Bernadette Peters Takes Broadway
by Tony Phillips
The ASPCA could take a few lessons from the gays on adopting strays. Whether it’s a pill popping entertainer who receives standing ovations even when she’s too drunk to sing a word or a bleached blonde scamp who came to New York with fifty dollars in her pocket and slept her way to the top. And then there’s Gypsy. In terms of gay icons, this musical is right up there with Judy and Madonna. The unlikely hit opened in 1959 to tell the tale of thrice-divorced stage mother Rose who pushes her talent-free children to the brink of stardom. It’s based on the memoir of her oldest daughter who was known as the celebrated stripper Gypsy Rose Lee and is considered by most to be the ultimate backstage musical. Its former stars — from Ethel Merman to Tyne Daly — would be done proud by its latest opening on Broadway.
The rumblings came fast and furious. The show was a disaster, its star all wrong for the part. Messages flew back and forth on internet Broadway gossip sites. In case that’s not where you get your scuttlebutt, the New York dailies began to relay the story. Before the critics could get in on the action, press seats were politely shifted back a couple of weeks. Everything was being redone, they explained, new costumes being designed, new sets struck. Suddenly, the star fell sick, sending on her understudy in what seemed the death knell of the show. Then opening night arrived. And in a move that smacks of Rose’s gumption, Bernadette Peters triumphed. “Take the hearse back to the garage,” The New York Times crowed, “and start popping the champagne.” The show was a hit. Suddenly nothing that came before mattered.
“I’m not too sure about this one,” Bernadette Peters confesses, “the longest run I ever had on Broadway was two years in Annie Get Your Gun. It didn’t feel like two years. It’s the kind of show you can play. There aren’t any really dark moments like this one so you can stay with it. It’s very singable and didn’t wreck my voice. And it was fun to do, you gave out a lot and the audience gave you back a lot.” Bright red nails are as close as she’s coming to Rose this afternoon, but when asked what she plans to tackle next in the musical theater cannon she admits, “This role probably is the one, I don’t think there’d be anything else that’d be this much fun and this good.” And you could say she’s been preparing her whole life. She’s quick to point out she toured as the understudy to Rose’s youngest daughter Dainty June when she was 13. But did she go on? “I played her a lot,” she laughs, “I was ready.”
13 was also a lucky number for Peters co-star Tammy Blanchard, who won a beauty pageant and landed a manager at that age. “I was going to quit when I was 21,” Blanchard remembers, “I had done a few commercials and was modeling to make money, but not much else was happening. I was going to go back to college and everything. Then I booked Guiding Light and it’s been sailing ever since.” Sailing that garnered her an Emmy for playing the young Judy Garland in Me and My Shadows last year. “I have to play these big desperate roles,” Blanchard explains, “I can’t do anything else. I wish I was born back in the day because I know I’d be a member of MGM.” And though she was acting since childhood, don’t look for a pushy stage mother in her private life. “I pushed my mother into this,” Blanchard laughs. Indeed, the actress just moved out of her childhood home in Bayonne, New Jersey. “I couldn’t take the commute so I moved into the city,” she says. “As a kid I could see right over to the city from my window,” she remembers, “I always wanted to make it in New York.”
Peters, too, grew up in the shadow of Manhattan in Ozone Park, Queens, being shuttled back and forth across the river for signing and dancing lessons. In fact, the two are so similar the only difference seems to be Peters is a dog person while Blanchard has two cats. But even that might be changing. “There’s this little dog Coco in the show that’s taken my heart,” Blanchard gushes, “I want a poodle.” She hardly needs one. Both stars already have a career trajectory that’s enamored them to the gays. Blanchard’s got a Lifetime movie under her belt and Peters has to be gently guided back to the interview after going off on a Gertrude Lawrence tangent. In fact, Peters points to Gay Pride as her favorite holiday in New York. “It’s great because it makes people realize that this is not a mistake,” she explains, “this is just the way people are. That’s really important. And it’s important to have people’s awareness raised.” Blanchard is even more to the point about her gay fanbase. “As long as people love me,” she says, “I don’t give a shit.” But don’t expect any of this to trickle down to the show. “Tyne Daly already did that,” Peters points when asked about real-life lesbian Rose Hovic, “why would we do that again?”
One thing that is reprised is a veritable barnyard of animals in the show. In addition to Coco, who debuts on Peters’ arm as she charges up the aisle in the opening number, there have been a series of four legged actors for Blanchard’s “Little Lamb” solo. “They’re very tricky,” Blanchard says. “The first lamb absolutely adored me, but the second lamb hated me. Everytime she saw me, she’d fart. I’d sing to her and she’d just put her head down. She just didn’t like me. But now we got a new one and she just loves me. She kisses me in the middle of song.” Peters also brightens visibly now that we’re talking animals. No doubt part of the reason Gypsy was booked into the Shubert is because her annual July 12 animal adoption event called Broadway Barks takes place in the alley behind the theater. “I’ve got two dogs!” she shouts about her shelter-adopted family, “one is big, like a Wookie, and the other is a Staffordshire terrier, also known as a Pit Bull. People think they are horrible dogs and it’s not the case. They have a bad rap because they’re the dog of the moment to fight. They’re actually such loyal, wonderful dogs. They follow you around. They’re real people dogs and they love to cuddle. This morning I woke up early and she was exhausted because I got up at five, but she was right by my side.” So Peters sing and dances a Pit Bull all day, then goes home to cuddle one at night. If this story had made the rounds, might it have stopped all the other Gypsy gossip dead in its tracks? “Probably not,” Blanchard answers, “everyone has a job to do and some people’s job is to make trouble.”