Back on Broadway, far from folly

Tripping down Memory Lane. Foreground: Ron Raines as Benjamin Stone; Bernadette Peters as Sally Durant Plummer. Background: Lora Lee Gayer, Nick Verina as their younger selves. Photo by Joan Marcus

Baker’s daughter Bernadette, on roles


A very young woman — a teenaged hick from the stix, as Variety would put it — comes down the aisle from the rear of the theater toward the stage, lugging a suitcase that will turn out to contain not much more than a pair of tap shoes.

Halfway to the stage she stops and looks around with wonder — or worship — in her eyes. This is New York, the big time, a real live theater with real live people — actors! dancers! singers! — putting a show together, up there on that stage, and here she is, daring to try to become one of them, if only as a standby for a standby.

Her name is Ruby.

Well, no it isn’t, really. Ruby is the name of the character, that wide-eyed pure-voiced newcomer she plays in “Dames at Sea” — a little smash-hit Off-Off-Broadway parody of old Ruby Keeler Hollywood musicals — and this, back there in what must have been 1968, is the very first time I have laid my own wide eyes on Bernadette Peters (star-to-be of Broadway stage, big screen, small screen, concert hall, recording studio, a couple of children’s books and a canine cause called Broadway Barks).

Her name isn’t Bernadette Peters either. It is or was, Bernadette Lazzara — the baker Peter Lazzara’s daughter. “He went at 99,” she says with quiet pride — and those stix, or sticks, were all the way out in Ozone Park, Queens, 20 minutes on the subway. Mama Marge (Marguerite) Lazzara had daughter Bernadette going on television at 3 1/2. The kid got her Equity card at nine.

Ms. Peters has appeared in some 15 Broadway musicals, winning two Tony Awards, since “The Most Happy Fella” of 1959 (when she was all of 11) and is now back with her most inspired and inspiring collaborator, Stephen Sondheim — creator among much else of the music and lyrics of “Follies,” the wrenching counter-romantic 1971 work of art that in a sense takes us right back to little Ruby of “Dames at Sea,” walking down the aisle of that theater with her dreams, her suitcase, her tap shoes and her illusions.

More yet, “Follies” takes us back deeper and earlier into the cold reality behind the whole nostalgic Tinseltown era of sweet/sad 1930s showbiz movies best epitomized by Louise Rainer weeping (beautifully) into her telephone in “The Great Ziegfeld” and winning an Oscar in the process.

“I once sat next to Louise Rainer at the Oscars,” says Bernadette Peters over a somewhat more recent telephone. “My mouth just fell open.” It also fell open, she says, “when Cary Grant sat two feet away from me at the opening of ‘Annie’ ” a movie in which she herself co-starred.

Oh, sure, she’s seen “The Great Ziegfeld,” which was made a dozen years before she was born. “That’s what I used to do — run home from school to watch the 4 o’clock movies on television. That’s why I know about Ruby Keeler.”

Bittersweet is one word for the four Stephen Sondheim musicals she’s done to date on Broadway. Unsparing is another word. Or somewhere in between. They are — working backward — “Follies.” “A Little Night Music” (derived from the great Ingmar Bergman film), “Into the Woods” (from Grimm’s Fairy Tales) and, derived from genius and thin air, “Sunday in the Park With George.”

As perhaps a reader can guess, the one that comes closest to sublime, for my money, is — was — 1984’s “Sunday in the Park With George.” (George being Paris pointillist Georges Seurat — and the park being the Grande Jatte that hung on my wall in reproduction all through college).

Bernadette Peters herself was almost ethereal as Dot — Seurat’s model-muse-mistress, and had the glowing, angelic voice to go with it?

It was her first show with Sondheim. How had that come to be?

“I was doing my nightclub act at the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. (Her nightclub act, “Song and Dance,” was presently to win her a Tony Award.) Got a call from James Lapine (writer of the book of “Sunday in the Park.”) He said they were doing a workshop of it. I first met Stephen at rehearsal.

“He gave me some books about Seurat. Showed me the pictures. Told me where the paintings were — in Paris, in London, at the Tate, first room on the right….” Later she went abroad and saw them for herself.

Did she and Sondheim ever fight?

A laugh.  “No.” A pause. “If I had a question, he always had a very good answer.” Pause.  “It was the beginning of a fantastic relationship, a great creative journey.”

She never saw the original (1971) Broadway production of “Follies,” though she’s been to a couple of reincarnations. Her character, Sally Durant Plummer, is a onetime star who’s come back to a reunion “to see if the guy she’s really loved over all these years can respond to her.”

Bernadette Peters, who lost a husband to a helicopter crash and a boyfriend, Steve Martin, to the erosions of time and space, knows something about that.

It isn’t Sally Durant Plummer who has the great song in “Follies” that starts like this:

Good times and bum times,
I’ve seen them all and, my dear,
I’m still here.

Plush velvet sometimes,
Sometimes just pretzels and beer,
But I’m here….

Yes indeed, still here. “I’m now at a point in my life,” says Ruby-Sally-Bernadette Peters, “I understand what those lyrics are all about.”

Book by James Goldman
Score by Stephen Sondheim
Directed by Eric Schaeffer
Choreographed by Warren Carlyle
Music direction by James Moore
At the Marquis Theatre (1535 Broadway)
For tickets ($45-$135), call 800-745-3000 or visit ticketmaster.com
Visit folliesbroadway.com