[27 June 2002]
The most recent publicity photo of two-time Tony Award winner Bernadette Peters shows her sporting a tattoo of a heart with the initials reading: BP+ R&H on her left shoulder. Her eyes glare at the camera in seduction as a fan blows her wavy hair creating a Botticelli-like effect. Quite a saucy publicity stunt for a singer/actress known more for her sweet and comedic roles rather than a gritty tough vixen. Moreover, this new “image” may suggest to her audience that Ms. Peters is ready to give up her charming demeanor for a little sexual adventure. Can’t a Broadway Diva demonstrate a sexual appetite?
But, better understood, Ms. Peters’ tattoo is a sign of affection. It displays real love between one of the most accomplished performers of the stage and screen and two of the best well beloved composer/lyricists in all musical theatre history. When asked about the tattoo over a phone interview she confessed that it was really just painted on. I guess Ms. Peters isn’t as much of a punk rock diva as we thought she could be. Of course, we can’t judge the many levels of coolness and sexual determination by the numbers of tattoos or eyebrow rings we, in modern society, display. Suppose the fake tattoo was to explain how fragile her left shoulder is, that she physically can’t wear a real tattoo, because it might corrupt her porcelain skin. Nevertheless, when Ms. Peters stepped on stage at Radio City Music Hall Wednesday night both her shoulders shone bright, tattoo-less, as she wore a sparkling, strapless gown. At that moment the mere idea of a tattoo became as pointless as the Tony Awards scenery in the background from the ceremony just two weeks prior (which she co-hosted with Gregory Hines). “They let me borrow the leftover scenery. They’re very nice here,” she remarked. Suddenly, someone shouted from the audience, “We love you, Bernadette!” The staff, the audience and the stars were all being nice to Bernadette Wednesday night, because we were basking in the joy of being entertained by a musical theatre legend.
Ms. Peters made her name in such films as Pennies From Heaven (Golden Globe Award), The Jerk, Annie, and Woody Allen’s Alice. Having grown up in Ozone Park, Queens, she listened to vintage records of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! and Carousel that were stored in her parents cabinet. She told the audience that, early in her career, she saw Oscar Hammerstein in the studio where she was auditioning. Clearly, Oscar was her “first” [celebrity]. With that omen she vowed to pursue an artistic career with the inspiration and guidance of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Ms. Peters, who critics called “dazzling” and “electrifying” for her breakout performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Song and Dance, won her first Tony Award in 1986. She won her second Tony in 1999 for best actress in a musical for her portrayal of Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun (but we all know Reba McEntire was better!). Ms. Peters devotes her time and talents to numerous events that benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, God’s Love We Deliver, and The Gay Men’s Health Crisis, for who she performed in a benefit concert version of Stephen Sondheim’s Anyone Can Whistle. In 1996, she made her highly anticipated solo debut at Carnegie Hall in an exclusive concert benefiting Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Additionally, Bernadette’s “pet project” is Broadway Barks, an annual, star-studded dog adoption event benefiting animal shelters throughout New York.
Richard Rodgers (composer, 1902-1979) and Oscar Hammerstein II (lyricist, 1895-1960) joined together in 1943 to form the most successful and prolific partnership in the America musical theatre. Oklahoma!, the first Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, was also the first of a new genre. Musical Theatre was born by blending Rodgers’ sophisticated style of musical comedy with Hammerstein’s innovations in operetta. During their hey day Rodgers and Hammerstein could have listened to their work on such exiting TV programs as “The Lawrence Welk Show” or “The Ed Sullivan Show” with songs like “Do, Re, Mi” from The Sound of Music or “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific. These songs plus dozens of others showcased a blending of dramatic action with deep musical intonations. Whereas the films of the 1930s served as a form of escapism during the Great Depression, Rodgers and Hammerstein integrated a product that helped to appease the souls of a tense American public during WWII and beyond. Carousel was produced on Broadway in 1945 followed by Allegro (a monetary failure) in 1947. Other successful musicals included South Pacific (1949), The King and I (1951), Flower Drum Song (1958) and The Sound of Music (1959). Collectively, the Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals earned 34 Tony Awards, 14 Academy Awards, two Pulitzer Prize, two Grammy Awards and two Emmy Awards. In 1998, Rodgers and Hammerstein were cited by Time magazine/CBS News as “Showmen of the 20th Century.” What better a tribute then by a show-woman with a powerfully emotional range and a giant stage presence to match.
Minutes before Ms. Peter’s grand entrance the official Rodgers & Hammerstein orchestra, conducted by Tony, Grammy, and Academy Award winner Jonathan Tunick, (“Cubby” from the original Mickey Mouse Club played percussion) led the audience through a bright medley before we heard young voices singing “Do, Re, Mi.” By the semi-hip and very un-R&H attire of these too cute boys and girls I was reminded of *NSYNC and Wild Orchid (but less sultry). These kids were lined up in single file just as the real Von Trapp children (who never would have donned leather pants, bleached spiky hair, much less a tan) would learn as the eagerly-awaited announcement came over the loud speakers: “Ladies and Gentleman, Ms. Bernadette Peters!” As if we had forgotten why we were there. I guess every real celebrity must remind themselves who they are once in a while.
Decked out (as decked out as a 54-year-old woman can get) in fiery red she raised her arms in the air and waved to the crowd all of whom cheered incessantly with an outpour of love that rivaled a Yankee baseball game. It was clear, however, that this 3000 seat hall was not filled to the brim. Although the orchestra level was heavy with love for Ms. Peters, many of which leapt to their feet immediately. Everyone came out to see Bernadette including countless numbers of celebrities, journalists, families, and of course, gay men and women. (Ms. Peters is worshipped in the gay community very much like other concert divas such as Ethel Merman, Judy Garland and Liza Minelli.) Personally, “Do, Re, Mi” seemed an odd choice for an opening number mainly because it did not show the powerful range we’ve come to know so well. At the end she exclaimed, “I had to sing this.” So, I guess that was about as good an explanation as I was willing to accept. I think we can all agree that, whether we were forced to listen to it in our youth or played it by our own will, The Sound of Music soundtrack had its share of uplifting and playful tunes. But was this a bit juvenile? In this rendition it seemed more like Bernadette was the stage mother for these teenagers on Star Search. As one of the boys, Chris (I remember his name because he bore a striking resemblance to Nick Carter from the Backstreet Boys) hit the low note “Do” he spun around in a Jackson-esque manner as screaming girls shouted for joy. When Bernadette shouted “Do!” in two different octaves she then reminded the audience whom teenage girls should covet. Observably, after the entourage of teenage children left the stage it seemed that throughout the show those who continued to applaud with such insatiable vigor were older gay men.
Ms. Peters barreled her way into a staunch rendition of “It’s a Grand Night for Singing” from State Fair (the only R&H musical written specifically for film in 1945). It was this piece that put the audience at ease as her voice soared over the music that swayed back and forth like a hammock on a summer evening. She showed a clear understanding of the words: “The Moon is aglow and to add to the show/ I think that I’m falling love/ Falling/ Falling in love.” Soon the entire audience was falling in love with her. Well, with her voice, at least. Ms. Peter’s next few renditions ranged from upbeat jazz to standard ballads. As she bellowed through “Some Enchanted Evening” it was clear how she was taken over by the rich musical complexity. I wouldn’t say I was getting chills at this point, but it was clear how much this music meant to her. It is an amazing confluence of miracles to hear such a gigantic voice coming from such a petite 5’ 2” frame. I quite enjoyed her jazzy rendition of “That Man is a Dope” from Allegro. Even though, the show was unsuccessful the audience may have otherwise never heard such a rhythmically fun tune. Ms. Peters is well known for her impeccable articulation, and it was with her singing “Mr. Snow” from Carousel that this fact rang true. She expresses a crisp enunciation that adds to a warm communication with the audience. She communicated with one audience member in the front row by asking him who his “first” celebrity was. He said it was Bernadette Peters. The audience roared with laughter as Ms. Peters took hold of his hand while she sat on the steps of the proscenium and said, “See, now you get to touch me. Aren’t you excited?” On those steps she sang a touching version of “Something Good” from The Sound of Music.
Bernadette mentioned how much she had always dreamt of dancing with the Rockettes (who were “otherwise engaged” that evening) at Radio City. After some thought she realized that she was much too short for the famous Rockette line-up, so she waved goodbye and headed off-stage. A voice over the loudspeaker announced the “Bernadette Peters-sized” Rockettes as twenty-five 5’2” voluptuous females pranced on stage one by one—their smiles beaming in the stage light. Having heard this news Ms. Peter’s shouted obscenities backstage just as we made out the sound of her dress being ripped off. She jumped back on stage transformed in a more versatile and glittering pant suit and ready to kick her heels. She stood in line and tapped along with the twenty-five dancers emulating the Busby Berkley style pattern of the 1930s. Her effortless toe tapping along side the choreographic marvel of the now twenty-six “Bernadette-sized” Rockettes was the highlight of the evening.
After intermission, Ms. Peters appeared onstage wearing a white strapless gown that shimmered as she strutted towards the piano. She continued to display her theatrical prowess with “Nothing Like a Dame” from South Pacific. She gave a loud belt with great energy, after which she raised her arms to the ceiling with her head rolled back exposing her swan-like neck making a perfect cross—the classic Bernadette pose (religious in it’s own right). Burlesque and brassy she belted a powerful “Whistle a Happy Tune” from The King & I, a song all about fooling yourself to stay happy in times of fear. When it was time for Bernadette to whistle she didn’t quite pull it off, but no one was complaining. The music for Something Wonderful swept over her so completely that she came in a measure too early. One of the more intimate moments of the evening was when she sat on the grand piano to sing “What’s the use of Wonderin’” accompanied only by the piano playing of Martin Laird. Then she crooned “Edelweiss” after which she lifted her left arm up in a sort of salute. This might have been a wave goodbye, but it looked more like she was oddly paying homage to Hitler. This confused my companion and me. Maybe she wanted to show the audience that there was no real tattoo. To conclude the evening Ms. Peters claimed that Oscar Hammerstein believed every word he wrote. And with touching elegance she dedicated “You’ll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel to those who lost their lives during 9/11. The lights lowered, and a mirror ball bathed her in an ocean-blue setting creating a mermaid effect. She resembled a princess as she sang her final heart-warming tribute to the Kings of musical theatre. “I will never forget this night!” she cried. It was truly a grand night for Princess Bernadette, her Princes, Ladies in Waiting and all her gay Queens in the audience as well.