Performing Arts

Tony winner Bernadette Peters: Performing ‘gave me an avenue to express myself’

Broadway star Bernadette Peters performs Friday at the fifth anniversary concert celebration for Aventura Arts & Cultural Center.
Broadway star Bernadette Peters performs Friday at the fifth anniversary concert celebration for Aventura Arts & Cultural Center.

Future Broadway legend Bernadette Peters landed her first acting role at age 9 in a play called This Is Goggle, directed in 1957 by the legendary Otto Preminger. Even two legends couldn’t save Goggle, which closed before ever arriving in New York.

“The first out-of-town review was ‘This Is Goggle. Gurgle. Gurgle.’ And, ‘I’m gagging on Goggle.’ I always say there was no place to go but up from there because it was a bomb,” says Peters, the star performer at the Aventura Arts & Cultural Center’s fifth anniversary celebration on Friday. “I was sad for the show and the stars (James Daley and Kim Hunter), but I knew I was just a little girl in it. It wasn’t laying on my shoulders. I was getting my chops, that’s for sure.”

Despite the disappointment, Peters (born Bernadette Lazzara in Queens, New York) fell in love with performing: “It got me when I was teenager. ... It gave me an avenue to express myself. That’s what I discovered with it. That’s what I love about it.”

At 13, she played one of the Hollywood Blondes and understudied the part of Dainty June in a national touring company of Gypsy.

Her adult musical career has consisted mostly of starring in huge hits: George M! opposite Joel Grey, Dames at Sea, Mack & Mabel opposite Robert Preston, Sunday in the Park With George, Song & Dance (winning the Tony), Into the Woods and revivals of Annie Get Your Gun (another Tony), Gypsy, A Little Night Music and Follies.

On Friday in Aventura, she’ll perform in concert accompanied by a 12-piece band.

“I’m going to entertain,” she says. “That can be done in a dramatic way, in a funny way, in whatever way. Hopefully, this show goes from one song to the next to the next, and we’re all in this place together, with no fourth wall, to have a good time, to feel something, to experience something, and hopefully people will feel satisfied at the end.”

Peters learned early that she loves to sing. She loves acting, too. Dancing, not so much.

“I could always dance, but I always had a little block. I move really great, but I always had a little block about it. I prefer the others.”

At age 20 in 1968, Peters starred in two hits: Broadway’s George M! as George M. Cohan’s older sister, Josie; and Off-Broadway’s Dames at Sea, an original production that parodied and paid homage to Busby Berkeley’s Warner Bros. movie musicals of the 1930s.

“Before [Dames at Sea] appeared Off-Broadway it was Off-Off-Broadway,” says Miami Beach-based director Richard Jay-Alexander, a longtime friend of Peters who guided her 1996 Carnegie Hall concert and executive produced the resulting live album.

“This was the breeding ground,” Jay-Alexander says of Off-Broadway in the 1960s. “This is where Al Pacino was. It was the Petri dish of talent, young vital talent. She was there. And then, of course, there was this unmistakeable voice. That’s what makes a Broadway star. The voices you can identify. I always said she had among the classiest careers. She’s gone the fullest gamut of anyone I know. She could sing and dance and spoof and be honest. Her bag of tricks she goes into is endless. It’s a remarkable career.”

But in 1969, Peters had another bomb: La Strada, a musical by troubled composer Lionel Bart (Oliver!), which closed on Broadway after a single performance.

Peters takes responsibility for her career choices.

Dames at Sea, I decided to do. And it was a huge hit, so what can I tell you,” she said. “Then you have people who say, ‘You really should go into a Broadway show. This should be good and it has all these people.’

“I didn’t know a lot at that time and I learned certain things like, ‘If the pages are blank, they usually stay blank. Don’t go in the show when the script’s pages are blank — because the words may not show up.’ And then you find out Lionel Bart, oh God, Lionel Bart has a heroin addiction. ‘Poor thing, he’s not going to be here.’ Things like that, you know. It’s a career. You learn things.”

The early ‘70s were rough, but Peters struck gold in 1974 with Jerry Herman’s musical about early Hollywood, Mack & Mabel. Peters (as silent film star Mabel Normand opposite Preston’s Mack Sennett) introduced the Herman ballad, Time Heals Everything.

“Everything about working with Bernadette Peters was as beautiful as the lady herself,” says Herman, who lives in Miami Beach.

Following Mack & Mabel, Peters had a string of big films (The Jerk in 1979 and Pennies From Heaven in 1981 opposite then-boyfriend Steve Martin) and major musical hits: Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday In the Park With George (1984 co-starring Mandy Patinkin), Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song & Dance (1985) and Sondheim’s Into the Woods (1987).

In 1999, Peters starred in a revival of Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. Four years later came Gypsy, Jule Styne and Sondheim’s “musical fable” about monstrous stage mother Rose Hovick and her daughters, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and actress June Havoc. This time, however, Peters played Rose, which like Annie Oakley, was a part indelibly created on Broadway by the formidable Ethel Merman.

You have to say as the actress, ‘Ah, this is something that feels right for me to do at this time.’ Or you say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel it. It’s great. Someone else will make it wonderful. I don’t feel it.’ That’s what you have to do.

Tony-winning Broadway star Bernadette Peters

“You have to say as the actress, ‘Ah, this is something that feels right for me to do at this time.’ Or you say, ‘You know what? I don’t feel it. It’s great. Someone else will make it wonderful. I don’t feel it.’ That’s what you have to do,” Peters says.

In 2005, Peters’ nine-year marriage to investment advisor Michael Wittenberg ended tragically when he died at 43 in a helicopter crash in Europe.

Since then, she has appeared briefly on Broadway in revivals of A Little Night Music (2010, replacing Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Follies (2011), both by Sondheim.

Currently, Peters is co-starring in Amazon’s streaming TV series, Mozart in the Jungle, and has written her third children’s book, Stella and Charlie, Friends Forever. The books raise awareness and money for Peters’ pet charity, Broadway Barks, which she started with pal Mary Tyler Moore to find homes for orphaned dogs and cats. Broadway Barks is produced by Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Peters’ other fundraising passion.

On Nov. 2, the Drama League in New York will celebrate its centennial by honoring Peters, calling her a “musical theater icon.”

“I find it embarrassing to get awards,” said Peters, 67, who’s also won three Drama Desk honors and a Golden Globe. “It’s just like this night is built around YOU!”

Steve Rothaus: 305-376-3770, @SteveRothaus

If you go

What: Bernadette Peters in concert.

Where: Aventura Arts & Cultural Center, 3385 NE 188th St., Aventura.

When: 8 p.m. Friday.

Cost: $225, including pre-performance reception at 6:30 p.m., featuring hors d’oeuvres, cocktails and food stations.

Information: 877-311-746 or www.aventuracenter.org.

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