Ethel Merman. Angela Lansbury. Tyne Daly.
And, now, add Bernadette Peters to that exclusive list of stellar actresses who have portrayed one of the musical theatre’s most controversial stage mothers—Rose—in the classic Arthur Laurents-Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim musical Gypsy, which is now playing at Broadway’s Shubert Theatre in a new production helmed by Academy Award winner Sam Mendes.
The character of Rose—loosely based on the life of Rose Hovick (and her daughters, actress-playwright June Havoc and the late striptease artist Gypsy Rose Lee) — is one of the juiciest the musical theatre canon has to offer, a woman who erroneously believes success in show business will bring her and her two daughters happiness. A mix of contradictions, Rose is ultimately a battered and bruised soul, abandoned by a mother, several husbands and—as the play progresses—her own daughters.
In an interview in her Shubert Theatre dressing room just prior to the commencement of previews, Peters says she believes Rose’s actions are the result of the deprivations in her life. “What’s pushing her,” says the award-winning actress, “is what she didn’t have in life: opportunity. Her mother deserted her—that’s a pretty devastating thing. I think that motivates her as well as [the desire] to give her children what she didn’t have. ‘I’m not going to let them sit away their lives like I did!’”
Rose is a role that the multi-talented Peters seems to have been inching toward most of her life. In 1961, a 13-year-old Bernadette Lazzara (Peter was her father’s first name) hit the road—with her mom in tow—in the chorus of the second national company of Gypsy. Peters has vivid memories of that production, which starred Mitzi Green and, later, Mary McCarty as the indomitable Rose; in fact, rehearsals for Gypsy’s fourth Broadway incarnation have prompted several recollections of that eight-month period on the road: “I remember the dressing room scene especially. I was just in the chorus originally, but I understudied Agnes, and I understudied Dainty June, and towards the end I played Agnes. I remember that second act, going to Wichita where all the strippers were, the burlesque cast.”
The two-time Tony Award winner also recalls one particularly large, daunting theatre, Chicago’s Opera House. “I remember in order to make a cue, I had to start about five lines ahead, just to run to get to the center of the stage,” Peters laughs. “That stage, I’d never seen anything so big in my life!” The tour was also a family affair of sorts: Peters’ sister Donna, now a casting agent in New York, later joined the company as the understudy for Louise. “It’s like we all grew up on that show,” says Peters. “My brother remembers the show also because he would come to visit with my father, so it’s a vivid memory of our childhood, growing up, for all of us.”
And, the road to Gypsy didn’t end there. In 1996, Peters made her now-legendary solo concert debut at New York’s famed Carnegie Hall, a benefit concert for the Gay Men’s Health Crisis. Anyone who was lucky enough to witness the sold-out evening, which boasted a second half devoted solely to the songs of Stephen Sondheim, will remember the concert’s first-act finale, Peters’ thrilling, emotional rendition of one of Gypsy’s classic songs, “Some People.”
As Peters belted her way through the Styne-Sondheim tune, it became clear that one of Broadway’s most-loved stars was ready to tackle a role miles apart from most of her previous Broadway endeavors, including model and mistress to Georges Seurat in Sondheim and James Lapine’s stunning Sunday in the Park with George; English hat designer Emma who arrives wide-eyed in America in Song & Dance (Peters received her first Tony Award in this Andrew Lloyd Webber musical for her tour de force performance); or the spirited, but naive Annie Oakley who eventually gets a man with a gun in Annie Get Your Gun (Peters’ most recent Broadway outing, which garnered her a second Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical).
When asked if this departure from her other instantly likable characters was a factor in her decision to accept the part, Peters explains, “No, what really factored in was that it’s one of the greatest roles ever written with one of the greatest scores and one of the greatest books. And, how lucky am I to be able to do it and with such a wonderful director and with Arthur [Laurents] and Steve [Sondheim]’s input!”
Laurents, a close friend of Peters, has wanted the actress to play the role for some time. “Arthur originally got me involved [in the Carnegie Hall benefit concert]. When we were having our first meeting at lunch, we were talking about some of the things he had written. We had gotten onto Gypsy, and he said, ‘You know, you should play that part. They want to do it again, but there's no reason to do it unless we do it in a different manner. And Rose actually looked like you. She was small and blonde.’”
Peters is equally fond of director Sam Mendes, the man responsible for the Tony-winning revival of Cabaret as well as the Academy Award-winning Best Picture American Beauty. “Sam’s fantastic, he really is. He delves very deeply into the script, and there’s a lot of life on the stage.” She also explains that her performance is a “deeply personal one,” and the demands of the book and the score require daily preparation. “I do vocal exercises for speaking. That’s very important,” says the actress. “There’s a lot of vocal relaxation, lying on the floor, lots of breathing, so that your body’s relaxed, and it’s all coming from a good place so that you don’t hurt yourself.” Though the Gypsy score exacts a “demanding vocal range of emotions,” Peters says that “every song has such a reason to be there. It’s all very important. Every time I open my mouth to sing, [Rose] really has something to say, something she needs to say.”
Currently contracted to stay with the show for a year, Peters—a recent Grammy (for Bernadette Peters Loves Rodgers & Hammerstein) and Daytime Emmy (for the Showtime drama Bobbie’s Girl) nominee—says that she enjoys long Broadway runs, which give her a chance to delve deeper and deeper into a role. “I’m surprised constantly about the character, and I’m surprised about myself, which is kind of exciting. That’s the best thing about doing a role is if you can constantly surprise yourself, and it just keeps growing and growing.”