February 28 is Bernadette Peters’ birthday. It’s generally considered bad form to tell a lady’s age, but in her case, since she is ageless, timeless really, I think it’s alright to say she’s 72. Let’s celebrate age instead of hide from it.
Let’s sing her praises.
It’s hard to know where to start in praise of Ms. Peters. She is extraordinary in everything she does on both stage and screen. My husband knows and loves her from The Jerk. Amazon Prime watchers might know her from Mozart in the Jungle (and if you haven’t seen it, WATCH IT! It’s brilliant, and not just because she is in it.) But of course, most of the world knows her from her incredible, iconic work in Musical Theatre: Ruby in Dames at Sea, Mabel in Mack and Mabel , Dot in Sunday in the Park with George, Emma in Song and Dance, The Witch in Into the Woods, Paula in The Goodbye Girl , Annie in Annie Get Your Gun, Mama Rose in Gypsy, Desiree in A Little Night Music, Sally in Follies, Dolly in Hello, Dolly…
There is simply no one like her. She is a unique and awesome talent. You know it is her immediately: that voice! that hair! (that physique!) She embodies seeming opposites that few can: she is adorable and tough. Strong and über feminine. Hilarious and deadly serious. Her eyes twinkle with mischief and passion, sparkle with tears and laughter.
But since I am a voice teacher, besides a humongous fan, and this is a voice blog after all, let’s talk about her voice.
Her voice is idiosyncratic and superlative. Like her speaking voice, you know her singing voice the minute you hear it; you cannot possibly mistake her for anyone else. It is beautiful, interesting, perfectly flawed in its humanity, and powerful beyond measure. She uses every color, every facet of the human voice that there is possible to use. She can belt with power and vocal cords of steel one minute, and in the next, use her head voice to sound both vulnerable and achingly lovely. She is not afraid to push her voice past its limit for dramatic effect which allows her audience to be enveloped in the emotion. She is not afraid to sound less than “perfect,” (whatever that might mean to you) in order to tell the story, to be inside the feeling. That’s what I love the most about Bernadette Peters’ voice: you hear her humanity, her human-ness in every note, every breath. You feel what she is feeling and see what she is seeing by the mere sound of her voice.
Take for example one of my favorite songs that she sings to perfection: “Not a day goes by” from Merrily We Roll Along by, naturally, Stephen Sondheim. I tear up just thinking about it. It is a wonderful song by itself but her interpretation takes it to another level of brilliant. It is a rollercoaster of emotions- gentle one minute, heartbroken the next, by turns determined and miserable, hopeful and passionate. It is simply a masterclass on how to sing the song.
When I saw her in Gypsy, she was unlike any other Mama Rose- tiny and delicate- but then that steely determination and drive appeared. And in Rose’s Turn she gave her voice over to the moment and she broke your heart with every slight crack in her voice. I’d never really liked Rose- too much like a bulldozer. But suddenly I saw the vulnerable, insecure, desperate woman who had never gotten what she wanted out of life. You ached for her.
And then I saw Ms. Peters in concert in Portland, Oregon in 2014. I cried. I rarely cry in the theatre- my brain is always too much in critical listening mode (not critical meaning ‘mean’, but critical meaning ‘objective analysis and evaluation’). But because of her tremendous gifts, her amazing skill as a singer and performer, all that was swept away, replaced with just pure awe of her talent, pure enjoyment of her performance. She portrayed every possible feeling and mood in under two hours: sexy, cute, silly, solemn, yearning, fiery, blissful… She was superb. It was a night I will never forget.
Bernadette Peters is everything I have ever aspired to be on stage. She makes everything (including walking and dancing in stiletto mules) look effortless. She is completely in command of her voice and body at all times. She always looks suffused with joy with what she is doing, which in turn gives her audience that level of joy as well. She is master of her craft.
Stephen Sondheim said, “Bernadette is flawless as far as I’m concerned. I can’t think of anything negative.”
Same, sir. Same.