In December of 1976, a twenty-eight year old Bernadette Peters sat at a vanity in a pink silk robe with a mass of strawberry blonde hair piled on top of her head. Her body is turned away from the mirror and she stares out beyond the darkness into the firmament. Barely moving, she never bothers to wipe away the tears making a path to the floor. She is singing Stephen Sondheim’s “Send in the Clowns.”
It would be another 34 years before she would perform “Send in the Clowns” in its original context, when at age 62 she would play Desiree Armfeldt in the Broadway revival of A Little Night Music. By 1976, she had already received two Tony nominations, and would go on to receive three more nominations and two wins for Best Leading Actress in a Musical for Song and Dance in 1986 and Annie Get Your Gun in 1999. She’d also appear in a number of television shows and films, winning the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy in 1981 for Pennies in Heaven. And in 1995, at age 47, she became the youngest person ever entered into the Theatre Hall of Fame. She had founded a charity, Broadway Barks, to help find homes for animals in shelters.
It was during the next two decades that she would acquire the two monikers that would most define her public persona. One: as the premiere interpreter of the work of Stephen Sondheim. Two: as eternally youthful and adorable, perpetually with an air of innocence, a precocious child in the body of 1920s vamp. In early 2005, when Peters was 57 years old, Linda Stasi, writing in The New York Post about a Happy Days reunion show, opened with the following: “With the possible exception of Bernadette Peters, not everyone stays young and cute forever.” It’s a pithy line, and one that encapsulated the box Peters had been put in for her entire adult life, even while being considered the premier interpreter of the work of contemporary musical theatre’s most sophisticated, most lauded, most game-changing composer.
I first discovered Bernadette Peters when I was an 11-year-old who often skipped school to spend my days in my room with the television turned to TVLand. For a brief period in 1996, TVLand would air syndicated episodes of The Sonny & Cher Show. It was my favorite program. This particular episode was the 1976 Christmas special. Sonny and Cher were divorced, and to an 11-year-old who was raised on old movie musicals and I Love Lucy, trying to solve problems by putting on a variety show seemed like a very logical thing to do. For this episode, a man named Captain Kangaroo and a woman named Bernadette Peters were the special guest stars. The two main sketches that Peters appeared in were “Sonny’s Pizza,” where she played a bass drum player who had lost her marching band and then morphed into The Ghost of Pizza Yet to Come in a dream sequence; and as an aspiring actress who is one of four lonely people in a hotel restaurant on Christmas Eve (She had the line, “I guess if I’m going to be a big star, I have to give up some things”). But the most compelling moment of the episode was Peters’ performance of “Send in the Clowns,” which aired with a pre-recorded insert of her dancing around with clowns and singing Cole Porter’s “Be a Clown.” It sounds absurd. It was absurd. It was also wonderful. To me, sitting on my bed in Ohio, she wasn’t just singing, but evoking an entire landscape—the loneliness of success, the toughness needed to survive, the strangeness of being able to observe life and live it, the split between the public and the private self, the end of Sonny and Cher’s marriage, and some other mysterious thing that she did not want anyone to know. I had never seen anything like it. To me, it was so perfect that it was over a year before I figured out that “Send in the Clown” was, in fact, not written expressly for this purpose nor was it written by Sonny and Cher. It made such an impression that two and a half years later, in the spring of 1999 when I was thirteen, I opened my Playbill at the Broadway revival of Annie Get Your Gun, and thought, “Oh, it’s the woman from Sonny and Cher.”
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