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A Film by Michael Kantor



Bernadette Peters

Often called “the finest singing actress since Barbra Streisand,” Bernadette Peters is certainly one of the few leading ladies of the last decade or so whose name on a Broadway marquee can cause box-office lines to form before the show has gone into previews. She was tap dancing and acting at an early age, and joined Actors’ Equity when she was nine. Soon afterward she changed her name to Peters, and played Tessie in the 1959 revival of “The Most Happy Fella” at the New York City Center. After appearing in the role of Baby June in a road tour of “Gypsy,” she gave up performing for a time and studied acting and singing in her teens, before returning to the stage in two Off-Broadway shows, “The Penny Friend” (1966) and a Shirley Temple parody, “Curley McDimple” (1967). In 1968 she received favorable notices, and a Theatre World citation, for her portrayal of George M. Cohan’s sister in “George M!”, and, in the same year, won a Drama Desk Award for her “hilarious performance” as the zany Ruby in “Dames at Sea,” a ’30s movie spoof that enjoyed a good run Off Broadway. Several of the projects with which Peters was involved in the late ’60s and early ’70s had only brief runs, including “La Strada” (one performance). Nevertheless, she gained Tony Award nominations for her part in a New York revival of “On the Town” and “Mack & Mabel.” In the latter she played silent movie star Mabel Normand, opposite Robert Preston as Mack Sennett. The show may have only lasted for two months, but the cast album endured to become a cult item. She turned to films and television, often playing straight roles, but without any really notable success. Over the years, her television work has included series such as ALL’S FAIR (1976), THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES (1980), THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW (1991), voice for the popular animated ANIMANIACS (1993), and THE ODYSSEY (1997), as well as television films: THE ISLANDER (1978), DAVID (1988), FALL FROM GRACE (1990), THE LAST BEST YEAR (1990), WHAT THE DEAF MAN HEARD (1997), HOLIDAY IN YOUR HEART (1997), and the third major small-screen production of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II’s CINDERELLA, in which Peters played the Wicked Stepmother.

In "Sunday in the Park with George" she played the artist Georges' mistress, Dot, and his daughter, Marie.

In 1977 Peters formed a private and professional partnership with the comedian and actor Steve Martin, and they appeared together in two movies, THE JERK (1979) and the highly expensive box-office disaster PENNIES FROM HEAVEN (1981), for which Peters won a Golden Globe Award. Her other films around this time included the musical ANNIE, in which she played Lily. In the ’80s she excelled in three Broadway musicals, two of which had scores by Stephen Sondheim, “Sunday in the Park with George” (1984, Tony nomination) and “Into the Woods” (1987). She finally won the Actress (Musical) Tony Award for her brilliant solo performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Don Black’s “Song and Dance” (1985).

She was tap dancing and acting at an early age, and joined Actors’ Equity when she was nine.

Bernadette Peters

Born: February 28, 1948
Key Shows
  • "George M!"
  • "The Goodbye Girl"
  • "Gypsy"
  • "Into the Woods"
  • "Mack & Mabel"
  • "Song and Dance"
  • "On the Town"
  • "Sunday in the Park with George"
Related Artists
  • Gower Champion
  • Joel Grey
  • Marvin Hamlisch
  • Jerry Herman
  • Michael Kidd
  • Cameron Mackintosh
  • David Merrick
  • Mandy Patinkin
  • Robin Wagner
  • Andrew Lloyd Webber
During the latter part of the decade, Peters developed her cabaret act, which revolved around Broadway show tunes but also contained a lovely version of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and a highly effective Harold Arlen medley. In 1993 she was back on Broadway with Martin Short and Carol Woods in the eagerly awaited “The Goodbye Girl.” In spite of Neil Simon’s witty book and a score by Marvin Hamlisch and David Zippel, the show folded after only 188 performances, but Peters departed with another Tony nomination. After being inducted into the Theater Hall of Fame in 1995, a year later she was acclaimed in concert at Carnegie Hall. Sondheim material, such as “Not a Day Goes By,” “There Won’t Be Trumpets,” “Being Alive,” “Move On,” “No One Is Alone,” and “Happiness,” formed the core of her performance, and the resulting “live” album was appropriately entitled SONDHEIM, ETC. In September 1998, she made her UK solo concert debut at London’s Royal Festival Hall with a similar show. This followed on from her “knock-out” rendition of “Unexpected Song” (from “Song and Dance”) and other numbers, in the Cameron Mackintosh royal gala “Hey, Mr. Producer!”, earlier in the year. Early in 1999, Peters was due to star on Broadway as sharpshooter Annie Oakley in the Irving Berlin-Herbert and Dorothy Fields classic musical, “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Source: Biographical information provided by MUZE. Excerpted from the ENCYCLOPEDIA OF POPULAR MUSIC, edited by Colin Larkin. © 2004 MUZE UK Ltd.

Photo credits: Photofest and Martha Swope