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Side by Side With Bernadette Peters
by Robert Sokol

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I chose songs I've always loved. I've always loved the song "Johanna" - (Sings: "I feeeeeeel you, Johanna!") And the song "Later" from A Little Night Music is a favorite of mine. So Richard Alexander, the director, and I figured out a way to do it. And the others, they were just songs that I love. That's how I chose them.

You're mentioning a song that didn't make it onto the album.
"Later" didn't make it because it was a very visual number [in the concert]. You know the song? Well, in the show he sings it playing the cello. Well, obviously I don't play the cello. So instead, I sang it to the cello player.

Ah. I'm getting a picture...
Yeah. So it was very visual and very fun to do. Clay Reed, this wonderful cello player who's on the album, played it. But it didn't make sense for the album.

Whose idea was it to turn "Happiness" from a duet into a solo?
Well, Steve had written a solo version of it. So when I heard it - a friend of his had shown it to me - I asked him about it. And that was it.

"Hello Little Girl" seemed an odd choice, especially out of context and with the change of the singer's gender but not subject of the lyrics.
Well, I wanted to change the gender, but Steve thought to leave the gender alone because the words were so much about a girl, you know, plump, and... So I thought, well, you know, the witch could sing it. Sort of Hansel and Gretel. It was the witch that took the children and stuck them in the ovens and ate them, you know.

More hot pies!

Was song selection a difficult process with so much Sondheim material to choose from?
It was great. It was such a thrill to go through his music. And he did a wonderful thing. He sent me a tape of himself singing a lot of songs. He had some songs that he wanted me to hear. It was just him singing and I love the way he sang them. It was a thrill to hear him. So it was a couple of days of a wonderful Sondheim festival at my house listening to the music and choosing.

How do you prepare new material? Do you read music?
Yes. I work with a pianist and I read the music with them and I learn it.

Do you have a favorite Sondheim score other than the shows that you've performed in?
No. Do you ask a girl, does she like diamonds, rubies, sapphires or emeralds? (Laughs) I haven't thoroughly studied his [other] complete scores, mostly just individual songs. There are so many personalities with each score. He writes like an actor who takes a role and then delves deeply into it and becomes that character. And he does it with every character and every song. He knows all about them. He'll tell you why he wrote a word or line a certain way or why they're acting a certain way.

That's the great thing about doing new shows as opposed to singing someone's music from years ago who's not around anymore. You've got the author right there. So any questions you have, you ask. Steve would tell me why he wrote a song and what it's about.

You're quoted as saying that you took the part in Into The Woods in order to learn something. What do you think you learned?
There's always some great lesson in Sondheim and James Lapine shows. I learned so much in Sunday in the Park With George. And the lesson in Into the Woods that I waited for, that I loved singing, was "Children Will Listen." I think that's such a wise song.

Was it difficult being a star in what was essentially an ensemble show?
No. I took it as an ensemble piece.

But people came with the impression that "this is a Bernadette Peters show."
I guess so. I just didn't think of it. I said this is what I'm doing. They do this in London and so I'm going to do the same thing because I want to be in the show.

What things were changed to either suit you or to accommodate the focus that you would bring to the show?
Nothing. Because I came in late. And I thought the show was the important thing. I didn't want to have them change focus or anything like that if it was going to hurt the show. I thought, the most important thing was to get the show to work. I didn't want it to be about me. I wanted another beautiful show.

Into The Woods really brought Sondheim a whole new generation of fans. Why do you think the show resonates so much with young people?
Well, it's more accessible. It's a fairy tale. And he loved that children would come. He wanted it to be a show that kids would love to come to.

How was the transformation of the witch done?
(Coyly) Can't tell you.

Can I give you my suspicions?
Okay. (Listens to author's suggestion.) Nope! (Giggles)

No? Okay, then it'll stay a secret. Are there Sondheim roles that you haven't played that you'd like to? Rose, for instance?
I'd love to do that.

They asked me to do Fosca in London. I thought about it. It's a very interesting role. But it just wasn't a good time for me to go over there so I didn't do it.

What did you think of Passion?
I loved it

Have you heard anything from Wise Guys yet?

On camera Sondheim seems really painfully shy. Is this true?
Yeah. He loves teaching but he doesn't really like the camera that much.

Do you two socialize much?
Yeah, we see each other.

Are there any funny stories you will share?

Fair enough. Are there roles in your career that "got away" - as the old
Judy Garland song goes - that you wish hadn't? A role that I wanted to do and didn't get? No. And usually if I say no I have a good reason. Meaning that I just don't connect to it or see myself in it. But someone else could do it and do a wonderful job. I'm usually never sorry when I say no.

Move on.

What brought you together with the Gay Men's Health Crisis?
Well, I've done things here and there for them. Last year we did Anyone Can Whistle, which I loved doing. And one year I hosted a special program for them in a beautiful rooftop garden.

It was actually Arthur Laurents that called, because he's connected with them. He said, "We want to do a benefit, and we think you should do a concert." So I considered it and thought, well, if I do a show in New York I want to give the people something they really would enjoy. So that's where the idea of doing a whole Sondheim second act came into play.

You and Sondheim both have a large gay following. Why do you think that is?
I don't know. Maybe it starts with him and then I sing his music. (Laughs) I don't know, maybe it started with me with Dames at Sea.

Seriously though, I think gay people are drawn to things that have emotional depth and feeling. They love performers who are expressive and who throw themselves into things very deeply, which I do. And I think that's great. I do what I can to help [with AIDS fund- raising] and Steve does work for the GMHC and Friends In Deed, also.

I love singing with gay men's choruses. I did it last, I think, in Los Angeles. In Chicago I got flowers from the chorus there, which was so sweet. They couldn't come because they were also performing that night. But I thought that was such a nice thing, to send me flowers.

Do you prefer concert work or theater? What are the pluses and minuses of each side?
Well, theater is eight shows a week. It's very hard work. But I love doing theater when the role is wonderful and feeds me and is fun to do. With concerts, I choose what I want to sing, so that's great. And the time commitment is much less.

Staged concerts of musicals like Anyone Can Whistle or the Encore's Chicago which now is on Broadway as an ongoing show, have become really popular. What do you think of this trend of reviving shows through a concert format?
I think it's a great vehicle when the music is great but there's a lot in the book that needs to be cut away. It's a great way to do it. To still enjoy a show, without getting stuck in a book that doesn't work.

How do you feel about the revival trend in general?
I think if something is entertaining, it's entertaining. Why not revive it?

Looking back over the shows that you've done, are there any that you would consider for a revival? Like Mack and Mabel?
I don't usually like to revisit places I've been for myself. It has a great score, though, a really great score.

Why do you feel it didn't succeed?
They said the book had a lot of trouble with it. And then they said that it had a sad ending, instead of an up ending. I don't know. I think if they ever wanted to revive it they should just hand it to two young writers who'd research who Mack Sennett and Mabel Normand really were and write a whole new book.

In Showtune (his recent autobiography) Jerry Herman wrote that he
thought one of the biggest problems was the age difference between you and Robert Preston. Really? I don't remember hearing that [back] then. But maybe he did, maybe he heard that.

What was it like working with Herman versus Sondheim?
Steve's more of a thinker, thinker, thinker, thinker. His mind is always on his thinking phase. Jerry was kind of more... His face had always had a peaceful look on it. And so I always felt good when I saw his face, because I knew that everything was okay. Until one day when he was worried, and then I thought, "Ohmigod, we're in trouble! He's got a worried look on his face!"

How about Sondheim versus Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Well, Andy wasn't around for Song and Dance [on Broadway]. They had already done it in London. He just came for one music rehearsal with the orchestra.

What was it like carrying a whole first act all by yourself in Song and
? Well, when they explained the show to me, I kept thinking they were saying it wrong. "Now, what are you saying? That the whole first act is sung by one person? Now let me say it again in a different way. The first act is just one person on stage alone?" I mean, I didn't think I was hearing right. That it was a Broadway show with one person singing the whole first act by herself. So I got that clear. And then, I thought, "Well, this is a challenge. I have to take this challenge." And that's what I did.

You won your Tony award for Song and Dance. Looking back over your career, is there another role you wished you might have won it for?
Well, any Tony is a good Tony in my book. So I'm not going to argue with them. (Laughs)

If Bernadette Lazzara hadn't become an actress, what might she have done?
I don't know. Probably shot herself! (Laughs) She definitely would have gotten out of Queens. Maybe teaching? I don't know. I guess I'll never know.

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