Catch celebrated stage and screen star Bernadette Peters by phone on a Saturday afternoon, and the three-time Tony winner is liable to be distracted by her pooch, Charlie, a wirehair pointer-Labradoodle mix.
“She’s a rescue dog, and she just perked up because I called her name,” Peters said recently from her New York apartment. “I was just exercising and talking to a dog rescuer. That’s one of my passions. I’m always on the altar about that.”
Peters, who comes to the Ordway Center in St. Paul on Saturday for a concert, was recognized in 2012 with her third Tony, this one for her work with Broadway Barks, a charity she founded in 1999 with fellow performer Mary Tyler Moore to encourage the adoption of shelter dogs.
But the legendary Broadway Baby, who turned 67 on Feb. 28, won her first two Tonys for her singing and acting. With a voice variously described as buttery and lemony, she has played coquettes for 50 years.
When she comes to the Twin Cities, her first appearance since a gig with the Minnesota Orchestra in 2010, she will be singing numbers by her favorite composer.
“Yes, I’ll be doing Sondheim,” she said.
Stephen Sondheim is beloved, if notoriously difficult. Mastering his work requires skill and stamina. Peters is considered the foremost interpreter of Sondheim, and has starred in his “Gypsy,” “Follies,” “Sunday in the Park With George,” and “Into the Woods.”
“He may have a strange note here or difficult passage there, but the music and lyrics are always perfect for the characters he writes,” she said. “Everything Steve writes makes sense. If you have to sing an odd intonation, it’s something from the soul of that character.”
Born for show business
Peters came out of the womb ready for her close-up.
“I was always dancing to the shows on TV, and singing along, and my mother saw that, so she put me in classes,” she said.
Born Bernadette Lazzara to Italian-American parents Peter and Marguerite Lazzara, Peters was raised in Ozone Park, Queens, New York, an upbringing that still colors her syllables. She took the first name of her father, a delivery truck driver, as her surname when she joined Actors’ Equity, the professional union, at age 9.
“When I was young, I took one of those tests that tell you what you might be good at in the future,” she said. “I only had aptitude for the arts, and for hygiene.”
When she was 3½, her mother got her a spot on “Juvenile Jury,” a TV show in which a panel of kids solved one another’s problems.
At 13, Peters traveled the country in “Gypsy.” That show, about a stage mother who pursues her frustrated dreams of acting through her child, was apt. Her own mother wanted to be an actress but was discouraged by her parents.
Peters’ mother was such a champion of her early promise that she embellished Peters’ bio. She is listed as playing Dainty June in that “Gypsy” tour, but she played a lesser role, “one of the blonde girls,” the actor said.
“She was looking out for her daughter, and helping the career along,” Peters said. “I’ve apologized to the girl who played that role.”
Her eureka moment, such as it is, came as a teenager, when she was studying with a voice teacher.
“I realized that this is where I could put all those feelings I was having,” she said. “It was very fulfilling.”
But she also needed tenacity. Her first five Broadway shows were flops.
“Everyone has a slump,” she said. “You go on.”
Her luck changed in 1972, when she was nominated for her first Tony for “On the Town.” She would later win for her performances in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Song and Dance” in 1987 and the 1999 revival of “Gypsy,” in which she played Mama Rose.
Peters also has had a film career, including playing a secretary in 1972’s “The Longest Yard” and starring as a prostitute in Herbert Ross’ 1981 hit, “Pennies From Heaven,” for which she won a Golden Globe. (Peters dated her “Pennies” co-star Steve Martin for four years.)
Recently, she has played the chairwoman of an orchestra board in the Amazon Web series “Mozart in the Jungle.”
“It has really good writing,” she said.
Music as sanctuary
Peters was in a chatty mood after a week of rehearsals in preparation for her Minnesota engagement. And how does she keep up her instrument?
“It’s important to exercise,” she said. “I sat next to Dr. Oz at an event recently, and he stressed that exercise is the key to longevity. Your voice is a muscle, too. It’s your throat and all that. I still take singing lessons.”
Asking her to name her favorite Sondheim tracks is like asking a parent to list a favorite child (Peters has none). She demurs at first, but then mentions “Children Will Listen” and “No One Is Alone,” both from “Into the Woods.”
“Those are beautiful and thematically resonant at the moment,” she said.
Peters can talk music and musical theater all day, but she has other terrestrial interests. In addition to help with rescue dogs — she founded the benefit Broadway Barks, which raises funds — she also likes to garden. Her apartment has a large terrace overlooking the Hudson River, with an arbor that comes alive with wisteria in the summer. It’s a place of refuge and quiet in the bustling city.
“I call it my secret garden,” she said. “I like to escape there.”
“That’s what I get out of this music, too,” shes aid. “We get to escape a little.”