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Bernadette Peters Talks Hamilton, Sondheim, and Fish Tacos

And don’t miss her upcoming concert with the San Diego Symphony’s Summer Pops, August 26 and 27


Tony Award winner Bernatte Peters


Bernadette Peters performs August 26 and 27

Behold Broadway’s finest. No one can belt a Sondheim ballad quite like her. That voice is unmistakable; so are those bouncy red curls. On August 26 and 27, the three-time Tony Award winner and current star of Amazon’s critically acclaimed Mozart in the Jungle will perform with the San Diego Symphony’s Bayside Summer Nights, formerly known as the Summer Pops. We chat with the beloved songstress about Broadway, the Hamilton phenomenon, and whistling in the dressing room. 

Can you give us a little preview of your upcoming performance? What can we expect?

I do Rodgers and Hammerstein, and I sing Peggy Lee’s “Fever” on the piano. I don’t play the piano—I lie on it. And I sing Sondheim, and “When You Wish upon a Star.” I do all kinds of things. Basically, I’m there to entertain.

You have such a wide repertoire. How do you choose your song list?

They are usually things I connect to—thoughts that I like to be reminded of, like “No One Is Alone,” and “Children Will Listen,” and “With So Little to Be Sure Of.” It’s just so good to hear those things, and I love for the audience to hear them.

Do you have any preshow rituals?

I usually go to the gym first, and then I wash my hair. So I wake up my body and wake up everything, and I vocalize before I get to rehearsals. And then there’s two or three hours where I’m getting ready and getting my hair and makeup done, and I’m thinking about the show and focusing on the show.

Have you ever lost your voice?

I’m sure I have. But not really in concerts. Usually it’s when you’re rehearsing and in previews, where you’re working so hard and you don’t get enough sleep. And you’re trying to get the songs and the character in your body. There might be some yelling in the show, and you have to figure out how to do it so you don’t hurt yourself.

Do you have any superstitions?

No; I mean, I don’t really allow whistling in the dressing room and things like that. But why put so many roadblocks?

Do you have a favorite role that you’ve played?

Usually I say it’s the one I’m doing right now. I pick very carefully and I’ve been very lucky. I’ve had some really great roles. Dot in Sunday in the Park With George, the witch in Into the Woods, and Rose in Gypsy—I adore that role. Those are some of my favorites.

Do you have any roles that you’d like to forget?

No. That’s why I pick carefully.

Did you see the most recent film of Into the Woods? What did you think?

I did see it. I was so happy that it did so well. I enjoyed it. I have to say, I missed some of the comedy that I think they changed for the movie because they’re two different mediums. It didn’t lend itself to the same kind of down-in-front banter that they do in a show. I missed some of that. But I thought, as a musical film, it was pretty good.

Bette Midler, who starred in the TV adaptation of Gypsy, says you should always sing live on screen, otherwise it loses something. Do you agree?

That could have been my quote! I totally think it’s best to sing live, because you’re in a box, so you’re once removed, and then if you’re lip syncing to something you sang earlier, you’re removed again. Sometimes you have to sing to a track, but at least if you’re singing live to the track, there’s room for spontaneity. That’s why they did Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables totally live.

So do you push for that in your own work?

Oh yeah. I definitely do. Of course it’s expensive to do things live, but when I did Smash on television, I totally said I’m singing live. I sang with a piano and then they orchestrated it afterward.

You’re currently filming the third season of Mozart in the Jungle, Amazon’s series about the trials and tribulations of a New York symphony orchestra. What has the experience been like?

It’s just so well written. I’m so proud of it. It’s not dark, first of all, and nothing is thrown in arbitrarily for effect. It’s original, the comedy is original, the ideas are original. Our star, Gael García Bernal, is so spontaneous and fabulous and he’s great to watch because of that. I talk about spontaneity, you know. So he’s one of those examples. Malcolm McDowell is in it, and Saffron Burrows, and Lola Kirke. It’s a great cast and we all like each other a lot. And we won two Golden Globes! I sang last year and I think we found a way for me to sing again this year.

It seems like all anyone is talking about with regard to Broadway is Hamilton. Have you seen it? Do you think it shows new potential for rap on Broadway?

It’s a new paradigm, a new format, but your ear very quickly adapts to it. Meanwhile, you have all these young people who are learning about history and loving the way it’s done. It’s a phenomenon, and that’s such a wonderful thing. And this was the first time the Tony ratings were terrific. They’ve been trying to get the ratings up for years.

You are a big animal advocate and one of the co-founders of Broadway Barks. Is there anything San Diegans can do to help support your cause?

They can donate on the website. But more importantly, they should support their local rescue groups, because there’s such an overpopulation. What we have to remember about dogs in shelters is that they’re just homeless. So if you’re thinking of getting a dog, please adopt, and please spay or neuter them.

Are you looking forward to coming to San Diego?

I’m there two nights, and it’s such a pretty place. I have friends and relatives there, and I’m looking forward to seeing everybody.

Any plans to sightsee?

I’ve always loved that zoo. It’s a remarkable zoo. The first one in the country, really, that was so unique, and I think the first one that was so spacious with all the open enclosures. So I might try and get there. I’ll still be shooting Mozart, so I’ll be flying across the country, doing the two nights, and then flying back and shooting again.

Have you ever tried a fish taco?

No, I actually haven’t.

Well, San Diego is known for its fish tacos.

So what’s in a fish taco? Is there mayonnaise in it?

Oh yes. It’s a white sauce with lime juice, sour cream, and mayonnaise. Or sometimes it’s ranch dressing. And cabbage and cheese.

That sounds great. I’ll be looking for them.

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