I admit it: I got a little giggly talking with Bernadette Peters. I’ve interviewed many famous people, but she just has such star power – the authentic kind that radiates from doing exactly what you love to do, with your entire self fully engaged. It’s no surprise that Peters has received in return a steady flow of accolades and awards, leading roles in major films and Broadway shows and earned placement as a New York Times best-selling author. But beyond all that, she puts her dazzling talents and considerable beauty to work to raise funds for rescued animals, AIDS services, reading programs for blind children and, on May 17, to support our own Bardavon 1869 Opera House.
Be sure to wear your fanciest threads. Peters and her ten-piece band are headlining a Gala fundraiser that includes a post-show party at the Grandview overlooking the Hudson River. After the concert, guests will enjoy nonstop food, dancing and music by the Lindsey Webster Band and Lara Hope and the Ark-Tones, plus magic by Adam Cardone.
Peters will bring her own pianist, bassist and drummer, and employ some of the region’s finest musicians to round out her band. “We’ll do a lot of beautiful arrangements of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Sondheim and standards. I’ll sing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ while lying on the piano. I come out into the audience; there’s no fourth wall,” she says, and you can tell that she relishes the intimate exchange with others who appreciate the arts as much as she so obviously does.
Peters’ career stretches back to when she first nailed early childhood auditions at the tender age of 3, and she was performing in the national touring company of Gypsy while still in her teens. She debuted on Broadway when she was just shy of 20, and has since earned numerous Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, Emmy nominations, Golden Globe Awards, Grammy Awards and appeared in 17 films (including The Jerk with Steve Martin, Silent Movie with Mel Brooks and It Runs in the Family opposite Kirk and Michael Douglas). She is acknowledged widely as a foremost interpreter of Sondheim’s works, and the man himself once said of her: “Like very few others, she sings and acts at the same time. Most performers act and then sing, act and then sing…Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned. I can’t think of anything negative.”
Is there anything that she hasn’t done yet but would like to do? “I’d love to work with Al Pacino sometime,” she says immediately. “I admire him so. He’s a brilliant actor, always has something going on, and it really projects into the audience.”
Her performance in Poughkeepsie is one of several dates on a demanding national tour that also includes appearances with the Boston Pops and at Tanglewood. She is currently starring in Mozart in the Jungle (based on the memoir of the same title by oboist Blair Tindall, and the series was recently picked up for a second hit season on Amazon Prime). “The writing is really good and surprising, all original,” she says of the new hit show. “Good writing is such a gift. I love words on a page that are beautiful.”
In July, Peters will release her third children’s book and will co-host the 17th annual animal adoption event, Broadway Barks. Her first book, named after the organization that she co-founded with her pal Mary Tyler Moore, was followed by Stella Is a Star. All three of Peters’ dogs have been rescue dogs and her books for young children put dogs on center stage. “This new one is about my third dog, Charlie, coming to live with me and my dog Stella, who passed away at 16 years old,” says Peters. “I think dogs understand life and death better than we do. When Stella was getting ready to die, she would look at me and my assistant, and give us these long looks. She knew she was leaving.”
Some time ago, Moore and Peters visited a school for the blind on behalf of Broadway Barks. Blind children were interacting with homeless pit bulls, and Peters learned that her first children’s book, Broadway Barks, had been translated into Braille. Broadway Barks and Main Line Animal Rescue soon teamed up to create Braille Tails, an organization devoted to translating into Braille books about the special bonds between animals and humans. “I didn’t know that 90 percent of blind kids can’t read because they use voice-activated computers instead. I think it’s really important for all children to experience the pure joy of reading and the mind synapses that come from that creative process. We get so many lovely letters from people about this Braille Tails program.”
Turning her attention back to the stage and the importance of mentorship in that arena, Peters’ advice to aspiring artists would be the same as that given to her by her renowned teacher, David Legrant, who taught actors for more than 50 years: “Don’t copy anyone.” “You are the only person in the universe that’s unique to you. There already is a Britney Spears and a Meryl Streep, so whatever comes out of you is correct, as long as it’s pure and real. You can emulate the way someone looks or acts, but then you’re doing it wrong; you’re copying. You can admire but not copy. If something comes out of you, your way, then it’s not wrong. It’s hard to do. It has to come from a pure place.”
Peters starred opposite the late Elaine Stritch in the Stephen Sondheim/Hugh Wheeler gem, A Little Night Music, but didn’t know the legendary artist well until they worked together on the show. Of Stritch, Peters says simply, “I adore her. We got really close, and I really miss her. I walked by the Carlyle the other day, where she lived, and saw the doorman standing there. I turned around, walked back, and I asked him, ‘Do you miss Elaine?’ and he said, ‘Oh yes,’ and I could tell he meant it. After that show, she and I got close. She was always just so supportive, right from Day One.”
I mentioned a clip that I’d found online where the two leading ladies shared a conversation about A Little Night Music. In it, Stritch said of Peters, “Bernadette is not an ingénue, she’s not a leading lady, she’s not a comedienne…she’s all of them. And that’s what’s exciting to me. You never know where she’s going. And that’s one of the greatest qualities for an actor in the world: Surprise, surprise – that’s exciting.”
Had she seen it? I asked. No, and in fact, she doesn’t read reviews either. “No. It’s not a good idea. If it’s bad, it stays in your brain. If it’s good, the next time you get to that line, you think, ‘Oh my god, was it as good as it was supposed to be?’ It ruins the moment.”
Bernadette Peters knows how to stay in the moment – and how to deliver talent, glamour and a pure unadulterated love of entertaining. Expect to be surprised – and more than just pleasantly so.
Bardavon Gala 2015: An Evening with Bernadette Peters, Sunday, May 17, 7 p.m., $200/$150/$100 per person, Bardavon 1869 Opera House, 35 Market Street, Poughkeepsie; (845) 473-2072, www.bardavon.org.