“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.