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.
“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.
“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.”
FOR MORE INFORMATION
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.