A song of Bernadette (Peters, of course)

Bernadette Peters 1

Buckle up, Broadway Babies. It’s time to revel in all things Bernadette. The loveable diva Bernadette Peters, she of the curls, the va-va-voom figure and the knockout voice, will return to the concert stage in Davies Hall to perform with the San Francisco Symphony on Tuesday, July 23 (for ticket info, click here). This is a re-scheduled concert after the pesky musicians’ strike scrapped Peters’ previous plans to dazzle us with her latest concert.

Most recently, Peters popped up on NBC’s love-to-hate musical TV show “Smash,” and she was one of the best things about the show (along with the songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The 65-year-old beauty’s last turn on Broadway was in the stunning revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies, and she proved she’s lost nothing in the dramatic department.

The most astonishing thing about Peters is the duration and diversity of her career. She has done it all. And now, thanks to the wonders of YouTube, let’s revisit some highlights, shall we?

In 1979, Peters starred in The Jerk with then-love Steve Martin. She’s hilarious, but this duet on “Tonight You Belong to Me” is sincerely sweet.

One of the greatest things about the ’70s was the last hurrah of the variety show. Peters was such a versatile and appealing performer that she fit right in to the long-gone format. Here she is on the best of the ’70s variety shows, “The Carol Burnett Show,” singing “All That Jazz” from March, 1975.

More proof that Peters is a superb comedienne, this comedy number by Marilyn Miller and Sheryl Hardwick from The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.”

All that wonderfully gooey ’70s cheesiness spilled over into the ’80s. Need proof? Look no further than Peters performing with Peter Allen at the 1982 Academy Awards in a tribute to Irving Berlin.

Peters is a two-time Tony Award winner (with seven nominations) and a force of musical theater nature. Here’s Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby” performed with John Williams and the Boston Pops.

This is one of my favorite Peters performances: “I’m Flying” from Peter Pan from an appearance on Carol Burnett’s “Carol and Company” in 1991.

My favorite Peters Broadway show is Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George, in which she played Dot, muse to painter Georges Seurat (played by Mandy Patinkin). This is “Move On” from 1984.

Let’s end this musical melange with the Muppets and Peters singing “Just One Person” from a 1977 appearance on “The Muppet Show.”

Bernadette Peters’ music man: Marvin Laird

Behind every great diva there’s a hard-working, often brilliant musical director.

For Bernadette Peters, that man is Marvin Laird. The two first worked together in 1961. He was the assistant conductor and she was a Hollywood Blonde in a national touring production of Gypsy.

Marvin Laird 3

“Bernadette was clearly the one on stage with talent,” Laird says on the phone from his home in rural Connecticut. “I didn’t stay with the whole tour, but I knew our paths would cross again. You know when you meet certain people. We worked together again in New York when Bernadette auditioned to replace Kay Cole in Best Foot Forward. Then she got Dames at Sea, which necessitated a lot of TV stuff for her, so we started seeing each other a lot.”

Long story short: Laird, who moved from Broadway into the endlessly fascinating world of 1970s variety television, helped Peters craft a nightclub act, and they’ve been an inseparable duo ever since.

Laird will be conducting for Peters when she plays with the San Francisco Symphony on June 27 at Davies Symphony Hall.

Peters and Laird recently returned from a triumphant concert appearance in Adelaide, Australia, which was filmed. “Richard Jay Alexander spearheaded the filming, and he said the footage is just breathtaking, which is pretty exciting.”

Laird says he’s excited about coming back to San Francisco, where he and Peters have performed many a summer concert.

Marvin Laird 2

“Anyplace with a large gay community, they just know their stuff,” Laird says. “There’s nothing quite as wonderful as an informed audience who loves the artist. Bernadette is a special person and is one of those rare people who knows how to take care of herself. She will have the same instrument, like Barbara Cook, when she’s singing in her 80s. Bernadette also knows how important her fan base is. She takes the time to talk to everyone and spends an hour and a half with her fans at the end of a show. That’s who she is. She grew up appreciating family and knows the value of human relationships.”

Laird grew up in Kansas and ended up in New York working on such shows as Ben Franklin in Paris, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, The Happy Time, Skyscraper and Georgy. When he was out of town in Los Angeles working on The Happy Time (the first musical to ever play the Ahmanson Theatre), he contracted hepatitis. “Gower Champion had worked us all into a thin nubbin. I was a wreck,” Laird says. During his three-week stint in the hospital, Laird received a visit from Michael Kidd, who recruited Laird to write dance music for his current project, the movie version of Hello, Dolly! From there, it was a simple leap into variety television.

“I was working on maybe two and three different specials at a time,” Laird recalls. “I was driving from one studio to another, flying over those hills from NBC to CBS. We never thought those specials would be extinct. Now I curse myself I didn’t save copies of all those shows. If I run back through my mind, I can’t think of one performer who wasn’t doing TV. I worked with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Bob Hope – all on the same special! It was an amazing period of time. If only people could be exposed to the level of professionalism and creativity that happened in those days. There’s no reason there shouldn’t be a resurgence of variety television. Or at the very least, the specials should be shown again.”

Laird also began working with performers on their nightclub acts. He worked so often with Juliet Prowse in Las Vegas he ended up owning a home there. And while working with Shirley MacLaine on her special “Where Do We Go from Here,” one of the guests caught his eye: Joel Paley, a member of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. The two have been together since and celebrate their 33-year anniversary this fall. Their partnership is also creative. They wrote the show Ruthless! The Musical, a gut-busting spoof of The Bad Seed, and are at work on a new project.

“We’re not quite happy with the show yet,” Laird says. “It was inspired by an aspect of Joel’s growing up. His mother choreographed and staged the Temple shows in northeast Philadelphia. It’s a whole culture that deals with the synagogue shows put on every year. It’s a celebration of a certain aspect of Jewish life.”

So far, titles for the show have included The Yiddish Are Coming, The Yiddish Are Coming, Shofar So Good and Kosher Nostra.

“The show played an entire summer in Denver, but we’re still in the process of getting it right,” Laird says. “It has some great songs, but it’s about what goes on in between the songs that’s hard.”

Laird and Peters will be heading into the recording studio in the near future to make a Christmas album, so they’re in the process of collecting songs “that haven’t been done to death.”

“Bernadette works from the inside out,” Laird says. “She can’t get into a song unless she relates to it completely for one reason or another. She can work with a number for years before she puts it into a show. That’s a long gestation period. She doesn’t just whip ’em off. I’m so used to Bernadette’s pace that to work any faster seems strange to me.”

As an accompanist and musical director, Laird says his job is to surround the choice of song with whatever special qualities you might bring to the job.

“It’s such a pleasure with Bernadette,” Laird says. “The mutual respect is there. Now, with so many years together, we sort of breathe together. It’s a very special relationship that happens between an artist and the accompanying performer. It’s a delicate thing. I’m just thrilled I’ve had as much of my career as I have with someone as sensitive and as generous as Bernadette. It works both ways: she inspires me as much as I inspire her.”


Bernadette Peters in Concert, 8 p.m., Saturday, June 27, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$90. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org for information.


Broadway baby Peters can still be a blast

Last night at Davies Symphony Hall, Bernadette Peters was in a good mood. Her voice was in great shape (and her shape was in GREAT shape).

In other words, Peters’ “Summer in the City” concert was a triumph.

Last time Peters was in town, she was performing a theatrical concert at the Orpheum Theatre to promote her new Rodgers and Hammerstein album. That 2001 run got scotched by illness (she says Rita Moreno gave her the flu at a Jerry Herman tribute), and she hasn’t been back since.

Friday night, she stood in front of the San Francisco Symphony, with her longtime musical director Marvin Laird at the conductor’s podium (and, quite often, at the piano), and delivered the kind of old-school Broadway razzle dazzle that has made her a beloved musical theater icon.

If you’ve seen Peters in a show, especially a long-running one, you know that she can get tired and bored, and she can let her weariness come through in the performance so that it seems she’s giving it about 50 percent. In her many appearances with the SF Symphony – 1991, 92, 95 and 98 – Peters has been hot and lukewarm. She trotted out a lot of the same songs, jokes and mannerisms, concert after concert.

This time around we saw a much fresher Peters. At 60 she has lost none of her Kewpie Doll looks – That hair! Those curves! – nor has her voice, one of the most bizarre instruments on Broadway, lost any of its appeal. I say her voice is bizarre because it is. The break between chest and head voice comes at a strange place, and her control is not always there. Sometimes the drama in her performance comes from wondering whether she can actually hit the note.

That said, Peters has learned to use her odd voice incredibly well. She has comedy notes and break-your-heart notes. She’s a smart interpreter, and as she has gotten older, she has learned simplicity can be equally as effective as the most involved vocal manipulation. That’s one of the reasons she’s so good at singing the songs of Stephen Sondheim, who was well represented in Friday’s song selection.

After an orchestral program conducted by Edwin Outwater that featured Broadway composers Sondheim, Bernstein, Gould and Styne (no mention need be made of the attempt to make the Stray Cats’ “Rock This Town” into orchestral rockabilly), Laird led the orchestra through an overture that plucked out highlights from Peters’ career (Gypsy, Mack and Mable, Sunday in the Park with George).

Peters entered singing a cutesy “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy and then got serious with “No One Is Alone” from Into the Woods, a song she sings just about better than anyone, and the simple arrangement for piano and cello was stunning.

Aside from a go-nowhere running joke about trying to sell a vacation home in Florida (five bedrooms, six baths, one pool), Peters was charming. She did do her “this is my back” joke when she turned to sip water, but mostly she connected with the adoring audience as she strutted through her vampy “There Is Nothin’ Like a Dame” and then climbed on top of the piano for a hot – truly hot – “Fever.”

She headed back to Rodgers and Hammerstein for “Mr. Snow” from Carousel and “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific (she says she’s seen the current revival twice and that we should catch it if we can) and then surprised us with a delicate “Shenandoah” that was practically a cappella. A recent gig at L.A.’s Disney Concert Hall forced her to add some Disney to the act: a lovely medley of “When You Wish Upon a Star” and “A Dream Is a Wish Your Heart Makes.”

The Sondheim section of the evening started on the Davies grand organ in a riff from Sweeney Todd that turned into a beautiful “Johanna.”

Peters sings “Not a Day Goes By” all the time, but Friday night’s version seemed somehow less acted and more natural, which made the song all the more heartbreaking. Her “You Could Drive a Person Crazy” is fun (not as fun as Andrea McArdle’s), but her “With So Little to Be Sure Of” brought weight and drama and beauty (more than the set closer “Being Alive,” which didn’t have quite the oomph it should have).

For an encore, she performed her first composition, “Kramer’s Song,” a lullaby she wrote for her dog and that accompanies her recently published children’s book Broadway Barks. Peters walked into the audience to perform the song, which is truly lovely and emotional and has more than a touch of Sondheim in it.

Of course Peters could have performed more songs from her own shows. She didn’t do anything from Song and Dance or Annie Get Your Gun or anything of note from Gypsy. But it was nice getting a mostly fresh plate of show tunes from such a delightful diva.

Visit Peters’ official site: bernadettepeters.com


Books, `Barks’ and Bernadette

Bernadette Peters’ career is going to the dogs.

No, the two-time Tony Award-winning Broadway diva has not hit the skids. She’s just more interested in dogs at the moment than the stage.

Peters, 57, who performs with the San Francisco Symphony Friday, July 25, as part of the “Summer in the City” series, has been a self-described “dog person” since age 9 when she begged her mother for a canine companion. Then she got Suzie, a small golden lab, who became a beloved family pet.

“My father, who delivered bread, was a man who didn’t talk about his emotions, but when that dog got old and wandered away to die, he took it so personally. `I never thought she’d do this to us,’ he said,” Peters recalls on the phone from her New York home. “We did get another dog, a little poodle, and he carried that animal around under his arm. He was sort of a dog whisperer, which helped when he made deliveries.”

Throughout her life, Peters has had dogs.

“I didn’t know at first you had to actually be in charge, be the alpha,” she says. “I’m good with dogs now. I understand that.”

Years ago she had a poodle named Rocco, a dog she claims was the smartest dog ever.

“I took him on `The Tonight Show’ because there was a guy there rating animal intelligence,” Peters recalls. “Contrary to what people think, poodles are not that smart, he said. Ha ha ha. My dog won. When I was in the movie The Jerk, we had trained dogs, and the trainer, to get them to speak, would use a signal. Sometimes they’d speak, sometimes they wouldn’t. I’d watch them and think, `Rocco could do that.’ I remember telling my father that Rocco was so smart – he was like a little boy in a dog suit. My father came to visit and said, `You’re right!’ I was in such mourning when Rocco died. It was just him and me for so long.”

About 11 years ago, after her golden retriever had died, she found Kramer at the ASPCA. “He’s a Heinz 57 mutt,” Peters says. “He’s a tramp, like in `Lady and the Tramp.’ I should sing that song.”

She’ll probably get around to it, but for now she’s singing “Kramer’s Song,” a song she composed herself to accompany her first-ever children’s book, Broadway Barks (Blue Apple Books) named for the annual Broadway animal-adoption event she and Mary Tyler Moore founded a decade ago.

Peters will be singing “Kramer’s Song,” a tender lullaby that accompanies the book on a CD tucked into the back cover, in concert, and on Saturday, July 26, she’ll do a book signing at Books Inc. on Market Street.

“I had never composed anything before, and at first I didn’t want to sing the song because I wondered if it was good enough,” Peters says. “But then I got comfortable with it because I know it comes from someplace real.”

Her friend Stephen Sondheim, whose songs she sings just about better than anyone, hasn’t heard the song yet. “But he wasn’t surprised when he heard I’d written something,” Peters says. “He says the way to write a song is for it to come out of a situation.”

In addition to discussing her next stage project, Peters is at work on a second children’s book – this one about her pit bull, Stella. As for the real life Kramer, he’s enjoying his moment in the spotlight.

“He loves his song,” Peters says. “It makes him bark. He’s loving being on TV, loves the applause. I think he was an actor in his last life.”

The success of Broadway Barks, the annual New York event that involves the cream of the Broadway theater community, didn’t surprise Peters.

“When you’re an actor, your heart has to be open and available to feelings and emotions,” she says. “Actors are usually very sensitive people, and they fit perfectly with animals. Communication with animals is very good for us – they help us find the quiet in ourselves.”

Peters’ primary causes these days involve animals. She’s working to turn New York into a no-kill island when it comes to abandoned animals, and she’s working to increase funding for groups that spay and neuter animals in cities.

Of course, she’s still very much involved in show business. In addition to her concert work, she’s planning her next album – something she describes as “a small album of standards.” And she’s in meetings about her next stage project. “There’s nothing to talk about yet,” she says.

She recently finished work on a Lifetime movie called Living Proof that costars Harry Connick Jr. and will air in October. She’s also working on another children’s book, this one about her pit bull, Stella.

“People have the wrong idea about pit bulls – they’re so loving. That’s what I want to write about – about how appearances aren’t everything,” Peters says. “I may try to write a song for her, but I’m not ready to get `Kramer’s Song’ out of my consciousness yet.”

Bernadette Peters performs with the San Francisco Symphony at 8 p.m. Friday at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $30-$35. Call 415-864-6000 or visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Peters will sign copies of her book, Broadway Barks, at 2 p.m. Saturday at Books Inc., 2275 Market St., San Francisco. Call 415-864-6777 for information.

Here’s Peters performing “Kramer’s Song” on “The View.”