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Going Solo in the Prime of Bernadette Peters

Pop music: At 50, her soprano is better than ever, and the actress-singer says she's finally pursuing a recording career.

March 06, 1998|JAN HERMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Bernadette Peters, a porcelain beauty with talent to burn, had a stage mother who not only groomed her for the theater but trimmed her name for the marquee.

"My mother decided when I was 5 1/2 that my name would be too long to fit," Peters said Wednesday from her Los Angeles pied-a-terre. "She told me I had to shorten it. So I took my father's [first] name."

Bernadette Lazzara--of Ozone Park, Queens, N.Y., where her father still lives in the house she grew up in--became Bernadette Peter with an 's.' Her stage name was only one letter shorter, but look what happened.

Although stage mothers are notoriously ambitious for their daughters, Peters said, "I never let mine get out of hand. We had an agreement. If I wanted, I could quit anytime."

The petite star with the big voice landed her first professional role at 13 as Dainty June in a road-company "Gypsy" and just never quit.

This weekend, concert-goers will see why at the Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa. Peters is doing two shows--Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.--in the Pacific Symphony's Pop Series. (Tickets, $22-$51; $14, student rush; [714] 755-5799).

Playwright Arthur Laurents, a Broadway baby himself and now one of its grand old men, believes her concert performances will one day be recalled with the sort of fondness reserved for Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland or Lena Horne.

"Bernadette Peters in this distinguished company? . . . I think so," Laurents ("Gypsy" and "West Side Story") has written of her second Grammy-nominated album, "Sondheim, Etc."

The songs on that album--Peters says she'll perform many of them in her program--were recorded live in her solo debut at Carnegie Hall in 1996, a big year for her. (She also got married for the first time.)

*

The vocal quality of many singers declines with age. But Peters' soprano pipes are better than ever--"stronger, fuller, rangier," Laurents contends--and, at 50, she is a more touching performer in all respects.

Always a terrific performer, she has dozens of accolades to prove it, including a 1986 Tony for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song & Dance" and four nominations for: a revival of the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical "On the Town" (1972); Jerry Herman's "Mack and Mabel" (1975); Stephen Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" (1984), and Marvin Hamlisch's musical adaptation of Neil Simon's movie "The Goodbye Girl" (1993). Her essence as a performer is "experienced innocence," Laurents has noted. "The innocence gives her a purity, the experience--she is hardly naive--a vulnerability; both have deepened what she is telling us."

Is there anything Peters can't do?

"I don't sing a song the same way twice," she said. "It depends on how I feel that evening. And I'm not really very good around the house. I'm not good at cleaning.

"I don't have that gene for organizing. I wish I did. But my husband"--Michael Wittenberg, an investment advisor--"doesn't notice. He's even worse than I am."

They're often away from home, anyway. (Home is New York.) "He comes with me whenever I'm on tour," Peters said. "He's my greatest fan. He took over from my Dad."

*

Oddly, despite her success on Broadway and in the movies, she hasn't had a solo recording career until recently.

"It's one of the highlights of my life to be nominated for a Grammy two years in a row," she said. Her first solo album, "I'll Be Your Baby Tonight" (with songs by Lennon, McCartney, Lyle Lovett and Billy Joel) was nominated last year.

Though "Sondheim, Etc." didn't win at this year's Grammy Awards, held last week in New York, "it was still a thrill," she added. "I'm finally getting down to it. I'd like a recording career."

*

For an encore, Peters has recorded Jerry Herman's title song for a new movie starring Barney the purple dinosaur, to be released April 6. She may also be heading back to Broadway soon. New York producers Fran and Barry Weissler have asked her to star next year in a revival of the 1946 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical "Annie Get Your Gun."

"If all the elements fall into place, I'd do it," Peters said. "They're rewriting the show now. When a show happens, I want it to happen for the first time as if it never happened before. I don't want to do it the way it was done 50 years ago."

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

The Singer on Songwriters

Bernadette Peters assesses her favorite Broadway composers: Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Jerry Herman and Irving Berlin.

* "Steve writes a lot of layers to his music. You never get tired singing his songs because there's always another layer, and he always writes about important things."

* "Andrew doesn't write the lyrics. His songs have less layers. He puts his passion in the music. He writes melodies that take you along with him."

* "Jerry is very concise, yet his songs have lots of depth. He goes right to the point; he's always meaningful; his songs are always so well-defined and full of feeling."

* "Irving Berlin writes conversational songs. The ones I sing always have that quality. There's an intimacy to them that I connect with. Singing a song is all about being in the moment."

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