Few in Broadway’s history are as legendary as Bernadette Peters. Nominated for seven Tony Awards (winning two plus an honorary award), nine Drama Desk Awards (winning three) and genuinely understood by those in the wings to be the greatest songstress to ever sing Sondheim, Peters commands every stage she steps on. But to be Broadway royalty wasn’t enough for this talent.
Peters is a Golden Globe winning actress who has been a part of classic films such as the movie musical Annie, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and starring opposite Steve Martin in The Jerk and Pennies From Heaven. She is also a recording artist, a children’s book author, a humanitarian who fights for equal rights for both people and animals. And, to top it all off, she is currently a part of not one but two television series – Amazon Prime’s Mozart in the Jungle and CBS’ The Good Fight.
When Peters is not filming movies and TV shows or raising money to fight HIV/AIDS and rescue shelter dogs, she is touring across the U.S. performing with local orchestras as she belts out the songs she is known for. All of this as she just turned 69 earlier this year.
One of her upcoming concerts will be in Orlando at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts where she will perform with the Dr. Phillips Center’s brand new jazz orchestra April 21. Peters took a few moments out of her whirlwind schedule to speak with us about how she does it all.
Watermark: You keep quite the busy schedule – concerts, charity events, award shows, you’re on two television shows. How do you do it?
Bernadette Peters: [Laughing] Honestly I don’t know sometimes. I just do one thing at a time. I stay in the moment. That’s important in life, anyway.
Your career in show business has spanned five decades. What keeps you motivated and passionate about the work?
I keep wanting to learn. I’m very interested in how much better I can get; how much deeper I can go. That’s why I like really good material, because it allows me to keep going farther. That’s it. I’ve been loving doing television for a while just to figure out the best ways to do it. That’s really been a lot of fun. It’s written so well. That’s been really interesting.
You’re a regular on two series right now. One of them is the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle. Who knew that the world of the symphony and orchestras was so compelling and dramatic?
Yes, I love it. I just found out what the storyline will be for [season four]. We’re going to start filming in June. As they say, music can soothe the savage beast and this show shows that it reaches something within all of us. There are so many aspects of trying to keep an orchestra alive and viable, raising money and having it be exciting. Just like the L.A. Symphony brought in [Gustavo] Dudamel, my character Gloria brought in Rodrigo [Gael Garcia Bernal’s character in the show], which is like the Dudamel you know, he’s sexy and exciting, and Gael is amazing in the part. We have a wonderful cast.
How did the role of Gloria come to you?
My agent got the script and thought it would be great, and all the producers agreed. I had lunch with [Mozart in the Jungle main writer/producer] Paul Weitz, and we had a little discussion about Gloria and the show, and that was it.
One of the things I like about the show is you and Malcom McDowell have this great screen chemistry. Did you know each other prior to starting the show?
No, we didn’t. Of course, I have admired him for many years. I didn’t even know he was in the show when I did the pilot. I showed up going, “Oh, my God! It’s Malcom McDowell!” He’s just fabulous. We were playing off each other right then and there. Now in the show we have this romance going on that’s going to continue next season. Last season we were in Venice for a month and he was there with his family – his three boys and his wife. We’d all meet in the morning for breakfast and we’d just stay there on this little rooftop garden. You could imagine the view from up there. We’ve all became very close.
You also started a recurring role on CBS’ The Good Wife spin-off The Good Fight. Tell me about your character on that show.
It’s a really interesting show. I play a Bernie Madoff-type wife. In other words, my husband, his brother and I are in the business. We’re in finance and somebody devised a Ponzi scheme. The great part about being in that show is that you never know the ending. Who’s the guilty party? It could be me. So, it’s so interesting to play. It’s really wonderful writing.
Christine Baranski, who stars in The Good Fight, is an amazing actress and has an amazing stage presence, just as you do. Have you worked with her in the past?
I’ve worked with her twice already. We did an off-Broadway show together, a two character play called Sally and Marsha. I played Sally; she played Marsha. Two very different New York neighbors living in the same building. That was wonderful. And then she was in a workshop of Sunday in the Park with George. I love when she does comedy, she’s a riot. She has a more serious role in this show and is amazing in it as well.
Both shows that you’re doing are on streaming services: Mozart in the Jungle is on Amazon Prime and The Good Fight is on CBS All Access. Are shows on streaming services easier to do than traditional network shows?
Yes. First of all, there’s only 10 episodes in a season. Christine was saying how they would do 23 or 24 of The Good Wife. To keep the quality up and the scheduling, it’s just exhausting to be able to do that. It’s a little looser as far as what you’re going to wear too. For a network, you have to send photos of what you’re doing and what you’re wearing all the time. Then they come back and say, “Oh, we need to change the belt.”
You are one of the most critically acclaimed stage performers ever – multiple nominations and wins at both the Drama Desk and Tony Awards – complete Broadway royalty. Any plans to head back to Broadway in the near future?
Not that I can see. I would need for something to be irresistible, and I haven’t seen anything yet. Meanwhile, I’m very busy. I’d have to stop doing something.
You are coming to pay us a visit in Orlando April 21 for a concert, and we are your only stop in Florida. What made you want to play Orlando?
You have that brand new Dr. Phillips Center now and I have to come see it. I did a little bit of a fundraiser for that center to raise money when it was being built. So I have a connection way back when. I’m kind of excited about this jazz orchestra. It’s the world premiere. That should be exciting.
What can we expect from the show?
Well, you know, I love to do Sondheim and Rodgers and Hammerstein. Which is so interesting because Steven Sondheim’s mentor was Oscar Hammerstein. Basically, I love to revisit the songs that I have sung throughout my career because there’s sentiment that I need to be reminded of, and it’s good for people to hear the songs they know me for. I know that I’m there to entertain and hopefully at the end of the show everyone will go home feeling satisfied.
Do you like doing the concerts?
I do, because I get to pick what I want to sing and say what I want to say. Things can happen spontaneously, which I love. There’s no fourth wall, so it’s a lot of back of forth. I can look right at them. In a show it’s a little hard to look right at them. Although when you’re in a show, you still feel that energy going back and forth with the audience.
You are the queen of Sondheim. Hands down no one can play a Sondheim role like you, I dare even say not even Meryl. What is it about his music and words that you are able to understand and interpret them so beautifully?
I don’t know. I’m fortunate. He’s so pure and he’s so thorough. Every time he writes a show, he becomes a new character. I gave him the Marlon Brando Award and I hadn’t discussed this with him, but I told him I believe every time he writes a show, he’s like an actor taking on a new persona. Like Sunday in the Park with George is about pointillism and the music is also. He writes a character and he figures out every single thing that could possibly be happening. The deeper you go, the more you’ll uncover. It’s true to what that character is going through. When a person has an emotion, there are so many layers to an emotion so you can reveal more and more and more.
I want to ask you about your charitable work. You are a huge supporter of animal rights. You started “Broadway Barks” with your good friend, the very talented and deeply missed Mary Tyler Moore. How did that venture come about?
I was in Annie Get Your Gun and we were raising money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS twice a year on stage, and we raised the most money that year for the Easter bonnet. We were feeling really proud of ourselves and we said, “What else can we do? Who else can we help?” I said, “I’ve been to the city shelter and they really need our help.” And so we said, “Let’s put on an adoption event.” Gerald Schoenefeld let us have The Alley. We said, “We’ll get the celebrities from the shows to come out between shows.” And now it’s become their event. They love it. It’s like pet therapy. They look forward to it. It’s just wonderful.
You’ve had several puppies of your own, and you’ve written children’s books about them. Have you always wanted to write children’s books?
No, I was asked to write a children’s book to benefit my charity. My publisher helped me write the first one. And she said we needed a song so I wrote the song, which I had never done either. It happened when I was on a plane, this song with music and lyrics came to me. I rushed home and I sang it into a tape recorder. The second book became easy to me. There’s a whole prose section in the middle. The first book is called “Broadway Barks.” The second book is called “Stella is a Star” about my other dog, about a pitbull who thinks nobody likes her so she pretends to be a pig ballerina. Then the third one was when my Kramer died; then I had to get Stella a puppy because she was grieving. So it’s about Charlie meeting Stella.
You have any more puppy adventures in the future?
I have another pitbull now named Rosalie, so I’ve sorted jotted down a book, but I haven’t done anything with it yet. I’ll keep you posted.