Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Greatest Gift

Magazine article The Sondheim Review

The Greatest Gift

Article excerpt

Peters goes deeper and deeper into Sondheim's characters

One of the many songs by Stephen Sondheim that Bernadette Peters has sung in her career is "Broadway Baby." It's also a sweet sobriquet for the lady herself. Having made several appearances on television in her early childhood, she 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 Theatre 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), Fay in a Carnegie Hall staging of Anyone Can Whistle (1985) and The Witch in Into the Woods (1987). 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.

The Sondheim Review. 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!"

TSR: 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.

TSR: 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!

TSR: 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.

TSR: 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. …

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