Interview: Bernadette Peters – 'The way my career, and my life, has gone is that if I ever try to make something happen, it never does'
The Broadway and Hollywood star talks about her upcoming UK tour
Winner of multiple Tony Awards, Golden Globes and Drama Desk Awards, Broadway and Hollywood star Bernadette Peters is playing her first solo concerts in the UK for 15 years. As she gets set to visit London, Manchester and Edinburgh, we find out what the singer has in store for us.
There are songs your fans will always want to hear you sing – but it’s important to keep your shows fresh. How do you strike that balance?
I sing songs that I connect to, and I figure if I’m connecting to them then the audience will too. I’ve found that’s always been the case. You can’t try to figure out an audience and think 'well they’re going to like x, y and z' – it has to work for me, and I take them on the journey with me.
So it will be a mix of songs that I sing all the time, and then I’ll add another song that I’ve discovered that I know the audience will enjoy. And that doesn’t necessarily have to be a contemporary song – it just has to be a new song for me that fits, that has opened something in my mind, that imparts something people will enjoy and open something in their minds, too.
You’re known for your remarkable ability to invest emotion in a song. How do you keep that level of intensity up, and make it look like you’re feeling those emotions for the first time?
I describe it as being like I know what country I’m going to – I just don’t know what’s going to happen when I get there. I love to be surprised when I go somewhere, and take myself on a journey and let something happen – so when I’m singing I try to be as open as I can to anything happening.
So it’s different each time for you?
Yes, it has to be, otherwise it’s not visceral for the audience.
What draws you to a song – what qualities are you looking for? Particularly songs from shows that you were in, but didn’t actually sing.
I sing a lot of songs that I didn’t sing in the actual show – where I’ve sat in the wings and listened to other people singing them. And it just has to connect with me somehow, to ring true.
Or to have some sort of uplifting thought that I want to remind myself of – songs like 'No One is Alone', 'Children Will Listen' or 'With So Little To Be Sure Of'. When I sing those songs, myself and the audience are all together in one place, having this experience and these thoughts.
Your interpretation of the work of Stephen Sondheim has become something very special over the years. What is it about his songs that you connect with?
I think because he writes the music and lyrics himself. I find that’s always a good thing. He says what he wants to say, and he writes about really interesting aspects of human nature, things that we all go through – they’re real, and that’s important to me.
So when I go on a journey with his songs, I feel the audience can go on that journey, too. With songs like 'Not a Day Goes By' or 'Losing My Mind' – that song is about day-to-day life, ‘the sun goes up, I think about you. The coffee cup, I think about you’. I think it speaks to people, because the audience goes ‘oh, that’s me’.
What will be the set-up for this solo concert tour, your first to the UK in 15 years?
I’ll have a 12-piece band. I’m bringing my own lights, so the lighting will be beautiful and dramatic. And then me – in a beautiful dress.
What, for you, are the main differences between performing in a concert and playing a character in a show?
With the concerts, there’s no fourth wall, we’re all together – I can look straight at the audience and sing whatever I want. So I can go on many different journeys within the show; there can be fun songs, happy songs, dramatic moments, loving ones, it’s just a great privilege to be up there and be able to do that, as me.
When I’m playing a character, I’m singing that character’s journey and songs – and that’s fine, but it takes me on a different journey. It teaches me a lot about myself, depending on which character I’m playing, I can go down really deep. I always try to pick a show that I’d like to be in for the long haul, so that I can go deeper and deeper, and learn more and more about that character, and look at it from every aspect.
You’ve been in over 30 films, won multiple awards on Broadway. When you were first starting out, is this the career you envisaged you would have?
The way my career, and my life, has gone is that if I ever try to make something happen, it never does. But things seem to be brought to me, and I think ‘oh, this is interesting, this is a lovely thing to do next’. I just feel that I’ve been very, very fortunate that all these lovely interesting things came along.
You’re currently starring in the Amazon Prime series, Mozart in the Jungle. Are you enjoying that?
Yes, it’s so well written. Nothing is thrown in just for effect, it’s all well thought out and funny and real in a unique way, so I feel very fortunate to be in that also.
And we have Gael García Bernal, who is a wonderful free spirit actor and who won a Golden Globe for the show – and the show itself won a Golden Globe. We’ve had Malcolm McDowell with us and Saffron Burrows – a lot of UK people. It’s a great cast and we like each other a lot, it’s fun.
On this tour, you’ll be playing Edinburgh for the first time – are you looking forward to that?
Yes! I’m going to stay over a little bit while I’m there, and have a day trip. And I hear there’s a castle right in the middle of town.
Bernadette Peters in Concert: Royal Festival Hall, London, Fri 3 Jun; Opera House, Manchester, Sun 5 Jun; Edinburgh Playhouse, Tue 7 Jun.