Bernadette Peters has two, maybe three, pet projects.
The first one is warm and fuzzy: Dogs.
The second one is also warm and fuzzy (depending on his mood): Stephen Sondheim.
Let’s begin with Sondheim, since that’s the reason she’s hauling her curly hair and Kewpie-pie face from her Manhattan apartment and returning to Pittsburgh for a one night-gig at Oakland's Carnegie Music Hall on February 22. The concert will benefit the Delta Foundation of Pittsburgh. Maybe this keeps her looking so great? She turns 66 on February 28.
Before we start chatting, an "article" about Peters appeared in some gay bar stating that the Delta gig will be Peters' first visit to town since she was 15 and appeared at the Civic Arena. Hello? Peters performed with the PSO for four sold-out performances in March 2009. Too much bar-hopping and bath-housing (how Pittsburgh gets away with this) is a whole other query.
Peters remembers first encountering Sondheim’s music through the original 1971 production of Follies.
And she knew he was special.“I know that anything he chooses to write about, he’s going to find something I want to know,” she muses. “Otherwise, he doesn’t even take it on. I know there’s going to be something wonderful in there. I’ve loved everything he’s done. I have to say I love singing Sondheim. He's very kind, very open. He hears what you say, and his songs say so much, on so many levels. It’s a pleasure to sing them. I miss them if I don’t sing them for a while. He is a national treasure. He writes lyrics that are important for people to hear."
Hers is such a distinctive voice. And she knows how to use it.
“When I was a little, little girl, I had sort of a deep voice because I didn’t speak correctly,” Peters recalls. “And then I had to learn to kind of sing and use it correctly. Sometimes people would say, ‘Oh, listen to her cute voice!’ I never thought I had that different a voice. When I sang, that’s what came out.”
She pauses. “I really have to give applause to my singing teacher Adrienne Angel. When I started studying with her, she really put me on the right track. She gave me the greatest gift, and that was the ability to be able to use my instrument. She gave me the ability to sing a large score, with a large range.”
That’s large . . . as in larger than life.
Hollywood tried to make the native New Yorker a star (she made a handful of films, including The Jerk and Pennies from Heaven with her longtime lover Steve Martin) but her quirky personality is far for suited to the small screen. Peters had done quite a bit small-screen stuff, including a regular guest spot on Ugly Betty, and stints on Boston Legal, Grey’s Anatomy, Ally McBeal (for which she earned an Emmy nomination); in 2009, she knocked audiences for a loop with her sultry rendition of “There is Nothing Like a Dame” during Ted Kennedy’s Kennedy Center birthday salute.
TV is important to her because it helped guide her into the business known as show. “Thank God for the early days of television. Sometimes I think I’ve seen a Broadway show, and then I realize, “I saw it on Ed Sullivan as a kid." I saw Ethel Merman, I saw everybody from all the Broadway shows and people like Lena Horne and Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett---the great, great, great singers. When I was growing up we didn't have money to go to Broadway shows, so I saw these singers on television. I grew up on television. When I finally saw Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! I was totally inspired by her. It was late when I got to see her, but she was genius! She was Charlie Chaplin, and I was lucky to have seen her.” She does have one regret: “I never got to see Mary Martin on stage---well, I did see her on television in Peter Pan. And I went to bed crying because I couldn't fly.”
But the question fans are crying to know: When is she returning to the Broadway stage, perhaps to add more Tonys to her collection? She’s won for Song and Dance (1986) and Annie Get Your Gun (1999) and was nominated for On the Town (1972), Mack and Mabel (1975), Sunday in the Park With George (1984), The Goodbye Girl (1992) and Gypsy (2003). In 2012, she was handed an Honorary Tony.
“There are some things in the air, but it’s got to be something really exciting or something I want to do, something worth doing eight shows a week. I’m really enjoying doing the television that I've done and I love doing concerts and writing these books and raising money for my charities. So that's really how I'm spending my time, but I'm pretty amazed that I'm writing books and the songs are coming out and I get to perform them.”
Which brings us to her first pet cause.
In 1998, Peters and her best friend Mary Tyler Moore founded Broadway Barks, a pet-adopted agency aimed to wipe out euthanasia at New York City animal shelters. Each year, Broadway Barks holds an event in Shubert Alley---stars attend, pets are adopted. The success make Peters smile, especially when “you think that ten years ago, Mary and I started it with six shelters and eight animals adopted. One year we had 26 shelters because that's all they could fit in Shubert Alley. Now we even have vans up and down the street, so the animals can be in there, too. We have cats available also. People used to come to see the celebrities---all our friends who come out and help Mary and I pull this thing off. Now they come to adopt. One year, we had to go back to the city shelter and get more at-risk dogs, because we ran out." (A visit to bernadettepeters.com will bring you in contact with pooches looking for homes.)
Peters got her first dog when she was nine, a mutt she named Suzy. Years later, her manager gave her a champagne poodle she named Rocko; when Rocko died, Peters’ pal Joel Grey gave her a Himalayan kitten named Murphy.
Today, she has two adopted pooches, a pit bull Stella---"she’s a 15½-year-old pit bull, like Petey from the Our Gang comedies. I also have Charlie, who I got after my beloved 16-year-old Kramer passed away. Stella was grieving.
“Pets make you feel amazing. They're really creatures here for us to make our lives better. They're very healing. Shelter animals can go to good homes to make us all healthier and less lonely, to help introverted children or elderly shut-ins out of their shells." No doubt her pooches helped comfort Peters when her hubby, investment adviser Michael Wittenberg, died in a 2005 helicopter crash in Montenegro; he was 14 younger. Peters married him in 1996 at Mary Tyler Moore’s home.
But time heals everything.
In 2008, Peters wrote the bestselling children‘s book Broadway Barks (Blue Apple Books), about a homeless dog named Douglas that’s set in New York's theater district. Dedicated to her late hubby, the book comes with a CD containing the single “Kramer’s Song,” a tune Peters sings in honor of her adopted dog. (Bernadette's royalties from the sale of the book go to the pet-adopting agency.) There’s also a plush toy based on the character of Kramer.
Kramer, now in doggie heaven, also loved music. "His tail would wag in time to the music. He loved when I sang to him. He loved his song. If I'm rescuing dogs," Peters says, "and they're in the back of the Jeep, they may be barking and carrying on. If I start to sing the song, they quiet down.”
In 2010, the book Stella is a Star followed, a third one is in the works.
Pets, Sondheim . . . music to her heart.
And there will be more ventures out of the doghouse.“You gotta be original, because if you’re like someone else,” she asks, “what do they need you for?”
Bernadette Peters has two, maybe three, pet projects.