Writing a new role for herself

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:/// www.menalivechorus.org/index.php "> www.menalivechorus.org/index.php , 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."

Let's just say that the response was not just divergent but intensely passionate in both directions. Peters concedes that not everyone caught the same performance. "When you're sick, you really can't sing it," she says. "I wasn't always able to give audiences the chance to see me at my top. That was just the throw of the dice. But then I went to open the show, I got a great review in the New York Times, and it was the role of a lifetime."

Peters candidly admitted that she hadn't seen LuPone's performance.

"No, it's too soon," she says. "I did see the new 'Sunday in the Park,' but then it was more than 20 years ago since I did it. I was removed from it enough that I could finally enjoy it."

"Steve" (as in Sondheim, the show's composer) was her date for "Sunday," and she was bowled over. "Oh, my God, it's so beautiful," she says. "I used to be jealous of the audience. I was having my experience of the character, but they were having their experience of the whole thing. When the picture starts coming together, you just get so emotional, and then when Dot comes back in and all the characters bow to the artist you get choked up because you realize what he created."

Roles like Dot, which Peters originated, don't come regularly, however. And although she might be known first and foremost as a Broadway baby, Peters had no choice but to branch out to TV and movies, which have afforded her steady if unspectacular success since she made the decision to test the Hollywood waters in the early '70s.

"I was doing Broadway and it was great, but it was a time when New York was in a slump. I remember I did 'Dames at Sea,' and then when it was done for television, the part went to Ann-Margret, who I love. And I went, 'Of course, it went to her. No one knows who I am. I need to go out to L.A. and get more exposure.' "

Peters was a guest on "All in the Family" and "Maude," and eventually had her own series, "All's Fair," a short-lived sitcom in which she starred with Richard Crenna. Of her TV work, Peters confesses to a special fondness for "The Carol Burnett Show." "I wasn't a regular, but Carol would invite me on. She had come to see me in 'Dames at Sea,' and that was the beginning of her doing the takeoffs on movies. . . . We have a lovely history together."

Two of Peters' biggest cinematic splashes were with her old flame Steve Martin: "The Jerk" (1979) and "Pennies From Heaven" (1981). Big back-to-back Hollywood breaks, however, haven't been the norm, and as she shruggingly admits, she has "never been able to get on that roll."

Dot sings 'Move On'

FRANK RICH is not alone in calling Peters "the most talented Broadway musical actress of her generation." But he has been one of the few to express disappointment with her opportunities onstage. In a postscript to a 1985 review of "Song & Dance" in "Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for the New York Times, 1980-1993," Rich writes: "Why she only found one assignment worthy of her talents -- Dot in 'Sunday in the Park With George' -- over the two decades following 'Mack and Mabel' [1974] is not so much a mystery as an indictment of the state of the Broadway musical theater. . . ." For an actress who has been nominated for seven Tonys, this may seem a ridiculously lofty standard. But considering that she hasn't starred in an original Broadway musical since the 1993 adaptation of Neil Simon's "The Goodbye Girl," it's sadly easy to see his point.

When asked for her take on the current state of Broadway, Peters says, "Theater is getting more commercial, but it's also more in the forefront of people's consciousness now. They're still doing all the revivals, so it's not like we've just moved on to 'Beauty and the Beast.' There's room for it all."

As for her career, she says she feels like "a working actress trying to do some good in the world," which is her way of steering the conversation back to her book. But surely she can give us a hint of what it's like to be a walking, talking Al Hirschfeld icon? "I don't like to think about my ego as much; it makes me uncomfortable," she says. "Right now I'm focusing on making people aware of how beautiful animals are in our lives. How healing they can be. When I went to the pound and saw the number of pets that were there and how overcrowded they were. . . ."

Peters somberly trails off to praise Oprah Winfrey for bringing exposure to puppy mills: "It was amazing. She said, 'I will never buy a dog again. I will always adopt.' "

Moore was the star, however, who sparked Peters' activist streak.

"We did a movie for television, 'The Last Best Year,' where Mary helped me die," Peters recalls. "We became friends, and I got to know about her love of animals."

After Peters saw that she had a knack for raising money during the 1999 Broadway revival of "Annie Get Your Gun," the two joined forces to host a benefit program for shelter animals in New York's theater district. The popular Broadway Barks, bolstered by Peters' bestselling children's book and featuring a star-studded adopt-a-thon, is now in its 10th year.

As for her future prospects, Peters has acquired something of a laissez-faire attitude.

"The way I think life works is that things are put in your path," she says. "Work was put in my path, shows were put in my path, and now this. If you told me three years ago that I was going to write a children's book . . . . I don't have children. I mean, I love children, but why would I do that? And write a lullaby? I have too much respect for composers."

Tough as things have been, Peters can't help radiating a musical theater glow as she ponders these welcome surprises.

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charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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