broadway diva an unfair one?
I don’t think so. I think it’s all related to how different people handle stress. There’s always stress of some kind in this business, and the way certain people handle it is to scream and yell. That’s not how I handle it. I can’t work in a stressful environment, so I do what I can to make sure there isn’t one.

You’ve never been tempted to throw a shoe at a director?
I am Sicilian, David.

So what provokes the Sicilian in you?
Okay, I don’t like if there’s whistling in the dressing room before a show. You could do it, but I wouldn’t like it — privately.

Annotations by Matt Stieb.
Photo credit: Vulture and Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images

This conversation has been edited and condensed from two interviews.

First produced in 1973, the Stephen Sondheim musical maps out the romantic triangles of actress Desirée Armfeldt in the twilight of her career. In the 2009 revival, Catherine Zeta-Jones made her Broadway debut as Armfeldt; after Zeta-Jones left in June of 2010, Peters took on the lead at Sondheim’s request. The musical’s hit “Send in the Clowns” has become a statement piece for Peters: The Times wrote that she “turns this celebrated song into an occasion of transporting artistry.” Peters plays the president of the New York Symphony in the Amazon comedy-drama adapted from the memoir Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music by Philharmonic oboist Blair Tindall. Because the war’s economic boom increased employment and rationing decreased entertainment options, movie attendance grew throughout WWII, with an all-time peak just after the war’s end in 1946 when 57 percent of Americans attended the theater every week. Presumably, some of these people found moviegoing to be emotionally useful. A parody of big-budget movie musicals, a girl named Ruby arrives from Utah, and finds herself swept into a Broadway chorus line, becoming a star. In 1966, Peters played the lead in an Off–Off Broadway opening in Greenwich Village. In ’68, an Off Broadway run brought her some of her first critical attention and her first Drama Desk Award. Born in 1909, Keeler was a pre-code icon of song and dance in Hollywood, known for a run of hit musicals like 42nd Street. She was also, for a time, the wife of the crooner and early-cinema star Al Jolson. In the early 1970s, Peters moved to Los Angeles for a transition to the screen. It was a slow start: For every role like Vilma Kaplan in Mel Brooks’s Silent Movie, for which she was nominated for a Golden Globe, there was TV movie like Once Upon a Mattress. By the late ’70s, she had gained traction, landing a notable lead in Pennies From Heaven, and played Steve Martin’s romantic interest in The Jerk. Life imitated art, and they dated for a while. Posing in a black negligee, Peters was on cover of Playboy in December of 1981, the same month Pennies From Heaven was released. A 1959 Sondheim musical based on the memoirs of striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee, Peters played the bit part of “Hawaiian Girl” in the first national touring production in 1961. Peters graduated to the role of Mama Rose for the 2003 Broadway revival, with a claws-out performance of what the Times called “the ultimate stage mother.” Peters was nominated for the Tony for Best Actress in a Musical and the Drama Desk’s Outstanding Actress Award. The iconic blonde and nonagenarian found her signature role as the titular lead in the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly! She won the Tony in ’64, and played the role again in ’78, ’79, and ’95 revivals. In 2005, Michael Wittenberg died at the age of 43 on a business trip to Montenegro, when a helicopter he was in crashed into a high-voltage cable. Wittenberg, an investment advisor and fellow animal lover, and Peters were married in 1996. The two Sondheim interpreters worked together on Sunday in the Park With George in 1984 and Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert in 2010. Patinkin is known for his obsessive preparation. “I behaved abominably. I don’t care if my work was good or if I got an award for it,” he said in 2013. “I’m not proud of how I was.” First published in 1987, Sanford Meisner’s On Acting is a canonical acting text designed to get actors outside their own heads and to react on an instinctive level to their environment. The 101-level Meisner repetition technique involves two actors parroting the same observation — something like, you’re not wearing your glasses — in order to respond on an emotional level in real time. Based on the 1977 film, The Goodbye Girl starred Peters next to Martin Short in his Broadway debut, with a book by Neil Simon. Despite the star power, the 1993 adaptation got mixed reviews. Frank Rich in the Times praised Peters’s and Short’s performances, but wrote that the play was dominated by a “geriatric sensibility.” Still, it was nominated for five Tonys, including Best Performance nods for the leading pair. Peters appeared in this 1967 play by Mary Mercier, in which a young man wants to drop out of high school to become a poet. The Times gave it a room-temperature review, and it shuttered after one performance. Adapted from the novel by William F. Brown — author of cult hit The WizThe Girl in the Freudian Slip features a play-within-a-play structure, where the daughter of a psychoanalyst finds a play written by her womanizing father and trouble ensues.
Peters was on standby for the role of the narrator, but never got her shot: It only played for three days in the spring of 1967.
In Conversation: Bernadette Peters