For Bernadette Peters’s true (i.e. gay) fans, her 1997 Carnegie Hall concert, Sondheim Etc., is her highest achievement. The theme of afflicted homosexual men haunted the concert, which was both an adoring tribute to the openly homosexual/neurotic composer Stephen Sondheim and a benefit for the AIDS charity “Gay Men’s Health Crisis.” Songs, such as Being Alive and Unexpected Song, were pulled out of their original heteronormative contexts and turned into aestheticized accounts of torturous passion and human precariousness/vulnerability.
Yet most remain ignorant of Bernadette’s full depth, thinking of her only as the sarcastic cupie doll of Mack and Mabel, Song and Dance, The Jerk, and Sunday in the Park with George. Hell, she even played Dainty June in her tiny-tot days! And, let’s not forget, she was also a sex symbol of the mainstream: in the 80’s she posed for Playboy, dated Steve Martin, and hosted SNL. Her first LP featured a winkingly innocent version of Sondheim’s “Broadway Baby,” and a Vargas pin-up portrait of Peters adorned the cover.
And while she has recently become more a sex symbol of the Broadway homo than the average straight guy, her 1999 performance of rough but cutely idiotic Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun proved she had not strayed much from her early pin-up doll roots.
Then suddenly, in all-too abrupt change of gears, here’s Rose! In the 2003 revival of Gypsy, Peters was chastised for being too cute to play Mama Rose. She fell back on her old tricks and played Rose as though she were equal parts Dainty June. Her voice seemed to crack under the pressure, she got “sick” and bombed the Tony award performance and lost the Tony to Hairspray’s Marissa Janet Winoker. And on top of this upset, the butch Patti Lupone won the award for the same part only a year after.
After her Gypsy flop, she suffered the loss of her dear husband, investment adviser, Michael Wittenberg, to a disastrous helicopter accident in 2005. Hesitant to return to the Broadway stage, Peters began touring again only in 2009, a marvelous solo concert that culminated in a benefit for her beloved Broadway Barks charity. She delivered her best performance since Sondheim Etc. giving a biting performance of “Nothing Like A Dame,” which showed her able to satirize the bombshell pin-up doll image she had once perfected and deliver an effortlessly wild, real, and gut wrenching Mama Rose. She could truly connect to the lyrics, most likely due to her Gypsy flop, “Why did I do it? What did it get me?”
She also used the occasion to debut a couple Sondheim songs that she had never performed before that could speak to her new sadness, opening wounds that would replace the trademarked scabs of years gone by. Her rendition of In Buddy’s Eyes and Losing my Mind basically incited a Follies revival on the spot. Peters opened up to life’s tragedies and left us mesmerized, touched, and in tears.
None of this magic was lost in 2009’s revival of a Little Night Music, in which she replaced the wooden Catherine Zeta Jones and wowed critics and theatergoers alike with her sumptuously perfect rendition of “Send in the Clowns.” She was able to graciously transition into maturity and abandon her usual campy, overwrought, Cupie-doll antics that had practically become a kind of self-parody. We glimpsed Bernadette at the close of Gypsy: exhausted, jaded, and disenchanted with the role she had been playing, “losing my timing this late in my career.” Her new quasi-operatic Soprano high notes replaced her usual tortured belting. And night after night she gave an altogether fresh performance.
She also brought this newfound gracefulness to the 2010 Sondheim PBS birthday concert, in which she and Mandy Patinkin reunited (26 years later) to sing the outstanding climax of Sunday in the Park with George that had been the early high-points of their artistic careers. The two returned to the trance that had been the original Broadway run and wrapped us in the glorious tension between the present and the past.
Their youth and their maturity were prolonged until. at maximal intensity. they looked at each other in the eyes: “and the color of your hair and the way you catch the light.” It became a fact; Sondheim and Peters always belong together!
Later, in the concert, she delivered a new version of “Not A Day Goes By,” in which her usual flitting, pushing, hysterics were diminished in favor of a self-reflective and honest version of the song.
Transformed into shtick, this newfound maturity backfired in the 2011 revival of Follies. While most of the legendary actors (notably Jani Maxwell, Elaine Page, Rob Raines, and Danny Burstein) hammed it up with campy excess and self-deprecating humor, leading the audience to fits of laughter; Bernadette Peters played Sally with a clawingly annoying sincerity that almost parodies an artiste in her ‘late period,’ supposedly above the sarcastic cuteness, campy sexiness, show-stopping belting, and extreme emotionality that previously characterized her. And this was absolutely fitting for the part of Sally Plummer—a former showgirl, who had lost the charms of her youth.
We grow accustomed to disliking this character and laughing at her patheticness. But our laughs feel just plain wrong when some of the jabs at Sally seem to be making fun of Peters. Not that we have not laughed at her before! YouTube parodies of Bernadette tally up high viewers, since her bizarrely affected Queens accent, elevated status as Sondheim/gay icon par excellence, and cupey doll looks make her an easy target.
But somewhere towards the end of the show, after we have grown to hate Bernadette/Sally, she takes center stage for “Losing My Mind,” and we are forced to come to terms with this laughing stock that was once a marvel of the theater. The slow orchestration and her inability to vocally belt as she used to, gives the song a stilted paralysis: “not going left, not going right.”
Before the last section of the song, Bernadette seems to realize that she is frozen, that she is cornered into her grief and her loneliness. She then jerks out bits of hysteria that bare only superficial resemblance to the tears she might have cried singing the song in an earlier era.
Bernadette’s older/wiser, but also contained/mediocre rendition of this Sondheim classic, confirms that her famous belting has been amputated by the gods, leaving her merely a false soprano register that fails to compare with the likes of Barbara Cook, whose rendition of Sally in Follies in Concert puts Bernadette to utter shame.
We want Bernadette to ham it up and deliver with desperate excess but the fact is she does not have to work as hard as she used to. The un-loved, un-attractive, and un-famous character comes naturally to her. She no longer has to act in order to achieve pathos; she has become pathos.
In a way Bernadette still hams it up with passive-aggressive desperation: only now, she “belts out” a triumphant, tour-de-force display of anti-climactic, self-composed mediocrity. She is as shticky as ever, only now the shtick is a concerted lack of shtick.
And if she comes off as a boring, narcissistic, past-her-prime, pretentious actress, let us not forget that above all else, this performance is a labor of love for Stephen Sondheim, the generous father-figure who has spoiled her with archetypically rich songs and characters that have begun to outshine Peters, leaving her to makes entrances again and again … until, alas, as Sondheim wrote in “Send in the Clowns,” “no one [is] there.”