I am heartbroken over the news that Bernadette Peters' husband, Michael Wittenberg, was killed in a helicopter crash earlier this week. In a way, I take her loss personally.
I'm going to ramble a bit so please bear with me...
I know it sounds funny to some but I adore Bernadette Peters. In fact, my blog name, Curly McDimple, is lifted from a short-lived off-Broadway show Peters starred in many years ago. I take some ribbing about her sometimes but I'm unapologetic and devout in my belief that this woman is a brilliant force of nature.
I cannot even begin to adequately describe how much I idolized her when I was younger. She first knocked my socks off when I saw Into the Woods in high school. A few years later, she was back on Broadway in The Goodbye Girl and that's when my fascination with this woman really kicked in.
My appetite for information about her was voracious. But she was reticent to talk about herself. She spoke about her work but not herself necessarily. Her life was spent on the stage and that was the only part of herself she was really willing and prepared to share. Personal details were not easy to come by. I wanted to know everything about her but at the time, my resources were limited to scouring the pages of the Daily News and the New York Post every day trying to find her name in bold-faced print. Sometimes I got a tidbit but mostly I was left cursing the fact that I wasn't obsessed with someone a bit more palatable to the gossip pages. It was a tough fascination to foster.
I didn't have much to go on so I treasured my Into the Woods and Sunday in the Park with George cast albums. I listened to them daily and was continually floored by the nuance in her voice combined with the sheer brilliance of Stephen Sondheim's music and lyrics. Peters and Sondheim formed quite a formidable duo. There was a spell in the 1990s when you couldn't swing a dead cat without hitting a Sondheim tribute. I relished that because I knew Bernadette would be in attendance and PBS would be there capturing it for broadcast during annual pledge drives.
My favorite was Sondheim: A Celebration at Carnegie Hall. I sat impatiently through all the appeals for money and performances by Patti LuPone, Glenn Close, Daisy Egan, Karen Ziemba and scores of others. Bernadette didn't appear until the final hour of the broadcast but it was worth the wait. She stood on a darkened stage with that unmistakable hour-glass figure and those teeming curls in silhouette. The lights came up and the image was striking. She looked like she was poured into her long, black gown. Her pale skin practically glowed white in contrast to her scarlet lips and hair.
I held my breath. And then the camera moved in close and just stayed there throughout her interpretation of "Not a Day Goes By" from Merrily We Roll Along. The director rightfully called for a mix of close-ups, slow pans and dramatic fades to punctuate the magic on stage. She finished on a long, cascading note and was met with thunderous applause in Carnegie Hall and goose bumps in my bedroom.
I was on vacation in Florida about 11 or so years ago. I turned on the television in my hotel room to find this Sondheim tribute underway. I was happy to be on holiday but slightly homesick for New York and my beloved theater scene. So I plopped down on my bed and started watching. I changed the channel during one of the pledge breaks and when I flipped back a few minutes later, I was horrified to discover that the local PBS affiliate decided to yank the show in favor of Yanni: Live at the Acropolis. I think the switch was due to lack of interest or something but I can't be sure because my ranting speech about the "uncultured morons in Orlando" totally drowned out the station manager's explanation. Um, no offense, Orlando. It's just that Yanni and his puffy blouses tend to set me off, you see.
I was mostly pissed because they cut away right before Peters' performance. I wanted to see it again. She gets emotional every time she sings but when she tucks into a Sondheim song, she brings it to a whole new level. She contorts her face, throws her head back and rolls it from side to side, clenches her fists and swings her arms far and wide. Her entire body gets in on the act. Her curls rattle and often fall in her face. She sweeps them away but they inexplicably end up there again. She bellows and snarls one minute and then sweetly coos the next. More often than not, she tears up. The whole thing is most definitely theatric. Some think she overdoes it and I agree that it can seem over-the-top, but I don't think her performance is ever fake. She believes what she's singing and she feels it deeply each time.
The quality of her voice is debatable to some. I know several professionally-trained singers who complain that she sings "wrong." They prattle on about her breathing technique and how she loses her voice frequently. But I like that her voice can be hoarse and husky. I think the imperfections make it all the more interesting. I love that her voice gets ragged and coarse in between the soaring high notes. It adds texture.
At the risk of sounding like a total drama queen, Bernadette changed the course of my life. In a roundabout sort of way, she's the reason why I'm here working and writing on the internet. Back when I was foaming at the mouth for Bernadette-related info, I signed up for AOL so that I could access Playbill Online. I saw an ad in Playbill magazine promising active message boards, news, archives, and all the information a theater lover starved for information could possibly want. I can safely say that I was on that site every day chatting with people and exchanging information. I learned a lot about Bernadette -- her background, ex-boyfriends, rumors of ex-girlfriends (gasp!), lesser-known projects, pet causes and all that other fun stuff. I also gained knowledge of an array of plays, musicals, performers, composers, lyricists and playwrights. I was always well-versed in pop culture but through my exposure to Bernadette, I became more well-rounded. Theater was a gateway to dance, opera, avant-garde performance art, etc.
For a time, I was an education major in college. After I did some student teaching, I realized the mistake I was making. I was bored and disenchanted. It was a far cry from the passion I felt when discussing theater, movies, award shows, et al. I knew I could write and make a living at it so I changed my major to Communications/Journalism. As I filled out the necessary paperwork, I totally fancied myself an entertainment reporter specializing in the Broadway scene. Um, that's so NOT what I do now but I did actually work for an industry publication for a few years. However, I soon discovered that I enjoyed theater more as a fan rather than an industry insider so I quit. I bounced around in print for a bit before finding my way into the world of interactive media where I eventually met The Lovely Jess who encouraged me to start this blog. And there you have it.
Life-Changing Issue #2: While I can't attribute my being gay to Bernadette, I can say with confidence that she's somewhat responsible for my finally acknowledging it. I met THE EX through a shared love of her work. What started out as two straight girls with a mutual appreciation for Bernadette, eventually evolved into a passionate and intense romance. The relationship may have ended but that's where my new life began in a sense. I came out to people. I stopped hiding. I'm still secretive in many respects but I don't lie anymore. I reached a new level of understanding and connection with people, in particular the gay boys I had befriended through our mutual Broadway diva adoration. I would have accepted this truth about myself eventually but it was far more entertaining to get here via Bernadette.
Even though I don't technically know her, I'm still saddened by her loss. She gave me so much without realizing it. I've seen her numerous times in person but I can't adequately thank her... and I don't even try because, well, that would be weird and scary. The best I can do is wish her the strength and inspiration she helped me discover.