Spotlight: Bernadette Peters is Film, Broadway Favorite

Bernadette Peters and Gael Garcia Bernal in Mozart in the Jungle
Bernadette Peters and Gael Garcia Bernal star in Amazon’s ‘Mozart in the Jungle.’

Born into an Italian-American family in Queens, New York, in 1948, Bernadette Peters (nee Bernadette Lazzara), began her interest in performing at an early age. At age three, she appeared on the television show Juvenile Jury, and then on to Name That Tune, Kraft Mystery Theatre, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. Her first appearance on a New York stage was in the musical The Most Happy Fella in 1959.

Sharpening her stage-craft as a teenager, she continued to appear in big and small productions such as the national tour of Gypsy as Dainty June and Off-Broadway in musicals The Penny Friend (1966) and Curley McDimple (1967).

Her big stage breaks came as she was cast in George M! with stage icon Joel Grey (Cabaret), for which she won the Theatre World Award, and then as Ruby in the Off-Broadway smash production of the musical Dames At Sea in 1968 and won the Drama Desk Award. For On The Town she won her first Tony Award nomination, and the splashy musical Mack and Mabel made her a major New York stage star when she received her second Tony Award nomination for Best Actress in a Musical.

Pennies From Heaven

Strangely, she decided to move out to Hollywood in 1970. There were great opportunities for her in films and television, and she intended to cash in on them. While in Hollywood she starred with Steve Martin in The Jerk (1979) and the musical role written for her by Martin in Pennies From Heaven. The part of a teacher turned prostitute won Peters the Golden Globe. She and Martin also carried on a torrid love affair. Also during this Hollywood period she appeared in Clint Eastwood’s Pink Cadillac, and Mel Brook’s Silent Movie (Golden Globe nom). Of the more than 32 films she has starred in, the list also includes Woody Allen’s Alice, the musical Annie, The Longest Yard, W.C. Fields and Me, and Slaves of New York.

She didn’t stay away from Broadway for long and returned to star in the Stephen Sondheim/James Lapine hit musical Sunday in the Park with George (1984), which definitely put her in the league with stage icons who came before her. She took home her third Tony Award nomination. The show was videotaped for PBS in 1986.

Andrew Lloyd Webber’s relatively unknown Song and Dance in 1985 strangely enough brought Peters her first Tony Award for Best Leading Actress in a Musical. Although the show got negative reviews, Peters outshone the material.

The capstone of Peters’ Broadway career seems to be the Stephen Sondheim/ James Lapine hit Into The Woods. The show came along in 1987. Her performance was considered flawless and brought her a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Actress in a Musical. This show cemented her relationship with Sondheim and is considered the best interpreter of his difficult music.

With no good stage roles coming her way, she took a hiatus and squeezed in some work on television and films. She made innumerable appearances with Johnny Carson, Carol Burnett, George Burns, and Sonny and Cher. She did the television movie The Last Best Year (1990) with Mary Tyler Moore and made a few TV series pilots, one with Christine Baranski.

But the lure of Broadway was too much, and she returned to New York to star in a new musical version of Neil Simon’s The Goodbye Girl in 1993. Oscar® winning Marvin Hamlisch created the music for her. She was again nominated for a Tony Award. After the show closed, she took a little more time off to appear in a few television series such as Live With Regis and Kelly, The Closer, and the mini-series The Odyssey.

When she opened in the revival of Annie Get Your Gun with Tom Wopat in 1999, all Broadway was agog at her new interpretation of the old Ethel Merman hit. She swept the awards that year, winning the Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle Award, and Tony Award. She had returned in a blaze of glory.

With revival being the hot thing in New York at the time, Peters was asked to star in another old Ethel Merman hit, Gypsy. As Mamma Rose, Peters knocked everybody off the stage and was nominated for both the Drama Desk Award and the Tony Award in 2003. The show closed in 2004.

After another six-year absence from Broadway—but filling in her time with concerts, television and film work—she triumphed in the revival of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music in 2010-2011. Also during that period she married investment broker Michael Wittenberg. The marriage ended tragically when he was killed in a plane crash in 2005.

In 2012, Peters appeared on the NBC musical hit Smash. She played a retired Broadway star who is the mother of one of the young dancers on the show. She did five episodes.

In 2014 she traveled to Australia to do a series of concerts. These were in conjunction with ones she had done in Hollywood, New York and London. Returning from Australia, she immediately was cast in the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, playing the chairwoman of the orchestra since 2014.

Miss Peters is active in several charities including Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and serves on its Board of Trustees.