She’s sung on seemingly every stage in the world, but for Bernadette Peters, every show still feels new.
“Sometimes I’ll sing a song, and I don’t know what’s going to happen,” she says, calling the Straight from New York City. “New thoughts come in, and then I’m surprised, and then the audience connects with that.”
It’s what she’s most looking forward to about her performance with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra on Thursday (June 27).
“It’s wonderful: you look right in people’s eyes and you’re entertaining them," she says. "There’s no fourth wall and we’re all there in this one place to go on a little journey together.”
In a career spanning six decades, Peters has accumulated three Tony Awards, three Emmy and four Grammy nominations, and a wealth of characters she’s brought life to on-stage. Her show on Thursday will feature some of the songs from roles that mean the most to her.
“With a lot of them I love hearing the sentiment,” Peters says. “Like ‘No One Is Alone” [from Into the Woods]—they’re things that are important in life and are important to remind myself of. So it’s good for the audience to hear these things.”
With every role, Peters has to figure out what the character means to her. For her most recent run on Broadway, as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly!, she found it in her Queens upbringing, which she shared with writer Michael Stewart. She connected with the humour, which was “so New York”, and had a blast with the role.
She also holds a soft spot for Mama Rose, the overbearing stage mother in Gypsy, whom Peters played in the 2003 Broadway revival. Way back when she was 13, she had understudied as Rose’s daughter June in Gypsy’s national tour, so when she returned to play the other side of the story, it stirred up a lot of emotions.
“That journey was a very deep journey,” she says. “I call it the best therapy I ever had.”
These days, Peters feels fortunate to have played all of her favourite parts in the musical-theatre canon, and is content to let her next great role come to her.
“I look for great writing,” she explains. “It doesn’t matter if it’s on-stage, or on television, or in movies. I just hope there will be something wonderful for me.”
In the meantime, she gets to bring that same joy of performing to audiences around the world with her solo concert. The VSO audience will get to see her sing Rodgers and Hammerstein, Peggy Lee’s “Fever”, and of course, Stephen Sondheim.
She recalls, laughing, about working on Into the Woods with him: “He once changed one number ['Last Midnight'] and said to me, ‘Well, can you just learn this in two days?’ And I did, and I remember everybody in the wings, with their little heads poking out, wondering how it would go. And I thought, ‘Don’t look at them, just focus.’”
That’s sort of how she looks at life, too.
“If I try to plan something, it might never work out," she says. "My life works better if I let the universe bring me things.”
Bernadette Peters performs with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra at the Orpheum on Thursday (June 27).