Bernadette Peters is a fan of surprises. At the very least, she is a fan of surprising her fans. NJSO explains, “The Broadway icon, who takes center stage with the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra for its NJSO POPS season finale on June 2, keeps her concert setlists a secret so her audiences can experience the evening as a journey.
Of course, when you are one of Broadway’s most celebrated stars, your legend precedes you. Peters is widely regarded as the foremost interpreter of the music of Stephen Sondheim, and NJSO concertgoers can expect Peters to bring some of the composer’s key tunes to life.
Peters once told Playbill: “The way I first became really familiar with [Stephen Sondheim’s] music was when I was in London, and I saw Side by Side by Sondheim. People would often say at that time, ‘Oh, his music is unapproachable.’ What was so weird is I came away from the show, and the melodies and the songs, I couldn’t get them out of my head. I was humming ‘Side by side. Isn’t it rich? Isn’t it cozy …’ They were like big show tunes in my head.”
After her first Sondheim experience, Peters would go on to illuminate roles in Sunday in the Park with George, Into the Woods, Gypsy, A Little Night Music and Follies. If one were to try to name her signature song, “Broadway Baby” would find itself at or near the top of the list.
Watch Peters sing “Broadway Baby” here. [YouTube]“Sondheim writes in a very deep way, and the songs keep going deeper and deeper. They don’t get stale,” she told The Boston Globe in advance of a performance with the Boston Pops last week.
Her catalogue extends far beyond Sondheim, however. She speaks fondly of South Pacific and garnered critical acclaim for roles in On the Town, Annie Get Your Gun and Song and Dance.
Known for immersing herself completely into her theater roles, the NJSO POPS show gives the Tony, Drama Desk and Golden Globe Award winner the opportunity to bring multiple characters to life in the span of one evening. She brings her longtime collaborator, accompanist and conductor Marvin Laird—whom she first worked with on a national tour of Gypsy when she was 13 years old—with her to New Jersey.
Peters spoke with Here & Now, a radio program on Boston’s NPR news station WBUR, about the spark that initially drew her to music and the stage in her youth. “You know how you have all these emotions inside you that need to come out and nowhere to express them? I would just experiment with all different kinds of music, and it was where I started to go deeply into the music,” she said.
And after decades in the Broadway spotlight, the diva shows no signs of slowing down. Of her 2010–11 run in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music, The New York Times wrote: “[F]or theater lovers there can be no greater current pleasure than to witness Bernadette Peters perform the show’s signature number, ‘Send In the Clowns,’ with an emotional transparency and musical delicacy that turns this celebrated song into an occasion of transporting artistry. I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced with such palpable force—or such prominent goose bumps—the sense of being present at an indelible moment in the history of musical theater.”
Watch Peters sing “Send in the Clowns,” accompanied by Sondheim, here. [YouTube]
The beauty of a Broadway song is in the interpretation, and as Peters tells Here & Now, that sense of character is essential: “If you start at 1,000 percent, and you have no place to go, then definitely there’s no leeway for events to happen within the song that surprise you,” she said. “I like to leave leeway for all of that. What does this lyric mean, and where do I begin with it? Where do I go with it so that there’s excitement within a song, because you start somewhere, and then the song and what you’re saying [take] you to another place.”
The NJSO presents “An Evening with Bernadette Peters”—the final program of the Orchestra’s 2011–12 POPS series—on Saturday, June 2, at 8 p.m. at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center (NJPAC) in Newark. Tickets range in price from $25 to $85 and are available for purchase by phone at 1.800.ALLEGRO (255.3476) or online at www.njsymphony.org. For more information, click here.