By Anthony James Host
Theatre practitioners are opinionated… I think we all can agree with that. We all have our favorite performers and those who we always anxiously await to see what they will be doing next. There are several people who are on the Broadway scene today whose careers I am looking forward to watching in the upcoming years, but there is still one performer I wish were around a little more and would be given a new original musical or just another powerhouse vehicle. This person (and you already know who it will be by the title; I know I am not holding anybody in suspense) is truly unique and always has such an emotional attachment to her work and I always watch her work in amazement as she handles comedy and drama with seeming ease.
Bernadette Peters is someone who stood out to me even as a little kid. I was bizarre as a child because I always watched and preferred more adult programming than children’s television. One of my favorite things was watching reruns of The Carol Burnett Show. One afternoon, a musical number came on with this very petite, sultry woman signing the then-new show tune “All That Jazz,” and I just remember that I was transfixed by her. Around that same time, Ms. Peters was featured as a spokesperson for Ocean Spray on television and I made the connection that she was the same person as the one I'd seen on Carol Burnett. One of my mentors at the time told me that Bernadette was a theatre legend--thus began my education on her career.
I have only ever seen Bernadette perform live once and that was in her second Tony Award-winning performance in Annie Get Your Gun, a show that she made work wonderfully. It is still an experience that I treasure highly.
As I got older, I watched more of her cabaret and concert appearances (thanks, YouTube!) and also watched the filmed productions of Sunday in the Park With George and Into the Woods. What makes me love her in these settings is how she takes “her moment” before each song and then comes around to the microphone--making it seem she has lived the life of that character for years. I think the strongest example of this is when she sings “Not A Day Goes By” from the underrated Sondheim score of Merrily We Roll Along.”
If there was ever a musical showcase for her that showed the ability of how great she could command a stage and show off her versatility it was another underrated musical: Mack and Mabel. In this show, she went from being cutesy and peppy ("Look What Happened to Mabel)" to angry and bitter ("Wherever He Ain’t") to her final heartbreaking 11 o’clock number ("Time Heals Everything"). I also think she may possibly be the strongest Rose to ever come out on the Broadway stage for bringing her usual slinky alluring quality to someone who was normally seen as a monster by many people.
For reasons that I still can't exactly explain, my favorite performance of hers is the dual role of Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park with George. From her first moment on stage, she steals the scene from Mandy Patinkin (who is definitely strong in his own right), and continues to steal it throughout Act One, particularly with her little moments in “Color and Light,” and then her two huge numbers, the underrated “Everybody Loves Louis” and then her emotional blow-up “We Do Not Belong Together." Dot and Marie may not be the main focus of the story, but she manages to steal the show. I think she was truly robbed of the Tony Award from Chita Rivera in The Rink.
When she finally won for Song and Dance in 1986, I almost feel that it was an opportunity to reward her for a good performance in a year where she had virtually no competition, even though she had done much stronger in previous years. Then you had the category confusion of Into the Woods, in which some debated whether or not she was the lead or a featured player as the Witch . Of course, Joanna Gleason was in the same boat as she won the Drama Desk Award as a featured player, then got won as lead at the Tonys, while Bernadette was nominated for the Drama Desk as lead, then was snubbed at the Tonys. Despite the snub, I still think Bernadette will forever be the definitive Witch; no one has yet to come close to her.
Bernadette Peters is always good in whatever she does, even in weaker shows like The Goodbye Girl, George M! and On the Town. She wiped the floor with Catherine Zeta Jones when she replaced her in the revival of A Little Night Music.then played a very commendable Sally in the recent revival of Follies (though she was overshadowed by the stunning Jan Maxwell).
I am always glad that Bernadette Peters comes back to the theatre, especially after she her forays into film and television, standing out in movies like “The Jerk,” “Annie,” and “Pennies From Heaven." She, like other Broadway standouts such as Angela Lansbury and more recently Audra McDonald, always come back to the theatre, and it is where she belongs.