Bernadette Peters On Sondheim's 'Follies'

A rich, new production of Follies has opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the original orchestrations. Host Scott Simon speaks with Peters about Stephen Sondheim's award-winning musical.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

(Soundbite of song, "Broadway Baby")

SIMON: Stephen Sondheim wrote "Broadway Baby" in the early 1970s for "Follies," the award-winning musical he created with James Goldman. But when Bernadette Peters sings the song, it could be a kind of anthem.

Ms. BERNADETTE PETERS (Actress; Singer): (as Sally Durant Plummer) (Singing) I'm just a Broadway baby walking...

SIMON: A huge, rich revival of "Follies" has opened at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., with the original orchestrations. Ms. Peters plays Sally Durant Plummer, a one-time showgirl who attends a bittersweet reunion with her fellow performers, in a cast that includes Elaine Paige, Linda Lavin, and Regine. Bernadette Peters, who's stopped more shows on Broadway than the stagehands union, joins us in our studios. Thanks very much for being with us.

Ms. PETERS: Oh, it's my pleasure to be here again.

SIMON: All the featured roles you've played on Broadway, including several obviously noteworthy Sondheim roles, I mean: "Annie Oakley," Mama Rose in "Gypsy," Witch in "Into the Woods," where does Sally Durant Plummer fit in? How does she compare?

Ms. PETERS: Oh, you know, what's great about it is that there's no comparison. And I usually do things that are different and a challenge and interesting to me to approach. And this is a very interesting character, probably unlike any other character I've ever played really.

SIMON: And how so?

Ms. PETERS: She is horribly disappointed with her life, comes back to the Follies Theater that she performed in 30 years ago, where she was the happiest in her life, and trying to recapture the happiness again and think she is actually, that evening. And then it goes on and on to start crumbling around her and her huge disappointment.

(Soundbite of song, "Losing My Mind")

Ms. PETERS: (as Sally Durant Plummer) (Singing) The sun comes up, I think about you. The coffee cup, I think about you. I want you so. It's like I'm losing my mind.

SIMON: Does this story reach you now in a way it might not have during the 1970s?

Ms. PETERS: Oh, definitely, because I was really a kid. And even when I saw it, I think it was about 2000 there was a revival, maybe 2001. I hadn't read the script until about a year ago. And when I read it, I thought this is just so heartbreaking, really. Not to say the show's not fun, the show has got lots of fun moments and it's haunting and it's gorgeous, because they've come back to this old theater and you notice ghostly, walking really slow, gorgeous showgirls.

It's quite an interesting beautiful show with some rip-roaring numbers. Like you have Linda Lavin singing "Broadway Baby," and you have Elaine Paige bringing down the house singing "I'm Still Here," and Regine bringing all her history. And then the rest of the cast is fantastic, Jan Maxwell and Ron Raines and Danny Burstein.

(Soundbite of song, "The God Why-Don't-You-Love-Me Blues")

Mr. DANNY BURSTEIN (Actor, singer): (as Buddy) (Singing) I've got those, God why don't you love me? Oh, you do? I'll see you later blues. That, long as you ignore me, you're the only thing that matters, feeling. That, if I'm good enough for you, you're not good enough...

SIMON: When did the relationship with Stephen Sondheim begin - looking back on it?

Ms. PETERS: When I did "Sunday in the Park with George." I had always was aware of his shows but I never thought I'd ever be in any of his shows.

SIMON: Now, why?

Ms. PETERS: I don't know. I thought I wasn't a Sondheim girl.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PETERS: And then I got the call when I was I was performing at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco, James Lapine called me to say he wrote this new show with Stephen Sondheim and it's to play an artist model. And I thought oh, this would be lovely to do.

SIMON: And from the performer's point of view, what makes him a genius by such universal acclaim?

Ms. PETERS: Wow. It's so hard to put into words. You know, when I went to see "A Little Night Music," before I was even knew I was going to be in it, the music started and I went: Oh my God, I can't believe the person that wrote all those other things also wrote this. The music is so beautiful, classical, involved, intricate.

(Soundbite of song, "A Little Night Music")

Ms. PETERS: But he is like an actor, but with notes and words. He creates what's necessary for the piece. Like an actor turns himself into another character.

SIMON: Mm-hmm.

Ms. PETERS: He does that with notes and music.

(Soundbite of song, "A Little Night Music")

SIMON: When did you first realize that you could sing?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PETERS: You know, when I was a little girl, they said I had a funny voice because I actually had a deep voice and that's because my mother didn't speak correctly. She had nodes that she had to have removed. So, you grow up listening to your mother. And as years went on and I got out of that bad habit, my real voice revealed itself.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PETERS: And...

SIMON: And you were talking like this or something?

Ms. PETERS: As a little girl, yeah. And then as a teenager, I started singing soprano and I went, well, I can sing soprano. That's a surprise. And as you keep learning and growing and studying your range, you know, grows and grows.

SIMON: Is there a role you wish you could do over or do again?

Ms. PETERS: Do over. Do again. I usually, once I've done it, I've explored it; I stay for a long time in shows. I like to do that. You know, I'll do it for, like, at least a year and then beyond that. And usually...

SIMON: I mean a lot of big stars like to get out after three or four months, right? They find that hard to do.

Ms. PETERS: Well, it depends how what their makeup is. If you're somebody that gets it and then thinks, you know, I've done it, I've gotten it now and there's no place else to go. It depends on how you like to work. I like the run and I like to keep going deeper and deeper and see what I can learn and experience about life.

SIMON: Thanks so much.

Ms. PETERS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of song, "Broadway Baby")

Ms. PETERS: (as Sally Durant Plummer) (Singing) If I stick it long enough, I can get to strut my stuff.

SIMON: Bernadette Peters stars in "Follies" at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. through June 19th.

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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