Typically, I write a lengthy introduction for my interviews, but Bernadette Peters didn’t feel like the typical interview. It felt as if I was talking to a great friend. She’s unassuming, she’s not that interested in talking about herself, but she does love to talk about her passion her foundation for animals, Broadway Barks, which she co-founded with Mary Tyler Moore, and is 10 years old this July. Don’t misunderstand of course, we covered show biz, too. Everything from her personal favorite Broadway shows, favorite films that she’s been in, her Tony Awards, and her devotion and love for the gay community, to other “famous” people in her life including Stephen Sondheim, Mandy Patinkin and a certain actor that remains on her wish list to work with. Sit back and listen in to our conversation. I’m sure you’ll find Bernadette Peters to be as warm and inviting as I did. Did I mention that she sang for me?
The phone rings at 12:30pm on the dot, and a familiar and extremely friendly voice, in a very effervescent tone, says, “Hi! It’s Bernadette Peters! And thus begins the interview.
Steven Housman: Hi, Bernadette Peters! It’s Steven Housman. (Considering she’s out on tour, I ask) Where are you calling from today?
Bernadette Peters: I’m calling from New York! And where are you?
SH: I’m in Fort Lauderdale today.
BP: Do you live there now?
SH: I do, but I’m moving back to LA just as soon as this housing market picks up.
BP: Oh, you’re trying to sell something?
SH: My home. I moved here a few years ago, but I prefer LA.
BP: I’m trying to sell my house. You should do what I do -- but you can’t unless you have an act! I sell my house from the stage! (Laughing)
SH: (Laughing) Maybe I should give you my information and we could do a two-fer!
BP: (Laughing) Ohhhh, the market.
SH: Okay, let me begin the questioning. Which do you consider more of a home, New York or California?
BP: I have a condo in LA but I consider New York my home. It’s where my dogs are. It’s where my home is.
SH: I’ve been reading rave reviews of your tour. The latest called you “fabulous,” “ remarkable,” “stunning,” etc.
BP: Oh! Isn’t that nice?
SH: So, what material can the audiences on your latest tour expect to hear?
BP: Well, I’ll be doing my Sondheim that I love. Songs from shows I’ve been in. Some of the songs I didn’t sing in the shows. The great part of doing a concert is you get to pick what you want to do. I’m singing Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” and a song that was running around my head for a couple of years, and finally I’m singing it. It’s “Shenandoah.”
SH: Of course, I know “Fever” but I have to admit I’m not familiar with “Shenandoah.”
BP: “Shenandoah” is one of those great Americana songs, (begins to sing) “Shenandoah, I long to see you…” Do you know it?
SH: I’m not going to cut you off. I want you to do the whole song!
BP: (Laughs) I’m not warmed up.
SH: You sound pretty good to me! You’ve collaborated with so many great musical directors. What do you find special about working with Marvin Laird?
BP: Oh, Marvin. He’s amazing. He’s a great accompanist. He breathes with you. He knows the right chords and the right tone and the right feeling. I actually wrote a song for my charity, it’s “Shelter Animals.” And I was approached to write a children’s book, so I did, and then I was approached to write a song for the book! I was thinking, I don’t write songs! I have too much respect for composers. But I needed a lullaby for the parents to sing to their child after they’ve finished the story, or put me on a CD and I’ll sing it. I was up in a plane coming home from someplace, and a song came to me, music and lyrics, and Marvin did these little orchestrations and it’s a sweet little lullaby. It’s very…I call it my little miracle.
SH: Congratulations! I look forward to hearing it. You brought up your foundation, “Shelter Animals.” I know that Mary Tyler Moore is a dear friend of yours. When did the two of you begin the foundation, and can you tell me about it?
BP: This is the tenth year. We have an event in Shubert Alley called Broadway Barks, like the title of my book. It belongs to the Broadway community. They love it. We had Angela Lansbury come this year and she opened the show for us. They meet their dog backstage and they bring the dog up onstage, and they talk about their dog. We had 130 animals this year and 100 were adopted! We were told to go back and get more dogs that need homes and we were thrilled!
SH: That’s awesome! My partner and I rescued a dog a year and a half ago, and I look at him every day and my heart melts. The hardest part was being at the shelter and leaving, knowing that you can’t save them all.
BP: Ugh! I know. What kind of dog is it? What does it look like?
SH: It’s a Catahoula Leopard Hound mix.
BP: Ohhhhhh! I love them.
SH: You know it? Nobody’s ever heard of it. Every time I mention him, people say, “It’s what?”
BP: What’s his coloring? Does he have those spots?
SH: He’s got some spots. He has them over his eyes and his chest. He’s dark brown with some butterscotch and white and he’s beautiful.
BP: He sounds like one of the dogs I…. well, last summer, my assistant and I went into the city shelter and we took the dogs ourselves and brought them to this rescue group in Brooklyn. It’s so funny you mention Catahoula. Right now there’s a dog I want to take that’s part Catahoula and part Pit. She’s got a big smile on her face.
SH: And how can you not? He was so sad when I first saw him and now he’s so happy. What a great thing we did.
BP: That’s the thing, you know. I learned so much about them just going in over the summer and seeing the difference when they get in the car as if they’re saying “I’M OUT!”
SH: And you feel you have saved somebody!
BP: The thing is they’re companion animals. They save you too! They’re healers. My dog, Kramer…
SH: Kramer? Did you name him from “Seinfeld?”
BP: I did because he always slides into a room. It was either that or Fred Astaire! (Laughs) But he didn’t wag his tail or look you in the eyes for six months. It took him a while.
SH: So many people are so grateful for what you’re doing.
BP: I have to. It’s a passion of mine.
SH: Okay, more questions.
BP: Okay. (Giggles)
SH: About the book you wrote. Could you elaborate on it?
BP: I was approached to write it for my charity, “Shelter Animals,” so we decided to call it “Broadway Barks” and it’s actually Kramer’s story. It’s how he was found in the park. He goes to Shubert Alley. He didn’t actually go, but in this story, he goes to the event and he hears singing and he’s all excited because he’s going to go up on stage. He goes up onstage and he starts singing and the people start laughing because all they hear is barking, and then he starts dancing and the people laugh even harder because all they see is jumping. So, they pull him off the stage and he’s feeling all alone and dejected and this little girl named Isabella comes up to him that’s the name of one of my Godchildren she says, “I love your singing and I love your dancing. Would you like to come home with me?” He thinks, ‘at my new house with Isabella, I’ll get belly rubs and a bath. Isabella’s room is a place for me to sleep and then Isabella can sing me to sleep.’ That’s the lullaby I mentioned.
SH: That is so sweet! Are you going to write more?
BP: I have no idea. (Laughs) I’m as surprised as anybody that I even wrote one! As I said, it’s my little miracle.
You’re tapping into additional creative outlets you didn’t even know you had!
SH: Okay, I’m going to shift gears. I spoke with Mandy Patinkin last year and asked him who he loves working with, and you were right up there at the top of his list. As a matter of fact, he said, (and I’m quoting) “Bernadette Peters is a dear friend, I’d do anything with her always forever at the drop of a hat.” So, who are your favorite people to work with and do you have a wish list of people you haven’t worked with yet?
BP: Oh, Mandy! I love him. Well, as for people I’d love to work with, I’ll just say Al Pacino. I just admire him so much.
SH: On film or the stage?
BP: I’d work with him anyplace. But I did see him come out on stage once, and I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is no acting, this is being.’ This is before he even said anything. The character just came out. Oh my God! That was inspiring.
SH: Didn’t you start your career on Broadway at 18?
Let’s see. I started out on television at three and a half. At nine years old I was on stage and I joined Actors Equity for my first Broadway show, but it never came in from out of town. It starred James Daly, which is Tyne Daly’s father, and Kim Hunter, and Otto Preminger directed it.
SH: Wow! Talk about starting at the top.
BP: But it was a bomb. It was the beginning of my series of bombs. But finally things changed and I started to do well.
SH: That’s quite an understatement! Was there ever a time you felt you had “made it” in show business?
BP: No! (Laughs) Well, when you have your first BIG success like “Dames At Sea,” and I realized people started talking to me in the street, strangers saying, “Oh I saw you in the show last night” and I thought, ‘I have all these new friends.’ My world had opened up. That’s the feeling I had, really.
SH: Considering your recording of “Broadway Baby” plays on your website, I’m sure the theater is your first love. What musical play do you consider your favorite?
BP: I’m always lucky to say ‘It’s the one I’m in at the moment.’ I’m trying to think of one experience. I think everyone’s energy in the theater goes into making a success. From the ushers to the box office to the…. I mean everyone’s energy goes toward what’s going on on the stage and points towards it. “Sunday In The Park” was great. “Gypsy” is an amazing role. It’s a play with music. It was a privilege to do that show.
SH: And you’ve been nominated for the Tony seven times and have won twice, correct?
Yes, I think that’s right. I won for “Song And Dance” (1985) and for “Annie Get Your Gun” (1999). I didn’t win for “Gypsy” and I didn’t get it for “Sunday In The Park.” Honestly, I don’t keep count.
SH: I know, but people like me do. I know that Stephen Sondheim is a great friend. I’ve heard he has tailored songs specifically for you. Is that accurate?
BP: Well, I think when he had Mandy and me…I think he does that. Originally, Dot was a soprano and George was a baritone. When they got Mandy, who is a tenor, and me who is not a soprano, he retailored and re-voiced it, and as he continued writing it, he was writing music for our voices.
SH: You’ve also done so much work supporting the Gay Men’s Health Crisis and Broadway Cares, among many, many other charities supporting the gay community. When did your work supporting gay causes begin and why?
BP: It just seemed natural. I mean I grew up in the business and always….you know, I hate pigeonholing people. People are people and you do have to say ‘I’m gay and it’s a great thing and it’s a fine thing and it’s a natural thing.’ Anyway, I grew up in the Broadway community, which has a lot of gay people, so it was always totally natural to me. When people started getting in trouble health-wise it just seemed natural to help them. It’s so important for gay people to come out. It’s the young people I’ve always been so concerned about. When a young person has to hide then you start having a very strange life. Then you start sneaking around, going to weird places and then you’re not safe and you’re embarrassed and not feeling good about yourself and you can’t have a healthy, safe relationship. It becomes sort of underground and perverse, and it’s just no good! It’s so important to me to have people be themselves, and it’s so important to have more talk about it and have it out in the open.
SH: Why do you feel the gay community is so drawn to you?
BP: Well, (in a nonchalant tone) I always say that gay people have good taste. I think that they are ultra-sensitive people. I think that when you’re an actress and you’re letting yourself be seen and showing your emotions and letting yourself be out there, I think that gay people identify with it and love it. Maybe because they had to hide their emotions for so long.
SH: Is there anything in your career you haven’t done that you’ve always wanted to do?
BP: Maybe some more acting now, some serious acting.
SH: On stage or other outlets?
BP: Anywhere, but on stage, I suppose.
SH: You’ve also done so much work in film, concerts and television. Do you have a favorite medium from those works -- and if so, what film, recording, or television project do you hold closest to you?
BP: I think playing Tammy Faye Bakker was pretty well done. I loved playing Rose in “Gypsy.” We just kept evolving and evolving, and finally we just stopped acting. It was a great experience. I’m proud of that. I loved being in the movie “Pennies From Heaven.” I think that’s a really great film.
SH: Thank you for taking the time from your busy schedule to speak with me. I wish you great success with the tour and all of your future endeavors.
BP: Thank you, thank you. Good luck with your dog!
© 2008 Steven M. Housman. All Rights Reserved.