Star-Bulletin Features

Special to the Star-Bulletin

Bernadette Peters

"You gotta be original,
because if you're like somebody else,
what do they need you for?"

A true original

Bernadette Peters sings
with the symphony

By Tim Ryan

Imagine Bernadette Peters with straight hair. Then imagine Peters buried somewhere in the background of a theatrical production.

It could have happened.

"For years and years and years I tried to get jobs in the chorus, but I couldn't because (directors) kept saying I didn't fit; I was too different looking," Peters said in a telephone interview from her New York home.

So the actor wannabe known as Bernadette Lazzara straightened her trademark curly hair to get work.

"The summers in New York get really hot and my hair would kink up so bad it drove me crazy and I still wasn't working," Peters said. "I decided being something I wasn't was ridiculous. So I let it go curly, piled it up on my head, and suddenly I started working.

"I guess it meant I wasn't supposed to be in the chorus, but out front somewhere."

Peters makes her Hawaii singing debut tomorrow and Saturday when she performs with the Honolulu Symphony. (Her first "performance" in Hawaii was for the 1970s television series "McCloud" with Dennis Weaver.)

Peters credits an acting teacher with convincing her to be herself: "There is only one of you in the world, so be all you can be."

"Young performers always start out admiring other artists and you try to ... be like them. That's good for awhile. But boy was in I big trouble when I tried to act like Rod Steiger.

"You gotta be original, because if you're like somebody else, what do they need you for?"

Peters began performing at age 3 on television shows like "Juvenile Jury" and "Name That Tune." But while television is where she got her start, Peters is best known for her work in theater, coming along just in time for the last generation of traditional musicals.

Peters received Tony nominations the 1992 musical "The Goodbye Girl," where she played an aging Broadway gypsy whose body will no longer obey choreographers' commands; an "On the Town" revival (1972); "Mack and Mabel" (1975); Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park with George" (1985); and "Into the Woods," where she played the witch.

In the last decade Peters has been doing large-scale pops concerts, singing the music of Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Harold Arlen and even Lyle Lovett.

"I also do piano vocals, and a lot of orchestral pieces. I feel very comfortable with a symphony behind me."

Not bad for a performer who admits she didn't really learn to sing until she was 38, for the musical "Song and Dance."

"I had to sing every day, doing the first act by myself," Peters said. "My (voice) teacher gave me therapeutic lessons to put my voice in alignment. If I'd heard a note before studying with her, I could sing it once. Afterward, I could sing it every tune."

There also have been numerous films: "The Longest Yard" with Burt Reynolds; "Silent Movie" with Mel Brooks; "The Jerk" with Steve Martin; "Annie" with Carol Burnett; and "Pink Cadillac" with Clint Eastwood. She received a Golden Globe Award for "Pennies From Heaven," her personal favorite.

Peters, who lives in New York with her investment-advisor husband, recently appeared in the all-star, made-for-TV movie "Cinderella," as the wicked step-mother.

Too busy for hobbies, Peters spends her days off relaxing at home with her husband, Himalayan cat Murphy, and Golden Retriever, Breshnev.

"I think I fell in love with the dog first," she joked.

Meanwhile, Peters, who turns 50 in February, hopes one day to play Blanche DuBois in "A Streetcar Named Desire, the American theater's most famous over-the-hill beauty. This from a woman who inspires others to ask for her skin and hair care secrets?

"I don't really do anything special except always cleansing my face thoroughly before I go to bed. But Esteé Lauder does have really good products."

Bernadette Peters sings
with the Honolulu Symphony

Repertoire: Bernstein's "Overture to Candide," Gershwin's "Overture to Girl Crazy" and "An American in Paris" Stuart Chafetz conducts
Time: Friday and Saturday, 7:30 p.m.
Where: Blaisdell Concert Hall
Tickets: $15-$47.50, available at the box office, Connection outlets, or by phone, 538-8863 or 545-4000. A few $5 tickets will be sold up to one hour before each performance at the box office.
Also: Performance Sunday at Kahilu Theatre, Kamuela.

Do It Electric!

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