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Bernadette Peters: The audience is a willing collaborator

I have a confession: I've had a crush on Bernadette Peters since I saw her in "Song & Dance," a bipolar musical in which she sang the song "Capped Teeth and Caesar Salad." She also sang the lovely "Tell Me on a Sunday" in that show, about how she preferred to be broken up with. Not that I would ever have broken up with her. And then, when we spoke for this story in 2005, and I learned she had named one of her dogs Kramer, I knew we might have had something really special.

When Peekskill's Paramount Center for the Arts opened its doors as a movie palace on June 27, 1930, Stephen Sondheim was three months old and Bernadette Peters wasn't even a twinkle in her father's eye.

On Saturday, Bernadette Peters will stand in front of a 27-piece orchestra at the Paramount and sing Sondheim, among others. If the program is heavy on Sondheim, it's understandable: The two have a professional relationship of long standing - "Sunday in the Park with George," "Into the Woods," and the revival of "Gypsy," for which Sondheim wrote the lyrics.

Besides, why not honor two 75-year-olds - the Paramount and Sondheim - in one concert?

Peters is as close to Broadway royalty as they come these days. When the people behind this year's Tony Awards needed a recognizable Broadway face to open the telecast, it was Peters' phone that rang.

Her turn as Momma Rose in "Gypsy" won universal raves from critics, and a Tony nomination. She's won the Tony twice: In "Annie Get Your Gun," Peters shed new light on another character created by Ethel Merman - Annie Oakley; in Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance," she played an English girl transplanted to Hollywood. She was the doomed movie star Mabel Normand in Jerry Herman's doomed "Mack & Mabel."

Saturday's show fits into her dozen-date concert tour that began in January in Florida, took Peters to California, Boston and Houston and resumes in the fall in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania.

Calling from her Manhattan apartment - with her dogs, Kramer and Stella, howling nearby - she chats on a variety of topics: Saturday's show, two upcoming albums, making a TV pilot with Christine Baranski, singing again with "Sunday in the Park" co-star Mandy Patinkin, and Broadway Barks, a group she founded with Mary Tyler Moore to help find homes for animals in New York City shelters.

Peters says "there was something in the air" on Dec. 9, 1996, when she made her Carnegie Hall debut in a benefit for Gay Men's Health Crisis. The result was a 1997 album, "Sondheim, Etc.," that included mostly Sondheim: "No One Is Alone" (from "Into the Woods"), "Johanna" (from "Sweeney Todd") and "Being Alive" (from "Company"). But some songs couldn't make it onto the 1997 disc and those cuttings are back in "Sondheim, Etc., Etc. - Bernadette Peters Live at Carnegie Hall (The Rest of It)" (Angel Records, due Aug. 2). The CD includes "Unexpected Song," from "Song and Dance," "Children Will Listen" from "Into the Woods," and others. And proceeds from this CD, like those for the original Carnegie Hall concert, go to support Gay Men's Health Crisis.

Many of these songs will be on Saturday's program, Peters says, along with "Fever." (She won't say whether she'll climb up on the piano for that Peggy Lee number.)

Keeping it fresh

Peters says that even after singing these songs hundreds of times - she first sang "Sunday" from "Sunday in the Park with George" a dozen years ago - they're still fresh in a concert performance, thanks to the audience.

"It's really a moment of what's going on with the character at that time. Sometimes it's a little play. Sometimes it's singing right to the audience or telling them what I'm feeling or what the song is about. Or something they should think about."

Peters, who divides her time between New York and Los Angeles, recently shot a pilot for an ABC sitcom, "Adopted," "which did not sell - the way of many pilots. It's funny, because I did it with Christine Baranski, and she said, `Oh, yeah, a lot of them don't sell and you can't take it personally.' And I didn't. But I realized it was fun, so at least I know I like the (sitcom) format."

She'll next turn her attention to a new album - "more straightforward with a jazz trio."

She's listening to CDs to find the right mix of "classic songs that have great lyrics without a lot of instrumentation around them."

She had sort of a warm-up for that style of singing recently when the Museum of Television & Radio invited her to sing at an event honoring Merv Griffin.

"He wanted me to sing the song I sang the first time I was on his show; it was `You'll Never Know.' When I first did it I had an orchestra, but here we had a trio. When the music started, it was like, `Oh! This is redesigning it, rethinking it and this is nice.'

"When it starts, with the bass, you kind of fall into this other place, it's just the song and what it's saying ... and it just comes out different than when you're in front of a big orchestra."

The jazz CD is in the works, but a children's disc Peters recorded with "Sunday" co-star Mandy Patinkin is in stores now. The CD comes with the children's book "Dewey Doo-it Helps Owlie Fly Again" and benefits the Christopher Reeve Foundation. The story and songs are loosely based on Reeve's paralysis and rehabilitation. Peters says it was great to reconnect with Patinkin.

A pet project

Another cause near to Peters' heart is Broadway Barks, now in its seventh year of finding homes for pets from New York City's animal shelters. She and co-founder Mary Tyler Moore gather scores of Broadway stars in Shubert Alley, between 44th and 45th streets, between Broadway and Eighth Avenue.

The event, this year on July 30, takes place between the Saturday matinee and the evening show. Stars "present" shelter animals and people in the crowd bid on them. So far, Broadway Barks has helped more than 300 pets find permanent homes.

"The whole Broadway community comes out between shows. It's become theirs. They love it. And it's like pet therapy. You go back to your show on a high because you've been with this sweet animal all afternoon."

The money is split among the shelters, but it's not really about the money, Peters says. It's about making people aware of "how great the animals in the shelters are and that we should think of that first before going anyplace else."

On Saturday, in Peekskill, she'll be making people aware of how magical one voice can be on a 75-year-old stage singing songs by a 75-year-old theatrical icon.

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