Bernadette Peters and Stephen Sondheim pair up again for ‘Follies’

First in a week-long series profiling the Kennedy Center’s Sondheim stars

As far as Bernadette Peters was concerned, all Stephen Sondheim had to do was ask. She’d had prestige-laden success on Broadway a couple of years earlier in his Pulitzer-winning “Sunday in the Park with George,” in which she starred as Dot, the muse and lover of pointillist painter Georges Seurat. And now, Sondheim was two weeks away from rehearsals for his next musical, the fractured fairy tale “Into the Woods,” and he desperately needed a Witch.

“By sheer coincidence I was up in the country, Bernadette was passing through Connecticut and I invited her to have lunch,” the composer recalls of that day in the mid-1980s. “She asked, ‘How are things?’ and I told her, ‘We’re having casting problems’— I wasn’t hinting.”

To Sondheim’s surprise, Peters immediately suggested playing the Witch herself, even though it wasn’t the magnitude of role to which a leading lady of her stature would usually commit. And Sondheim thinks he understands why:

“I think her experience with ‘Sunday’ was life-changing,” he says. “She had never played anything like that before. The kind of musical it was, was completely new to her and extremely exciting for her. And I think she wanted that again.”

Yes, it seems fair to say that Peters had fallen in love — and we all know the lengths to which people go because of that. The affair between Peters’s voice and Sondheim’s brain would rage on for the next 25 years, through countless shows, benefits, albums and concerts.

“I’m drawn to him,” Peters says, sitting at a table in a conference room at the Kennedy Center, where the latest manifestation of her devotion — the lavish $7.3 million revival of the Sondheim-James Goldman masterwork “Follies” — is in the final preparatory stages before preview performances begin Saturday.

“Follies,” the tale of two unraveling marriages at a memory-saturated reunion of one-time Ziegfeld-style showgirls, is by some margin the most expensive home-grown production ever mounted by a Washington theater. And as a starry revival of one of Sondheim’s most narratively complex works, it is likely to attract national attention. If things go very well during its six-week run at the Kennedy’s Eisenhower Theater, the whispers about bringing this production to New York will follow.

Directed by Signature Theatre’s Eric Schaeffer and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, this production has proved a magnet with one group: mature actresses of renown. The Kennedy Center as a result has assembled a major-league roster of stage performers: critics’ darling Jan Maxwell as aloof Phyllis; “Evita’s” and “Cats’s” original British star Elaine Paige, playing the gritty survivor Carlotta; Linda Lavin, in the role of veteran hoofer Hattie. In other supporting parts are Broadway actress Terri White, nightclub owner Regine and mezzo-soprano Rosalind Elias. (Ron Raines and Danny Burstein are Ben and Buddy, the musical’s leading men.)

First among equals, though, is Peters, a two-time Tony winner whose presence confers urgent status on this “Follies” regardless of the ultimate outcome; she is in the minds of many the most accomplished musical-comedy actress of her generation.

“After I did ‘Gypsy,’ I thought, ‘What do you do after that?’ ” she says of her provocatively offbeat work in the 2003 Broadway revival. She adds that she’d been thinking for some time about “Follies” and the crucial part of Sally, the achingly regretful ex-chorus girl who pines for her onetime lover, Phyllis’s husband Ben.“I usually come to the role through the music,” Peters says. “And these songs — ‘Losing My Mind,’ ‘Buddy’s Eyes’ — are really great.”

At 63, Peters looks so naturally youthful and like the version of herself from three decades ago that you imagine her being asked constantly, “What’s your secret?” She is fresh from a day of dance rehearsals when she agreeably takes a chair and starts to talk about her life in show business and the growth of her professional association with Sondheim. (And her secret, by the way, is evidently no secret. “Good genes,” she says, and a lifelong avoidance of the sun.)

You quickly get the sense, as she ranges over the whimsically disjointed segments of an actor’s life — her off-Broadway breakthrough in “Dames at Sea” in the ’60s; a failed musical, “Mack and Mabel,” and a Norman Lear sitcom, “All’s Fair,” in the ’70s; stints on “The Carol Burnett Show” and “The Hollywood Squares” — that finding Sondheim in the ’80s brought some order to the chaos and gave her for the first time a taste of authentic artistic mission.

“He writes so beautifully for character, for what is happening in the scene,” she says. “When I did ‘Sunday in the Park,’ I learned so much about life from that show. Especially when you get to that song ‘Move On.’ ” She hums a few bars of the musical’s so-called 11 o’clock number, in which she had to sing of the need of artists to pursue their vision without heed to those who might judge it.

“It’s not that he writes about something,” she adds. “He writes about something.”

As Sondheim himself characterizes it, Peters’s appeal is of a transcendent sort. “She’s so endearing as a personality, she could play an ax murderer and you’d forgive her,” he says by phone from New York. With his support and encouragement, she has become, along with Angela Lansbury and Mandy Patinkin, one of the actors most prominently identified with his music. It was no surprise that this spring she was the latest recipient of Signature Theatre’s Stephen Sondheim Award, an honor for which the composer is intensively consulted.

She certainly earned it. Over the years she has played a passel of Sondheim heroines, from among the most sentimental (Desiree, in the recent revival of “A Little Night Music”) to the most neurotic; her Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics to Jule Styne’s music, was a provocative take, in part because she infused the character with a heretofore absent sexual heat. (One wonders what her disarming embraceability would do for the pragmatic Mrs. Lovett of Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd.”) Her allegiance to the composer has been immortalized in concert form as well: The recording of her 1996 Carnegie Hall performance is called “Sondheim Etc.”

For all their interwoven experience, you’d imagine that at some point, Sondheim would have had Peters in mind when he composed. You would be mistaken. He says that only in the rarest cases has he written for a specific voice or person, chiefly because of the ever-present danger of a performer giving up on a project. The exceptions, he says, were Ethel Merman, for whom Mama Rose was created; Lansbury, who’d been thought of early for Mrs. Lovett; and Elaine Stritch, for whom he wrote “Company’s” show-stopping “The Ladies Who Lunch.”

That he and Peters have amassed such a thick scrapbook together, Sondheim says, has more to do with their coincidental convergence of interests. “A number of my shows have really good parts for women,” he explains. “People who like to act, and singers who like to act, are attracted to my songs — they’re about acting.”

And although he views Peters as a more intuitive performer — the opposite in a sense of Lansbury, who has a knack for “subsuming her personality” — Sondheim feels an admiration for the way Peters shapes a role to the contours of her own style: “There’s an aspect of Bernadette that’s always Bernadette — she brings a ‘Bernadette-ishness.’ And yet, she completely plays the character.”

Some mutually advantageous protectiveness exists in their relationship, too. It turns out, for instance, that Peters was recruited to follow Tony-winning Catherine Zeta-Jones as Desiree in “Night Music” only after Sondheim did some putting-it-together, to quote one of his “Sunday” songs. Peters recalls that she was speaking to the composer one day when the musical came up: “He said, ‘Did they ever call you to replace Catherine Zeta-Jones?’ I said, ‘No, nobody called.’ The next day they called. And okay, I was in the show.”

Peters grins. How come, she is asked, she wasn’t approached to play Desiree in the first place? She smiles again, and shrugs.

She has long trusted in that shrug, at least as a kind of philosophical underpinning for her career. She says she never developed a plan for where she was going, just counted on one interesting job to segue into another. “I just let the universe do its work,” she says, which may help to explain why along with the triumphs — small movie gems such as “Pennies From Heaven”; her performance in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance” — there have been a significant number of misfires.

The universe has not always been kind, either, in her personal life: She was widowed in 2005 when her husband of nine years, financial adviser Michael Wittenberg, was killed in a helicopter crash.

But the work, she says, has always been steady, and this former child actor has always applied herself, whether the material was Pulitzer worthy or not. “When you’re starting in the business, you’re making money to stay alive. Did I like doing ‘Hollywood Squares?’ ’’ she asks, in an inflection that reminds you she was once Bernadette Lazzara, of Ozone Park, Queens.

So into the rehearsal room at the Kennedy Center Peters totes her lifetime in showbiz, to play the part of a woman who has unhappily walked away from all of that. “People of that stature, they can coast,” director Schaeffer says of Peters. “But it’s really the opposite, and that’s what I found refreshing. She is working her [butt] off.”

She’s still in the process of figuring out what kind of Sally hers is going to be, but clearly, like her Mama Rose, this Sally will be something other than a frump. “She’s in love with Ben, and you don’t forget your first love,” Peters says. “There’s a reason she’s come back — she’s come to get back the love of her life.” The shrugging demeanor is gone; now Peters warms to the dramatic task.

“I know he’s not happy with Phyllis. I know it. And I have to appear appealing to him.”

It’s fun to hear her begin to absorb Sally’s point of view. As with so many actors, she’s more animated while flirting with Sally’s psyche than when analyzing her own. She says she is shy by temperament, more contented, say, to watch people at a party than to try to be the life of it. And happiest of all to be in a theater, in Sondheim’s orbit. “Onstage,” she says, “I’m totally safe.”

‘FOLLIES’

Directed by Eric Schaeffer. Book by James Goldman. Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Music direction by James Moore. Choreography by Warren Carlyle. With Bernadette Peters, Jan Maxwell, Danny Burstein, Ron Raines, Elaine Paige, Terrence Currier, Christian Delcroix, Rosalind Elias, Colleen Fitzpatrick, Lora Lee Gayer, Michael Hayes, Florence Lacey, Linda Lavin, Regine, David Sabin, Kirsten Scott, Frederick Strother, Nick Verina, Susan Watson and Terri White.

More from The Post’s series profiling the Sondheim stars:

Bernadette Peters: Pairing up again with Sondheim

Elaine Paige: ‘Still Here,’ in ‘Follies’

Jan Maxwell: Her ‘Follies’ philosophy? Bring it on

Regine: Bringing grandiosity to ‘Follies’

Linda Lavin: At 73, still a Broadway baby

Terri White: ‘Who’s That Woman?’

Rosalind Elias: A celebrated mezzo-soprano

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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