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Writing a new role for herself

Bernadette Peters has earned seven Tony nominations and a rapt fan base. Rebounding from tragedy, she writes a children's book and zips around to perform in concert.

July 20, 2008|Charles McNulty | Times Theater Critic

Someone's purse seems to be ringing, and Bernadette Peters assumes it must be hers. Her schedule is jam-packed with publicity appearances for her children's book, "Broadway Barks," a touching story about a dog in need of a home, which comes with a CD of a lullaby she wrote. The kiddie book, named after the annual event she started with her close friend Mary Tyler Moore to help shelter animals, is Peters' first -- and her royalties will be donated to the charity organization.

But that's not all that's going on. Peters has been waiting to be fitted for a couple of dresses Bob Mackie is designing for her Aug. 16 concert at Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts . And directly after being interviewed, she has to fight Friday rush hour to make a rehearsal for her appearance with http:/// "> , the Orange County Gay Men's Chorus.

Fraught as this West Coast tour of duty sounds, Peters, a dyed-in-the-wool New Yorker, couldn't have been happier to be back in L.A., her home away from home, and not simply because a choir of gay admirers would soon be harmonizing with her for a gig that, as it turned out in late May, was bookended by standing ovations that threatened to turn into soccer stadium waves.

"I have some really good friends out here," she says, sipping on a specialty iced tea at Hugo's, a relaxed West Hollywood eatery not far from the apartment she's kept for ages. "One girlfriend just moved to San Francisco, but I have another who's like family to me, so I look forward to seeing her when I'm out here. Otherwise, the thing I enjoy is that I wake up early because of the time change, and I feel like I get three extra hours in the morning. I get up, go to the gym, and I'm still not late."

She could use the leeway. Life has been extremely hectic even in a period that could gingerly be called "transitional." After starring as Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of "Gypsy" -- a role that brought this illustrious Sondheim interpreter as much acclaim as angst -- disaster hit. Her husband, Michael Wittenberg, was killed in a helicopter crash on a European business trip in 2005, and Peters says the last few years have been "the hardest" of her life.

"You realize that there's no such thing as time because that first year you don't even realize a year has gone by," she says. "But what helped me was basically . . . he would kill me if I didn't move forward. He gave me so much strength."

As a waiter started setting up the nearby tables for the dinner shift, Peters, a dab hand with props, reached across to grab one of the unopened bottles of wine being laid out and added: "And a little bit of this helped too."

Her turn at 'Rose's Turn'

Heartbreak AND laughter -- this two-time Tony winner is as well acquainted with both as any Chekhovian heroine. Not just in her life but also in her art. For though she's long been the darling of the American theater, she unabashedly acknowledges a history of what she calls "bombs" -- a word that comes with the giggle of a veteran trouper who's been at it since girlhood -- as well as unexpected gaps.

Concert dates have kept Peters' song-and-patter skills sharp during this rough chapter, yet many of her fans are in need of a Broadway fix. She's "talking" about a return, but doing eight shows a week is a commitment she doesn't take lightly. "You can't do anything else," she says. "You have to take your day off and just recharge. Oh, it's a lovely experience when you're onstage. But everything leading up to it is about getting ready for the show, vocalizing and exercising, not talking on the phone -- and not going to noisy restaurants," she adds over a distant clatter of plates.

There are other considerations, as any regular of Talkin’ Broadway’s All That Chat online message board can explain. Chief among these is: What's a musical theater superstar to do after scaling the Himalayan peak known as Momma Rose? Of less concern but still worth asking about is whether she feels any reluctance to plunge back in after being needled relentlessly by certain members of the press for missing performances during "Gypsy."

Peters -- a 60-year-old whose pixie-ish demeanor and sinewy fitness make her look decades younger -- brushes these issues aside. "I did get sick and wasn't able to perform for a hunk of the beginning. And then I caught another cold. But 'Gypsy' was one of the best experiences of my life."

A figure of cooing affection, Peters wasn't everyone's idea of the archetypal stage mother. Nor was there unanimous praise for Sam Mendes' production. Arthur Laurents, the show's book writer and the director of the current Broadway revival starring Patti LuPone, said he thought "Sam did a terrible disservice to Bernadette and the play."

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