Bernadette Peters On Fulfilling The Red Dress Of 'Hello, Dolly!'

Feb 17, 2018
Originally published on February 22, 2018 2:13 pm

There's a big, glittering musical in a classic key on Broadway again, where the townspeople of Yonkers sing and dance, the New York Central train toots steam and the audience starts standing in ovation from the moment the big-name star takes the stage.

Bette Midler played that role last year. Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Donna Murphy and many other big Broadway stars have played Dolly Levi in Hello, Dolly! — Jerry Herman's 1964 work which won a record-tying 10 Tony Awards and has become one of America's most enduring musicals. Barbara Streisand played the role on-screen. Louis Armstrong's recording of the title song became the No. 1 hit in U.S. and won a Grammy Award.

Bernadette Peters has seen a few people play Dolly Gallagher Levi.

"One, oh two!" she says. "No, three now. OK, I saw Carol Channing the last time she did it, and was overwhelmed. I was blown away — I just loved, I loved what she did. It was so artful and amazing. And then I saw Bette, who was magnificent ..."

Bernadette Peters, who is herself a Broadway legend, knew she had to step into large, red-sequined shoes when she agreed to play the Yonkers matchmaker and maven of all trades. Peters told us she's learned from all the actors who have preceded her.

"I steal from the best, I always say," she says.


Interview Highlights

How she took on and portrayed the role of Dolly

And then when I took on the role, though, I just — I started from scratch. I read the script, I read The Matchmaker — the play that Mike Stewart wrote [Hello, Dolly!] from — and I found this person, this woman. I found the woman that I would play in it, the Dolly I would play.

Well, she's a widow, and she's a matchmaker but she's also does — she does anything basically because she doesn't want people to know, but she's actually living from hand to mouth since her husband passed away. So she does everything from financial consultation, instruction in the guitar and mandolin, short-distance hauling, varicose veins reduced. But — and she decides that she should get married again to this rich man for his money. But she's already set him up, because she's a matchmaker, with somebody else. But she decides, no, I should marry him. The way Jerry Herman describes it, which is really wonderful — he says she's decided to rejoin the human race, after being in her haze after her husband had died. And the show is all about how she goes about rejoining the human race, which I think is a lovely description.

Why the song "Hello Dolly" seems to affect audiences (and prompt ovations)

Well, I think that's the moment between the audience and the person playing Dolly when you — "thank yous" are going back and forth. I'm thanking them for being there, they're thanking me for being there, for fulfilling that number again, filling that red dress again. I'm happy to be there, and they're happy to have me come down the stairs, to fulfill that moment and that number.

How she finds songs to perform and record

Well, the thing is what happens to me when I'm in shows, and when I'm in the wings — I'm hearing everyone else's songs. And usually I don't end up singing a lot of my own songs that I've sung in the show. I end up singing everyone else's songs.

I sing "Johanna," which is a man's song. But I saw Victor Garber — who's playing opposite me in [Hello, Dolly!] — I saw him sing it originally, which made me love the song so much that I figured out a way for me to sing the song, 'cause I just loved it. And it was inspired by Victor.

On the advice she gives to young performers

Let me just say — the young performers are so talented nowadays. Our, the people in our show — you saw the waiters gallop. How do they dance like that? And then you hear them sing — they have these voices, some of them could be in opera. You can't believe it. And the physicality and the acting — I'm overwhelmed.

But I tell people, young people, to never copy anyone, that's all. You can be inspired by people. I had an acting teacher named David Legrant who always said there's only one of you in the world, so why would you want to copy someone else? The emotion comes out of you, you feel anger only the way you would feel it. And that's what's important — to only let it come out of your originally, and not try to copy anyone else.

Samantha Balaban and Barrie Hardymon produced and edited this story for broadcast. Patrick Jarenwattananon adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

There's a big, glittering musical in a classic key on Broadway now, where the townspeople of Yonkers sing and dance, the New York Central train on stage toots steam and the audience starts standing in ovation from the moment the big-name star takes the stage.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: OK, everyone, house is open.

SIMON: Bernadette Peters has seen a few people play Dolly Gallagher Levi.

BERNADETTE PETERS: One - oh, two - no, three now. OK, I saw Carol Channing the last time she did it and was overwhelmed. I was blown away. I just loved - I loved what she did. It was just so artful and amazing. And then I saw Bette, who was magnificent...

SIMON: Bette Midler probably, who played the role last year - Pearl Bailey, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Donna Murphy and many other big Broadway names have played Dolly Levi in "Hello, Dolly!", Jerry Herman's 1964 musical which won a record-tying ten Tony Awards and has become one of America's most enduring musicals. Barbara Streisand played the role on screen. Louis Armstrong's recording of the title song became the number-one hit in America and won a Grammy. Bernadette Peters, who is her own Broadway legend, knew she had to step into large sequin shoes when she agreed to play the Yonkers matchmaker, maven of all trades. Bernadette Peters told us she's learned from all the actors who have preceded her.

PETERS: I steal from the best, I always say.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Well, what do you learn by watching others do the role?

PETERS: Hopefully, I'm entertained. That's what I learn. And I learn what's entertaining about it. I think when I took on the role though, I just - I started from scratch. I read the script. I read "The Matchmaker," the play that it was - Mike Stewart wrote it from. And I found this person - this woman - I found the woman that I would play in it - the Dolly that I would play.

SIMON: So who is Dolly as you see her?

PETERS: Well, she's a widow. And she's a matchmaker. But she also does - she does anything basically because she doesn't want people to know, but she's actually living from hand to mouth since her husband passed away. So she does everything from financial consultation, instruction in the guitar and mandolin, short-distance hauling, varicose veins reduced. But she decides that she should get married again to this rich man for his money. But she's already set him up - because she's a matchmaker - with somebody else. But she decides, no, I should marry him. The way Jerry Herman describes it, which is really wonderful - he says she's decided to rejoin the human race after being in her haze after her husband had died. And the show was all about how she goes about rejoining the human race, which I think is a lovely description.

SIMON: Yeah. I had never seen a production of "Hello, Dolly!" onstage until I saw you.

PETERS: Really?

SIMON: And I was not prepared for the fact that when we hear that song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Hello, Dolly. Well, hello, Dolly.

SIMON: ...You almost couldn't get through it because of all the ovations.

PETERS: (Laughter).

SIMON: And I looked around. And I was not the only one who had moisture in my eyes. I wonder if you have an idea as to why it affects people so much.

PETERS: I have no idea - "Hello, Dolly!"?

SIMON: Yes.

PETERS: I have no idea except they seem to wait for that number.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HELLO, DOLLY!")

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) You're still glowing. You're still crowing. You're still going strong. We feel the room swaying for the band's playing.

PETERS: Tell me because I have no idea.

SIMON: OK, it ran through my mind, OK, because I was - certainly those ovations were for you. But they were also for Carol Channing. There were also for Pearl Bailey.

PETERS: Yeah.

SIMON: They were also for a feeling that song gives us - a familiarity but a feeling.

PETERS: Well, I think that's the moment between the audience and the person playing Dolly, where you - thank you's are going back and forth. I'm thanking them for being there. They're thanking me for being there, for fulfilling that number again, filling that red dress again. I'm happy to be there. And they're happy to have me come down the stairs...

SIMON: Oh, boy.

PETERS: ...To fulfill that moment in that number.

SIMON: Tricky question - you are one of the great musical stars of all time.

PETERS: Well, thank you.

SIMON: Do the roles begin to run out after a certain point in your life?

PETERS: Probably. I mean, I've done so many of - I've been so fortunate. I've done so many of the great musical roles. There's not many left in musical theatre unless they start writing new ones. But there's always something to do. I'm in a show on Amazon called "Mozart In The Jungle," where I'm having a great time with Malcolm McDowell and Gael Garcia Bernal.

SIMON: Do you have a favorite Bernadette Peters song?

PETERS: No, I sing - you know, I sing so many wonderful songs.

SIMON: Personally, "Being Alive."

PETERS: I love "Being Alive." I love "Being Alive." That's an important message.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEING ALIVE")

PETERS: (Singing) Somebody hold me too close. Somebody hurt me too deep. Still. Somebody sit in my chair and ruin my sleep and make me aware of being alive, being alive.

SIMON: It was - initially in the show company, it was sung by a male.

PETERS: Well, the thing is what happens to me when I'm in shows, when I'm in the wings, I'm hearing everyone else's songs. And usually I don't end up singing a lot of my own songs that I've sung on the show. I end up singing everyone else's song. I sing Johanna, which is a man's song.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHANNA")

PETERS: (Singing) I feel you, Johanna.

But I saw Victor Garber, who was playing opposite me in this - I saw him sing it originally which made me love the song so much that I figured out a way for me to sing the song because I just love it. And it was inspired by Victor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JOHANNA")

PETERS: (Singing) Happily, I was mistaken, Johanna. I'll steal you, Johanna.

SIMON: Is there something you would tell young performers that you wish you'd known when you were 19, 20?

PETERS: I always tell them to never - there's so many talented - let me just say. The young performers are so talented nowadays. Our - the people in our show - you saw "The Waiters' Gallop." How do they dance like that? And then you hear them sing. They have these voices. Some of them could be in opera. You can't believe it. And the physicality and the acting - I'm overwhelmed. But I tell people - young people to never copy anyone. That's all. You can be inspired by people. My - I had an acting teacher named David LeGrant who always said there's only one of you in the world. So why would you want to copy someone else? The emotion comes out of you. You feel anger only the way you would feel it. And that's what's important - to always let it come out of you originally and not try to copy anyone else.

SIMON: So when you get up in the morning these days, are you Dolly?

PETERS: Am I Dolly?

SIMON: Yeah.

PETERS: No, I'm the remnants. I'm the remnants of Dolly, and then I slowly get myself up and ready for - to go to the theatre and do this beautiful show.

SIMON: Bernadette Peters, she's in "Hello, Dolly!" on Broadway now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CALL ON DOLLY")

ENSEMBLE: (Singing) Call on Dolly. She's the one the spinsters recommend. Just name the kind of man your sister wants, and she'll snatch him up. Don't forget to bring your maiden aunts, and she'll match them up. Call on Dolly if your eldest daughter needs a friend. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.