After six decades in show biz — she first toddled onto the stage at 3½ years old — Broadway showstopper Bernadette Peters comes to Wichita on Aug. 25 to celebrate the 90th birthday of the historic Orpheum Theatre.
Peters — also known for movies, TV, albums and recently, children’s books — noted that she’s had a long-standing connection to Kansas through her accompanist, conductor, arranger and buddy Marvin Laird, who accompanies her on all her concert stops.
“I’ve known Marvin since I was 13 when he was assistant director for a national tour of ‘Gypsy’ and I was understudy for Dainty June. He’s from Kansas City, Kansas, so I’ve always felt a connection to Kansas,” Peters said during a phone conversation from her New York apartment, where she said she finally has a little time between gigs to relax on her terrace and “watch my flowers bloom.”
Peters, with Laird at the piano, will appear at the Orpheum with members of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra in a program that’s mostly classic Broadway, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Stephen Sondheim, with a few surprises thrown in.
“I don’t really do pop songs, but I’ll be doing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever.’ And I’ll be at the piano for ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ No, I won’t be playing the piano, I’ll be laying on the piano,” Peters said with a giggle in that familiar velvety/smoky voice that always seems to hint at a little hidden mischief.
After seven Tony Award nominations (and three wins) for shows like “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods,” “A Little Night Music” and, most recently, the revival of “Follies” last fall, Peters has been described by critics as “the foremost interpreter of Sondheim.”
“Well, gee, I never know how to respond to something like that. When you’re the performer, you can’t see yourself like the audience does,” she said. “But I can tell you that I love singing his songs because they are so thoughtful. They have messages that I like to hear, such as ‘you’re not alone’ and ‘children will hear.’ I fell in love with his music when I saw ‘Side by Side by Sondheim’ in London. I came out of the theater humming like crazy. His songs went straight into my soul.”
When Peters later got to know Sondheim personally, she discovered that they also shared a passion for their dogs. She even created a charity in 1999 — “Broadway Barks,” to encourage adoption of shelter animals — around her critters: a mutt named Kramer and a pit bull named Stella.
“I recently adopted a new puppy named Charlie because my beloved Kramer passed away at 16,” she said. “I got him because Stella was grieving. I guess I was, too.”
Peters penned two fanciful children’s books inspired by her own dogs, with proceeds donated to “Broadway Barks.” She even wrote an original song to include on a CD with each book.
“Those two songs just sort of came to me, but I have no ambitions to be a composer,” she said with a laugh. “I don’t consider myself enough of a craftsman to get away with that. I’ll just stick to performing.”
And that’s just what’s she’s been doing since her proud Italian-American mom put little Bernadette Lazzara from Queens on TV’s “Juvenile Jury” at age 3½, followed by “Name That Tune” at 5. At 9, she made her professional debut under director Otto Preminger and got her Actors Equity card under the stage name Bernadette Peters, chosen to honor her father, Peter, who drove a bread truck.
Unlike a lot of other showbiz kids, Peters said she made the transition from child to adult performer smoothly.
“I was lucky that I was never a child ‘star.’ I never had to reinvent myself like some others who grew up and were told that ‘we loved you back then, but you’re no longer cute,’ ” she said. “Because I wasn’t considered a star, I had a fairly normal childhood in Queens. I got to grow up with my friends and go to public schools. I didn’t miss out on my childhood.”
Although best known for Broadway, including an acclaimed turn as Mama Rose in “Gypsy” (2003), Peters also has a memorable list of films, from Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” to “The Jerk” and “Pennies From Heaven” with one-time main squeeze Steve Martin, to “Annie” with Carol Burnett and “Pink Cadillac” with Clint Eastwood.
On TV, she’s guested on such series as “Boston Legal” and, most recently, “Smash” — plus singing and cracking wise on countless variety shows from “The Muppets” to “The Carol Burnett Show.” And, of course, she frequently and glamorously struts the red carpet as presenter/participant at the Tonys, Oscars, Emmys, etc.
When she’s not in a show, she takes her concert act on the road “at least a couple of weekends a month.”
“I like getting involved with an audience. I can go places in song and take the audience along with me,” she said. “I feel privileged every time we make that journey together.”
Peters is bicoastal with homes in both New York and Los Angeles. But she jokes that you can easily tell that she’s really an East-Coaster.
“I live both places, but Stella and Charlie live in New York,” she said of her pets. “Home is where the dogs are.”