Whether you know her best as a fierce witch from the musical Into the Woods or the charming Marie in the film The Jerk, Bernadette Peters is always unapologetically herself. Recognized the world over for her signature curls, quirky manner, and powerhouse vocals, Peters was born in Queens and entered showbiz as a child. The winner of three Tonys, including the Isabelle Stevenson Award, Peters most recently starred as Dolly Gallagher Levi in Hello, Dolly! On April 14, she’ll perform at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach, singing songs from Hello, Dolly! as well as Stephen Sondheim classics and other favorites from the Great White Way. PBI caught up with Peters to chat about her life on and off the stage
PBI: You started performing at a very young age. What’s your first memory of being on stage or on set?
Peters: When I was 9 I did a play starring Tim Hunter and James Daly (that’s Tyne Daly’s father), and I replaced someone in rehearsal. It was directed by Otto Preminger. So I go to rehearsal and he’s directing a scene with a little boy with red hair and he’s giving him a really hard time. Then it was my turn. I go, I do the scene, and he says, “That’s very good.” He gives me some direction, and he tells me to go back and do it again, and I burst into tears because he scared me so much because he yelled at that little boy. Can you imagine having Otto Preminger direct you at 9 years old?
Who were your biggest influences and inspirations as you grew in your career?
Mostly actresses like Katherine Hepburn. She impressed me so much with her acting. I worked with Sada Thompson in another play when I was 18, and I went out into the house when she was doing her scene—my mouth dropped open because she was so incredible. Actresses like that just take my breath away. In reality, they’re so there. They’re so present. And then I have to tell you, I did see the last time Carol Channing did Hello, Dolly! I was so inspired by her. When I went backstage, I kneeled down and kissed her hand. I mean, she was like Charlie Chaplin up there. She was just the best, and she was one of the greatest performers.
Your most recent Broadway role was in Hello, Dolly! Why do you feel that show continues to inspire audiences decades after it premiered?
First of all, it’s taken from a fabulous play by Thornton Wilder, [and it has] fabulous speeches. Michael Stewart, the writer, was smart enough to take [Dolly’s] big speech at the end and split it up three times along the show. But, the show is actually one of the best constructed shows around. It’s so beautifully constructed. The songs are incredible, and then you have the Thornton Wilder speech about “money is like manure, it’s not worth a thing unless you spread it around.”… It’s just amazing on all counts that show. It’s so uplifting. It just makes you feel so good. it’s a beautiful show.
You’ve portrayed dozens of characters. Which one have you most identified with?
I’ve been so lucky. Every character has been so well-written, and I connect with them. I do love Rose in Gypsy. When I was 13 years old I was on the road with that show with my mother and sister, so it was almost like we were mirroring Rose, June, and Louise. I understudied June, my sister understudied Louise, and there was my mother. So [portraying Rose] was like the best therapy I could ever have.
You’ve appeared in numerous Stephen Sondheim musicals. What about his work do you most appreciate or gravitate toward as a performer?
Stephen writes the music and the lyrics, and he really says exactly what he wants to say. When you write the music and the lyrics, you can make it a dotted note for the right emphasis and whole notes to hold the passion, so he really says what he wants to say in each song. He really writes the character. I just find it so filled. It’s so filled with knowledge that it’s a thrill to be able to express those thoughts. Some of the songs that I sing, I like to be reminded of the sentiments, like “No One Is Alone,” “Children Will Listen,” and “With So Little to Be Sure Of.” These are important things to remind ourselves about.
Is there anything left on your Broadway bucket list?
I’m thinking it may be time to do some plays. I haven’t really done any plays, and I think it might be time to tackle those.
Is there maybe a male role you’d love to take on?
Yes. There’s a Lanford Wilson play called Talley’s Folly, and I just love that guy in it [Matt Friedman]. I wish I could play it.
When you’re in an audience, what do you notice as a performer that maybe others don’t?
I love being in an audience. I love appreciating all the creativity that’s up there. All the artistry, the writing, the actors, the singing, the capabilities. The only thing I would say to an audience member that I’ve noticed when I’m on the stage is that some people get stuck in reading the program. Like, what song comes next? You should be surprised. It should be unexpected. You should let the journey take you, not try to stay ahead of it. You shouldn’t have to read it. It’s not a book. It’s a live show in front of you, and you should let it take you on its journey.
You’re an animal lover and even started a pet-adoption organization called Broadway Barks. Do you currently have any pets?
Oh yes. I have two dogs, one for each hand.
Is there a specific breed of dog you feel best captures your personality?
I love, love pit bulls. They’re so loving and sweet. They have big round heads like me. They’re just lovely, lovely dogs. They’re very devoted.
What tips or advice would you give to aspiring actors on how to establish their own voice and style and to make sure they’re bringing something unique to the craft?
Well, the thing is you should never, never, never, never copy anybody else because right away you’re not living up to your own potential of what you have to offer, what comes out of you in your own particular way. You should always, always try to be as truthful as you can be to the material and to yourself. That’s the most important thing, and not to judge it—you or the material.
*This interview has been edited and condensed.