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February 26, 2015

Where the Art Is

Bernadette Peters revels in her new streaming series, which reveals the backstage secrets of the symphony.

Kathleen O'Steen

It's a delicious irony.

In Amazon Studios' Mozart in the Jungle, Bernadette Peters plays the president and chairman of the New York Symphony, a corporate maven who yearns to be included in the orchestra's inner circle of artists.

"Her dream is to be as close to the artists as possible, but she's not one of them, so they hold her at arm's length," Peters says. "Still, she loves the artistry of it."

Of course, the Tony-winning actress is the ultimate insider, inhabiting the inner circle of Broadway nobility for much of her career. She's been called Stephen Sondheim's foremost interpreter, having earned the composer's trust and made leading roles her own in such iconic musicals as Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods,

"I can't take any credit for that," Peters says. "I was just lucky that, since he and James [Lapine] were writing the shows as we were staging them, I could ask him questions. It was kind of like being able to talk to Shakespeare and ask him, 'What did you mean when you wrote that?'"

Peters began her career at age three, performing at Carnegie Hall. By five she was singing on live television ("I remember being paid with a bottle of Hoffman's soda"), and she's not stopped working since.

"This is really all I can do," she says. "I was like a jukebox as a child; I just absorbed music."

Her stage roles have ranged from raucous, to-the-rafters revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Gypsy (critics proclaimed, "[She] banishes all thoughts of Ethel Merman") to more introspective pieces like Sondheim's A Little Night Music, in which Peters replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones to play a fading actress. She brought down the house with that show's soulful "Send in the Clowns," and Variety raved, "What a difference a diva makes!"

Peters recently wrote her first children's book, Broadway Barks, titled after the animal rescue organization that she created in 1999 with Mary Tyler Moore.

But television has been a constant. In addition to Mozart (based on oboist Blair Tindall's tell-all book, Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs, and Classical Music), she's guest-starred on Bravo's Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce and NBC's Smash. In all, Peters has appeared in nearly 50 TV shows, movies and miniseries.

"Performance tends to be more intimate on TV," she says. "I don't have to think as much — I just get to act."

But, that's not all. "I'm so pleased with the way the scripts have evolved on Mozart," she says. "The writing is so original and moving. To take an entire orchestra and have them play in an empty lot in Harlem, with all the neighbors hanging out the windows? That was just remarkable."

The show has also taught this songstress a thing or two about classical music. "Jason [Schwartzman, an executive producer] is very careful in the pieces he chooses for the show," she says. Paul Weitz, Roman Coppola and John Strauss are also executive producers.

Despite her brilliant and varied career, Peters says it's not often that a role evolves into something so personal, it's almost natural. It happened previously, when she was playing Mama Rose in a 2003 Broadway revival of Gypsy.

"We had been playing the roles for a year, and the cast, we all got so used to one another, we really cared about each other. One day one of the young actresses told me that she was no longer acting, that it just came naturally. It was that personal. For me, it's amazing when you can go from being in one moment of performance to the next, of just being."

Photograph by Andrew Eccles

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