I chatted with Bernadette Peters for over an hour. It became clear as we conversed that she is playful, enthusiastic and eager to discuss anything regarding her work or her professional relationships. When matters turn private, she is direct in her decline. If she doesn't think it's appropriate, she will not discuss it.
This was consistent with my research on her and my experience of her concert performances. When she has a role to play, Bernadette Peters gives herself to it gloriously and completely. When it comes to revealing herself, Bernadette Lazzara (her father's name is Peter) chooses instead to play the role she knows best - Bernadette Peters. In view of the gifts she has given through her talent, a true Sondheim aficionado might well ask "What more do I need?"
SSS: I notice you haven't changed your bio yet, as you promised ... or your agent hasn't!
(Peters patter on Sondheim, Etc. includes a reference to a mistake in her press biography stating that she had played Dainty June in Gypsy tour when in fact she only understudied the role. On the recording she apologizes to the actress whose credit she stole.)
BP: (Laughing) Oh god! Does is still say...
SSS: It still says...
BP: I promise I'll fix that.
SSS: You've said that you avoided listening to a lot of female singers, so as not to be influenced by them. What do you think it is that makes your voice and your style so unique?
BP: Well I don't know. I had an acting teacher years ago who always said, "There's only one of you in the world. There's only one." So I was taught to be, what's the word, pure... true. Yes, true. Not to copy anyone, ever. So hopefully, what comes out of me comes out of me naturally. I try to interpret things the way I feel them, not the way I think someone else wants to hear them.
SSS: How did you pick the songs you used for your concert and album?
BP: 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.
SSS: You're mentioning a song that didn't make it onto the album.
BP: "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.
SSS: Ah. I'm getting a picture...
BP: 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.
SSS: Whose idea was it to turn "Happiness" from a duet into a solo?
BP: 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.
SSS: "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.
BP: 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.
SSS: More hot pies!
SSS: Was song selection a difficult process with so much Sondheim material to choose from?
BP: 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.
SSS: How do you prepare new material? Do you read music?
BP: Yes. I work with a pianist and I read the music with them and I learn it.
SSS: Do you have a favorite Sondheim score other than the shows that you've performed in?
BP: 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.
SSS: 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?
BP: 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.
SSS: Was it difficult being a star in what was essentially an ensemble show?
BP: No. I took it as an ensemble piece.
SSS: But people came with the impression that "this is a Bernadette Peters show."
BP: 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.
SSS: What things were changed to either suit you or to accommodate the focus that you would bring to the show?
BP: 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.
SSS: Into The Woods really brought Sondheim a whole new generation of fans. Why do you think the show resonates so much with young people?
BP: 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.
SSS: How was the transformation of the witch done?
BP: (Coyly) Can't tell you.
SSS: Can I give you my suspicions?
BP: Okay. (Listens to author's suggestion.) Nope! (Giggles)
SSS: 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?
BP: I'd love to do that.
BP: 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.