Bernadette Peters made a promise.
When she appears in concert Aug. 18 at the Muriel Kauffman Theater she will at some point cover Peggy Lee’s “Fever” while lying on a grand piano. Now if the thought of Peters, the red-headed powerhouse Broadway star, singing “Fever” from a recumbent position isn’t enough to focus your attention, you might want to check your pulse.
Peters said she does at least once concert a month as a solo artist, almost always with her longtime music director Marvin Laird, a native of Kansas City, Kan. For her show she’ll also enjoy the support of Kansas City Symphony musicians.
“Basically I know I’m there to entertain and connect with the audience,” she said in an interview. “I do a lot of Sondheim, but I also sing Rodgers and Hammerstein. I sing ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ and ‘Mister Snow.’ And I sing Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’ lying on the piano. And I sing ‘When You Wish Upon a Star.’ I do all different kinds of things. It’s a little bit of a musical journey.”
Peters is closely associated with the works of composer/lyricist Stephen Sondheim, having appeared in the original productions of “Sunday in the Park With George” and “Into the Woods” as well as revivals of “Gypsy,” “A Little Night Music” and “Follies.” But she’s performed the works of other notable Broadway composers, including Irving Berlin’s “Annie Get Your Gun” and the musical version of Neil Simon’s “The Goodbye Girl” with music by Marvin Hamlisch.
Hamlisch, a prolific composer perhaps best known for “A Chorus Line,” passed away last week.
“He was a darling guy,” Peters said. “He was a great raconteur besides a great musical talent. And a great showman. I was very sad to hear that. A lovely guy.”
Peters, who was born in 1948 and raised in New York, has been performing almost literally her entire life. At age 3 she appeared on her first television show and at 5 performed on “The Horn and Hardart Children’s Hour” and “Name That Tune.” She got her Actors Equity card just a few years later, but she said she didn’t really get serious about her career until she was 17. On those early TV shows, she didn’t even realize she was “working.”
“My memory was that I was singing and playing and fantasizing,” she said. “I didn’t know I was on television, because it was live in those days. You didn’t come back and watch it because there was no tape. I was just singing and fantasizing. These big machines would cross in front of me. I didn’t know they were cameras. I was just enjoying myself.”
Eventually, of course, she figured out that it was work.
“I was on the road when I was 13,” she said. “I didn’t really like being on the road. I really liked being home. I still don’t care for the road that much. But when I was 17 I realized that I really loved the creative process, the outlet, the acting, where the emotions go — and so then I started getting more serious about the whole thing.”
Having worked onstage as well as in films and television, Peters said she doesn’t really prefer one medium over another.
“It’s the project,” she said. “It’s the role. It’s really the writing. Wherever you are, it’s the writing that’s the really important thing.”
Peters said she had no major Broadway shows in the pipeline. And she sounded like that was OK.
“Well, I did two in a row for three years, eight times a week,” she said. “I’m enjoying my free time right now. I call it my free time even though I do the concerts. But they’re just a joy to do and a real privilege to get up there and choose what I want to sing and sing songs I just love. So I enjoy doing that right now and I enjoy more time to myself.”
That’s another way of saying she’s spending quality time with her beloved dogs — Stella, a female pit bull, and Charlie, a mix who looks like Tramp in the Disney film “Lady and the Tramp.” Peters is a longtime animal adoption advocate. Fourteen years ago she helped found Broadway Barks, an annual event held in Shubert Alley that offers dogs and cats for adoption from 26 animal shelters in the New York area. Stars in current Broadway shows participate.
Peters has also written two children’s books — “Broadway Barks” and “Stella is a Star” — with illustrations by Liz Murphy. The proceeds, she said, go toward animal adoptions.
Her dog Charlie looks a lot like her dog Kramer, who passed away a few years ago. She traveled all the way to Dalhart, Texas, to adopt Charlie from a nonprofit shelter called Dawgs because he looked so much like Kramer. Pit bulls often are trained for fighting and considered by some people to be inherently dangerous, but Peters said Stella is the ultimate lap dog.
“I was afraid of them years ago,” she said. “I didn’t know. But at the turn of the century they were the family dog. They were called the nanny dog. They were the dog mothers wanted to take care of their babies. And their natural personality is very loving and very curious. And because they’re so easygoing and loving but because they are so easygoing and loving and agile dogs, they were taken and abused and victimized.”
The good news, Peters said, is so many people are eager to adopt pets. The bad news is there’s still such a need for good homes.
“It’s thrilling to get the word out about shelter animals,” she said. “But there’s so much work still to be done in New York and across the country. It’s something I’m passionate about. I think these animals really are here for us.”Onstage
Bernadette Peters appears in concert at 7:30 p.m. Aug. 18 at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts. For ticket information, call 816-994-7222 or go tokauffmancenter.org