Bernadette Peters Is Not a Child

Bernadette Peters at microphone
Walter McBride/Getty Images

Even Bernadette Peters, as talented and beloved and powerful as ever, has been underestimated for decades as eternally cute and impossibly naïve.

In honor of Peters’ 70th birthday, Victoria Myers — editor of The Interval, a website dedicated to promoting gender parity in theatre — celebrates Peters’ unparalleled career in Hollywood and on Broadway by lovingly recreating her extraordinary life story in one definitive profile.

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.

Stephen Holden, in The New York Times, wrote of the Carnegie Hall concert, “The chemistry between the voice of the wise child and the lyrics of Broadway’s ultimate sophisticate filled the hall with a profoundly bittersweet feeling of lessons learned on roads long traveled.” She had worked hard at her job for over three decades and had fought for her accomplishments, and at 46, it all congealed around the same language that had been used to describe her since she was 18.

It didn’t occur to me to ever label her as innocent or childlike or cute — even at thirteen I knew that calling an adult woman any of those things was degrading — as that simply wasn’t what I heard or saw.

Re-watching her 1976 performance now I see no marks of childishness. For all of the number’s absurdity, it is not without sophistication. The stillness, the lack of self-consciousness, the way she never seems to ask anyone for approval. To me, then and now, this is the opposite of being a waif. I revisited a number of her older performances and practically all of them are free of those characteristics.

And maybe this is something Bernadette Peters learned early: how people put women in a box and want them to stay there, and act the way that type of woman is supposed to act and look the way that type of woman is supposed to look and say the things that type of woman is supposed to say. And people have never liked it when women break out of those boxes and break the rules that have been set up for them, because it forces people to change the stories they’ve been telling not only about those individual women, but the stories they tell about themselves.

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