Her resume reads like a list of some of the most monumental roles in some of the most significant musicals of the last few decades. In fact, her career could even be called “legendary.” She’s Bernadette Peters, and on Saturday, Aug. 18, she’s coming to Kansas City for a one-night concert at the Kauffman Center.
As any music aficionado will tell you, her songs are among the sweetest out there. A native of Ozone Park, N.Y., she began her performing career at the tender age of 3, with appearances on programs like Juvenile Jury and Name That Tune. But her first memory of singing in a theater is about a Carnegie Hall performance.
“I was around 3½ or 4,” she remembers, “and it was an Easter show. That was the first time I was on stage, and I sang ‘Dites-Moi’ from South Pacific.”
At age 19, she gained wide critical acclaim playing Josie Cohan, opposite Joel Grey as her brother George M. Cohan, in the classic musical George M!. Since then, Peters has become one of Broadway’s most sought-after stars, performing songs by some of the greatest composers and lyricists of our time — including Jerry Herman, Betty Comden and Adolph Green, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. Some of these songs were even written specifically for her.
At age 47, Peters became the youngest person ever to be inducted into the American Theatre Hall of Fame, in 1996. She won Tony Awards for her celebrated performance in Webber’s hit musical Song and Dance (1985) and for her portrayal of Annie Oakley in the hit re-envisioning of Annie Get Your Gun (1999). The lady has had seven Tony nominations in all, among them for her work in Jerry Herman and Gower Champion’s ode to silent movie pioneers, Mack & Mabel, Neil Simon’s musical adaptation of The Goodbye Girl, and Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece Sunday in the Park With George.
If there’s one artist whose imagination and originality has informed Peters’ dazzling career, it would be Sondheim.
“Mr. Steve Sondheim keeps giving me these great things to be able to say and to sing and to feel, and I just thank him every day for his music,” she says. “He says so much, and it’s always so interesting. You never get tired of singing his songs.
“He goes so deep with what he writes about. I really describe it as: you think he’s writing about something and then you go, NO — he’s writing about SOMETHING!”
So strongly does she connect with Sondheim’s music that once, back when she was preparing for another big concert at Carnegie Hall (recorded on her CD Sondheim, Etc.), she was suddenly inspired to re-organize the entire second half in order to dedicate it solely to his work.
“I don’t know if I’d do that again,” she says with a laugh, “but I wanted to do a whole new second act, and the songs I kept getting attracted to, musically and lyrically, were Steve Sondheim’s.”
Peters says that “No One Is Alone” from Sondheim’s Into the Woods remains one of her favorite songs to perform.
“I think it’s a really beautiful song that says so much and is very interesting,” she says. “You think it’s saying you’re never alone, but the point it’s truly making is that you need to have the courage to think — and believe in what you think. You are not alone, and there’s someone else in the world who’s going through exactly what you are, or something similar to it.”
Peters divulged some of what ticket-holders for her Kansas City concert can look forward to.
“I’ll do ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ by Rodgers and Hammerstein, and Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever,’ and I sing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star’” she says. “And I’ve added two songs I sang in Follies,” the revival of which she most recently starred in. It’s a show she is unabashedly enthusiastic about.
“That was a gift!” she proclaims of the entire experience.
Attributing the intense devotion the show has engendered over the years to “hit after hit of recognizable songs,” she cites some of them: “‘Broadway Baby,’ ‘Losing My Mind,’ ‘Leave You,’ ‘Too Many Mornings,’ ‘In Buddy’s Eyes’ — and so, so many. It’s just a gorgeous – GORGEOUS — score, and a very entertaining, if a very heart-wrenching, story.”
Beyond her dynamic voice and incredible talent, Peters has used her status to assist numerous charities and philanthropic organizations that operate in the theatrical community and beyond. One such group is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, which is devoted to assisting people whose lives have been affected by HIV and AIDS.
“Thank God for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS,” she declares, recounting how her initial involvement with the group began through participation in various fundraising events like their annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, a variety show that features chorus members, and their equally popular Easter Bonnet Competition, in which the companies from each season’s hottest shows design, then parade, colorfully decorated headwear that is based on their productions.
“We actually won that year for Annie Get Your Gun, and it just kind of swept me into it,” she says. “But before that, I did a concert at Carnegie Hall for GMHC [Gay Men‘s Health Crisis>.”
That particular occasion was a special all-star concert version of Sondheim’s cult favorite Anyone Can Whistle, which was recorded and released on CD.
Last year, Broadway Cares honored Peters and her tireless efforts with a Christmas ornament cast in her likeness that was introduced into their “Broadway Legends” line of holiday tree decorations.
“Oh my God, it’s something to be really proud of,” she says. “It’s me, and Carol Channing and the others — it made me feel great!”
Add to this her work promoting marriage equality and it should come as no surprise that she received the Special Advocate Award from the City of New York for her contributions to the gay and lesbian community.
Of her many fans within the LGBT community, she says, “they’re more expressive — when there are a lot of gay people in the audience, I think that the audience gets ‘personality’ and they bring the rest of the audience with them, encouraging everyone else to not hold back and to applaud and laugh and express themselves. It’s wonderful!”
There’s a point in 1974’s Mack &