Bernadette Peters’ enduring Botticelli looks uncannily defy any math you might want to do, but suffice it to say the actress earned her Actors Equity union card in January 1958 (at the age of nine), and has been working ever since — on Broadway, in films, on television and in concert halls.
With the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra
When: 7:30p.m. March 31
Where: Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress
Tickets: $35 – $126
While Peters has very rarely been seen on a Chicago stage, these days she has gained a whole new audience thanks to the Amazon Prime series, “Mozart in the Jungle,” in which she plays Gloria Windsor, chairman of the board of the ever-embattled New York Symphony (with a back story that includes a career as a cabaret singer). She also has a recurring role in “The Good Fight,” (which streams at CBS All Access) in which she plays the recurring role of Lenore Rindell, a brilliant financial whiz with tough working-class roots who is part of an unofficial “First Family of Chicago,” and the mother of a neophyte lawyer.
All this makes the actress’ arrival for a one-night-only event — March 31 at the Auditorium Theatre (her first performance in Chicago in more than a decade, and her debut at the Auditorium itself) — a reason to celebrate. As part of a seven-city tour, Peters will be joined by the Boston Pops Esplanade Orchestra for a program led by conductor Keith Lockhart.
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In the first half of the program the Pops will pay tribute to George Gershwin, with a world premiere of a reconstruction of Paul Whiteman’s jazzy version of Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” and a rarely-heard original orchestration of “Rhapsody in Blue.” Peters will take the stage for the second half of the concert to sing the Broadway hits she has made famous, along with other standards from the Great American Songbook.
Asked if television and concert hall gigs are less grueling than the eight-show-per-week endurance test that is a starring role in a Broadway musical, Peters said: “I really like the consistency of a Broadway run where you can go deeper and deeper the more you perform the show, and at the same time you can be more spontaneous. Now, I’m doing a bit of everything, and with television you have to learn new dialogue and how to do things very quickly. Sometimes you only have a day to figure it all out, so I’m very glad to have such good writing in both shows.”
Peters’ big break as an adult came in 1968, with the Off Broadway production of “Dames at Sea,” a parody of 1930s musicals. From there she quickly moved to Broadway, starring in “La Strada” (a 1969 musical based on the Fellini film that closed quickly, but should certainly be re-examined by a Chicago company), and then playing Hildy in a 1971 production of Bernstein’s “On the Town,” for which she received her first Tony Award nomination. She earned a second nomination for her work in the 1974 musical, “Mack and Mabel.” And then it was off to Los Angeles, where she starred in such films as “The Jerk” and “Pennies from Heaven,” co-starring in both with Steve Martin (they were an item for quite a while), as well as the film version of “Annie” and Woody Allen’s “Alice.”
But Broadway was Peters’ bailiwick, and by originating the role of Dot/Marie in the 1984 Stephen Sondheim-James Lapine masterpiece, “Sunday in the Park With George,” she became something of a Sondheim icon. It was only three years later that she put her stamp on another Sondheim role, playing the role of the Witch in his fairytale mash-up, “Into the Woods.”
Along the way Peters won praise in the 1985 U.S. debut of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance” (for which she received her first Leading Actress in a Musical Tony Award), and for her work in Broadway revivals of “Annie Get Your Gun” (1999), “Gypsy” (2004) and “Follies” (2011).
So what is the key to putting together a successful concert program?
“You just have to choose wonderful songs,” said Peters. “Songs like ‘No One is Alone’ and ‘Children Will Listen’ from ‘Into the Woods,’ and ‘With So Little to Be Sure Of’ [from the less familiar Sondheim musical, “Anyone Can Whistle”]. There is so much negativity in the world, and those songs remind me — and the audience, too — to be grateful, and to focus on the important things in life.”
“I know my role is to entertain, and to be uplifting if possible,” said Peters. “But I like the dramatic, too, and for that there is ‘Losing My Mind’ [the torchy Sondheim song from “Follies”].”
There also is her cool, sultry take on “Come On a My House,” the 1939 song by Ross Bagdasarian and William Saroyan made famous by Rosemary Clooney. Peters’ performance of it was recently featured on an episode of “Mozart in the Jungle,” in which Gloria, performing in a club under an assumed name, tests the waters at an open mic (it’s available for download on Amazon).
“With this concert I am really lucky to be backed by the Boston Pops, which plays like nobody’s business,” said Peters, who also depends on her music director and pianist of the past 30 years, Marvin Laird. “I’ve worked with a three-piece band and 12-piece band, but there’s something about hearing the deep, full, rich sound of a big orchestra behind you. And Keith [Lockhart], is great at following me carefully because I am very much in the moment, and things can change, yet he also has to control that big group of musicians.”
As for any surprising “new” material in her Auditorium concert (perhaps something sung by the Schulyer sisters in “Hamilton”), Peters said she wouldn’t be the right person to rap.
“But, I’m a big fan of Sting’s music — I really love his early stuff — and that is something I might look at. And I love the songs of Phil Ochs [the American protest singer of the 1960s and ’70s], although that’s not in the show yet.”