At 65, Bernadette Peters has earned the title of Broadway legend. For 60 of those years she has been performing — in television, movies, musicals and going on the road solo. Her appearance at The Granada Saturday night will find Ms. Peters working with her most basic elements, spare accompaniment, a set list of well-loved standards, and her powerful voice.
“My main goal is to entertain, and these are songs that I love singing. I get to pick my own songs,” she says.
That means songs from her Broadway career — including “Annie, Get Your Gun,” “Sunday in the Park with George,” “Into the Woods,” “Goodbye Girl,” “Gypsy,” “A Little Night Music,” “Follies” — and songs she just loves, like Peggy Lee’s “Fever,” “Shenandoah” and “When You Wish Upon a Star.”
“It’s a nice journey for me to go on and have people come along,” she says. “It’s more spontaneous. There is no fourth wall here.”
Does that mean that the singing style is a bit different when she is in character, compared with Ms. Peters performing as herself?
“It depends,” she says after a pause. “The two songs from ‘Follies’ is as my character, because you learn so much in a role, performing it night after night, week after week, you go deeper and deeper. You take all that information back with you. But with songs that I didn’t sing in a show, that’s my take on them. I try to bring authenticity in everything I do.”
Her first appearance was on live television, on a program called The Horn & Hardart Children’s Hour at 4 years old. Ms. Peters says she can remember “singing and playing and enjoying myself and these big machines crossing in front of me, which were the cameras. It was nice to be unaware and not self-conscious.”
Her family name, Lazzarra, shows her Italian roots, and there’s still a little wisp of that Italian-American accent when she talks. After a few years as a child performer, Bernadette took her father’s first name as her last to avoid being typecast. She grew up both onstage and on television, with bit parts here and there, while she studied at the private Quintano’s School for Young Professionals.
“We didn’t have money growing up,” she remembers. “We either had money for lessons or Broadway. So I’d have lessons and see people on Ed Sullivan. I loved Frank Sinatra, Lena Horne, Tony Bennett, Carol Channing, Eileen Atkins. I was a devoted Katherine Hepburn fan.”
Over the course of her career, she met or worked with most of her heroes.
By age 20, she was something of a veteran and won her first Drama Desk Award, for the 1968 musical “Dames at Sea.” But it was when she moved out to Hollywood to focus on movies that she really began to get noticed. She was good at bubbly, sexy characters with a retro style. Those classic red curls made her stand out, but her voice sealed the deal.
She popped up in Mel Brooks’ “Silent Movie,” and her then-boyfriend Steve Martin wrote the co-starring role for her in his debut film, “The Jerk.” She teamed up with him again in “Pennies from Heaven,” where she seemed totally at home in her various musical numbers.
She hasn’t stayed away from the small or big screen, which her long résumé shows. Most recently she played an overbearing stage mom in the NBC series “Smash.” She may return for the next season, if the show gets renewed.
But Broadway is really her home. After having appeared in several Stephen Sondheim-written musicals, and won so many Tony and Drama Desk awards for those performances, Ms. Peters is considered the premier interpreter of his work. Her relationship with Mr. Sondheim goes far back.
“My first impression of his work, of how it affected me, was when I was in London and I saw ‘Side by Side,'” she says. “It was a revue of all his songs and I couldn’t get them out of my head. So amazing. And then I was lucky enough to be in ‘Sunday in the Park.’ That was really difficult music. I had to sing the first song. It’s a difficult song rhythmically, and I was very nervous. But he’s always so sweet. Once onstage — it was for ‘Into the Woods’ — he had given us a new song. And I went up in the lyrics. He said ‘Please, I can’t do what you do. I can’t sing in front of people.’ He was really lovely about it.
“We were all very intimidated by him,” she says. “Because when you think of what he writes, it’s so wonderful and so specific and so well thought out. When I went to go see ‘Into the Woods’ I couldn’t believe it was the same guy who wrote ‘Company’. What he does is he becomes the characters. The whole show has a personality. And for writing, if it’s a quarter note, he knows why it’s a quarter note. It’s character. He guides you to what’s happening. It’s not a mistake.”
When she’s not performing, Ms. Peters helps in charity work, including her dog adoption agency, Broadway Barks. Both of her dogs — who have appeared in her children’s books — were rescue dogs.
One is a pitbull, a breed Ms. Peters says is unfairly maligned.
“It’s the owners that mistreat them,” she says. “They’re the ones who should be put away. At the turn of the century pitbulls were the dog of choice. They were called the nanny dog — they love to protect babies. They’ve been victimized and abused.”
Her celebrity status has raised the profile of her cause, and she often meets people who share her love of dogs. Some even adopt a shelter dog.
“Anyone who cares about you is special,” she says of her fans. “They’re sending out love your way and appreciate what you do. … Fans are important for sustaining you. I love the audience. Here we all are in this one room to have this experience and it’s a very special give and take.”
When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: The Granada Theatre, 1214 State St.
Information: 899-2222 or www.granadasb.org