The times call for Sondheim. At least, that’s how it feels lately in Hollywood.
Three of this year’s top Oscar contenders feature characters singing songs from Stephen Sondheim musicals: Marriage Story has Company’s Being Alive and You Could Drive a Person Crazy; Joker has A Little Night Music’s Send in the Clowns; and Knives Out has Follies’ Losing My Mind. Sondheim songs have also popped up on prestige TV like The Morning Show, The Politician and Pose, and there are films in production based on West Side Story and Merrily We Roll Along.
“He was so far ahead of his time, the way he would write,” said Broadway, film and TV star Bernadette Peters, a friend of Sondheim’s often regarded as the foremost interpreter of his work.
“Musicals were very lighthearted when they first started — they were shorter, little vignettes, and then they became stories. They just got deeper and deeper, more and more important. ... He’s given me so much to sing about. Anytime I sing his songs, they go so deep, you never get tired of singing them. They say so much.”
All this Sondheim in the ether makes Peters a timely choice to headline the Florida Orchestra’s 2020 fundraising gala, Feb. 1 at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg. The two-time Tony winner, who originated roles in Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park With George and starred in revivals of Gypsy, Follies and A Little Night Music, will join the orchestra for a set heavy on Sondheim, including Being Alive and Losing My Mind.
Peters, 71, is an offbeat choice for the orchestra’s annual gala, which has gravitated toward pop stars (Sting, Seal) and classical icons (Itzhak Perlman, Yo-Yo Ma). But she has performed with regional orchestras for many years.
“I get to choose the songs, and there’s no fourth wall with the audience,” Peters said. “I end up doing songs that I never sang in shows. I end up doing other people’s songs. As long as I connect to a song, I know the audience will connect to it.”
It’s been more than 50 years since Peters debuted on and off Broadway, reaping Tony and Drama Desk nominations for roles in Dames at Sea, On the Town and Mack and Mabel. Her unique voice and comic timing put her on Hollywood’s it list, landing her in films like The Jerk, Annie, Mel Brooks’ Silent Movie and Pennies From Heaven, for which she won a Golden Globe.
Then came her first collaboration with Sondheim, Sunday in the Park With George. She was there with co-star Mandy Patinkin as he workshopped the musical in 1983, bringing new songs in each day.
“We only had the first act, and every day he would add to it,” she said. “We’d all sit there and our mouths would drop open, like when he brought in Finishing the Hat, and when he brought me Children and Art.”
Sondheim is famously strict with his lyrics, always trying to “figure out exactly the way a character would say something. If you say, ‘Well, what about this?’ He’d consider it for a moment, then he’d go, ‘No, he really wants to say, da-da-da-da-da.’”
That said, after so many collaborations — not just musicals, but concerts, albums and, you know, real-life friendship — “I think he appreciates my insight,” Peters said. “I think what he’s written, he’s really thought it out, and it’s really sort of perfect. He gives you the map of what’s going on in a song, and it’s up to you to fill in that story.”
Peters hasn’t performed on Broadway since wrapping a sixth-month stint in Hello, Dolly! in 2018. Instead, she has focused on television, including a role on the Riverdale spinoff Katy Keene, which premieres Feb. 6 on the CW.
Television gave her a new perspective on the orchestra business, too. She played the president of a New York symphony on the Amazon series Mozart in the Jungle, which renewed her respect for music directors charged with curating programs that balance “what they think the audience wants to hear with the artistic part," in a way that makes financial sense.
“It’s hard to keep them afloat,” she said. “And you really don’t want to lose a symphony orchestra.”
But she remains close to the Great White Way. In December, she attended a memorial event for legendary director Hal Prince, alongside luminaries like Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Carol Burnett. And two days after the St. Pete gala, she’ll be back in New York, performing at a tribute to the equally revered Jerry Herman, composer and lyricist of Hello, Dolly!, Mame and La Cage aux Folles.
For the company she keeps, Peters doesn’t think of herself as a living link to Broadway’s past, and believes “there are lots of new, young, talented people” currently creating musicals that will live on forever.
She might return to Broadway herself one day. With all this Sondheim out in the world, the timing might be just right.
“The role has to be the thing that gets me there, because I know how much work it is,” she said. “I’m open if there’s something that appeals to me. To do it eight times a week, you really have to love it. And I’ve done most of the really terrific roles, so I don’t know. We’ll have to see. I just like to see what the universe brings to me.”
A Gala Evening With Bernadette Peters
$75 and up. 7 p.m. Feb. 1. Mahaffey Theater, 400 First St. S, St. Petersburg. (727) 892-3337. floridaorchestra.org.