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Music Memories: Happy Birthday, Bernadette Peters!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Actress and singer Bernadette Peters

Bernadette Peters was born on February 28, 1948. For 50 years, Peters has been a star of musical theater, critically praised as one of the best singers and actresses of her era.

Peters broke into show business early. When she was only three-and-a-half, she was appearing on episodes of Juvenile Jury, a game show in which young children offered advice to other kids. By thirteen, she had a small role in a national tour of Gypsy.

She made her Broadway debut in 1967, in a play that lasted for only one performance. She had better luck the next year with her first Broadway musical; George M !, the story of early-20th-century Broadway star George M. Cohan, ran for a year. Peters proved that she was ready for starring roles with her next show, the off-Broadway smash Dames at Sea, a parody of 1930s movie musicals about the young girl from nowhere who becomes a star overnight.

Over the next several years, Peters appeared in several unsuccessful shows. A musical adaptation of the Fellini film La Strada closed after one performance; some shows never even made it to New York, failing in out-of-town tryouts. A 1971 revival of On the Town ran for only two months, but Peters was impressive enough to earn her first Tony nomination.

Perhaps the biggest disappointment of this era was Mack and Mabel, which ran for two months in 1974. Peters starred with Robert Preston; they played Mabel Normand and Mack Sennett, a real-life silent film actress, and her lover/director. Jerry Herman's score was lovely, and the cast recording has a devoted cult following, but the tragic story of Normand and Sennett wasn't well-suited to musical comedy.

Peters spent the next decade working primarily in film and television. She starred in a sitcom, All's Fair, which the critics liked, but the public didn't; it was canceled after one season. She made a pair of popular movies with her romantic partner at the time, Steve Martin—The Jerk and Pennies From Heaven, for which she won a Golden Globe Award.

She also made a rare venture into the world of pop music, releasing a solo album in 1980. It was an eccentric mix of Tin Pan Alley standards and contemporary rock songs, but the critics praised it, and the single, "Gee Whiz," made it into the top 40 of the pop charts.

Peters returned to Broadway musicals in 1984 and began an impressive run of classic performances. She starred in two Stephen Sondheim musicals, Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods, and won her first Tony Award for her one-woman performance in the "song" half of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Song and Dance. The Broadway productions of both Sunday and Woods were filmed for television.

The 1993 musical The Goodbye Girl, adapted by Neil Simon from his screenplay, was less successful, though as always, Peters received glowing reviews. It is the last original musical Peters has appeared in.

Since the late 1990s, Peters has focused on revivals, playing some of the most iconic starring roles in Broadway history. She's played Annie Oakley in Annie Get Your Gun, Mama Rose in Gypsy, and Sally in Follies.

Most recently, Peters starred for four years in the TV series Mozart in the Jungle, and in 2018, took over from Bette Midler in the recent revival of Hello, Dolly!