Stephen Mosher On Bernadette Peters
I spend a lot of time on my social media extolling the raptures that live in my heart and my head for Donna Murphy, Joanna Gleason, Anita Gillette, Karen Mason, Judi Dench…. My friends who are beloved stars and geniuses of the artistic community. Also, I talk a lot about my abject adoration for my divas Liza Minnelli and Deborah Cox, Helen Reddy and Chita Rivera — and oh, so many others. I love my divas. I adore them, as every gay man does, even the ones who say they don’t.
But this week I was reminded of how much Miss Peters has meant to me in my life. It’s true, she is a star, a talent, a beauty, a treasure. And she always has been, dating back to her early days on The Carol Burnett Show and in Steve Martin movies. It was, though, in college when I first saw what would be my favorite musical for my entire adult life, Sunday in the Park with George, on PBS that she became like the air I breathe. Her acting skills were so in touch with what was in my heart that I had no choice but to crack my heart open so I could get the emotions out where they belong. She was, simply, that special, that luminous that I had to pledge eternal love to the lady.
When I was getting ready to move to New York I saw her on PBS on a Sondheim special and her beauty and talent were so heartbreaking that anytime a person asked me “what are you going to do in New York?” I said to them “I’m going to photograph Bernadette Peters”. In 23 years I have seen every Broadway performance she has given (I arrived post The Goodbye Girl but have seen everything after) and I always marvel at how in touch she is with her emotions, with the role and with the ability to communicate to the audience. As Desiree Armfeldt, her performance was a master class in technique. There are people who say funny things and people who say things funny. Only Bernadette Peters could take the line “I’ve got to do Hedda for a week in Helsenborg” and make an audience laugh.
This summer I began watching the TV show The Good Fight and there she was, proving, yet again, that she is skilled an actor as anyone that people call “the best”. It’s all there, on her face, every emotion, washing over that skin, unmarked by time or the sun. It reminded me of her episode of Grey’s Anatomy and the raw vulnerability of the moment when she asked Kathy Baker “Eleanor…have you been sleeping with my husband?”. Heartbreak. So, as if The Good Fight weren’t enough, once we finished with that series my husband introduced me to Mozart in the Jungle.
It’s been a long time since episodic television had this kind of reaction on me. Jumping out of my seat, snapping my fingers, raising my hands, cheering and crying. Thinking about it the day after. Anticipating the next episode I would watch. And, in each episode, sighing over her performance and that amazing physical beauty. It has been an astonishing ride, these last two weeks, with The Maestro and his family of crazy, wonderful, magical musical creators and devotees.
And there is this…
I am getting ready to make my nightclub debut, not just in New York but anywhere. It has, long, been a dream of mine to sing in public but I have always had terrible stage fright, based on the number of people, over the years, who have told me, to my face, what a shitty singer I was. People I loved, who told me they loved me, who made fun of me, who picked it apart when I sang, who took the joy away from me with their unfeeling, ungenerous words. I have, long, wondered what people are thinking when they say things like some of the things they have said to me. In recent memory I have made a miracle: I have taught myself how to not take things personally. Now when people say things like that I don’t react emotionally; I say to them “Let’s look at that sentence scientifically — it gives every appearance of being a sentence designed to hurt me. Was that your intent?” I no longer give people the power to hurt me, to diminish me or to remove from my life something that gives me joy. So I decided to sing. Out loud. In public. I got Sidney Myer to book me into Don’t Tell Mama. I got three musicians, a musical director, a director. I put together an act. I, a man who has not been a member of the performing community in twenty seven years and a man who has NEVER sung in public, was primed to do sixty minutes of singing and story telling. Panic stricken I turned to Youtube to see what people standing in front of a microphone do.
Michael Buble and David Campbell were no help at all. They are so confident as to come across as cocky. They get up onstage and swing and belt and twist and shout. That isn’t me. The cabaret divas like Marilyn Maye and the concert legends like Liza Minnelli park and bark. They are all great story tellers, each in their own way, but I can’t do it like them. How would I do it? What would be my style? I, first, found the answer in my own friend, Donna Murphy. There is a Youtube video of her performing The Stars and the Moon at a night of Jason Robert Brown songs and, watching her do that song, I saw what I needed to do. Just tell the story. The name of my show is The Story Teller, after all. Just tell the story.
Then it happened.
In episode 203 of Mozart in the Jungle Gloria Windsor lets Maestro Rodrigo know that, at one time, she was a singer. He encourages her to go out on a limb and raise her voice in song once more. In episode 204 she does just that – at an open mic night in a nightclub. The performance is so contained as to shock. Bernadette Peters stands completely still for the first two verses of Come On A My House. She tells the story with her face. When she begins to move, it is as though a tidal wave has begun – but a tidal wave within control. She moves about the stage and the room, using her voice, her face, her body, her entire being to tell the story. I watched the scene over and over, studying her excess within control. It wasn’t just Miss Peters’ performance, containment, inspiration – it’s Gloria’s willingness to take herself out of her comfort zone. As I watched the episode I was 22 days away from going further out of my comfort zone than I had ever gone in 53 years. It was Gloria Windsor who inspired me to get up the next day and practice harder and more fervently to deliver a good performance at my debut. Imagine my delight when, in episode 310 this character and the actress bringing her to life gave me further inspiration.
Bernadette/Gloria stood before her love and opened a vein. In her nightgown and robe she stood and allowed her famous conductor boyfriend to watch her sing for him. This A cappella performance was deafening in its’ quietness. It was so shy and timid as to be thunderous. It was so heartfelt and vulnerable as to be Herculean. It was a moment so raw, so real, so honest as to show me, once more that it will not matter when I didn’t make a pitch during a performance (a problem Bernadette/Gloria did not have – all her pitches were perfect) – all that would matter was the honesty of the storytelling happening up on the stage at Don’t Tell Mama.
In 1993 Bernadette Peters inspired me to come to New York to pursue my dream of photographing celebrities; and while I never got a studio shoot with her I did get to make photos of her in performance, which is enough.
In 2017 Bernadette Peters inspired me to raise my voice in order to tell stories with music.
If I don’t owe her a debt of gratitude I just don’t know good manners.