Every so often, as Bernadette Peters speaks, an all-too-familiar chime rings out in the background. “You might have heard some dinging, as we were talking,” Peters acknowledges with an endearing chuckle. “There's a WhatsApp where we're all on it...Some of the people are pretty funny on there. It's a lovely company.” She’s speaking about the star-studded cast of Old Friends, the Sondheim revue she is currently starring in the West End.
And while the desire to discuss her most-used emojis is overwhelming, the conversation returns to Stephen Sondheim and how his music, which nightly envelopes the company of Old Friends, is a tie that binds. “We've bonded over this music and how beautiful this experience, how special this piece is,” the Tony Award winner says with reverence. “Because we know you don't get a piece of material like that.”
Old Friends, the piece in question, is a revue honoring the late Stephen Sondheim. Conceived by Sondheim and producer Cameron Mackintosh as a concert—in the spirit of the revues Side by Side by Sondheim and Putting it Together—Old Friends was first performed as a one-night-only event in May 2022. The show—which also stars Lea Salonga, Bonnie Langford, and Joanna Riding—is in the midst of a 16-week run at the Gielgud Theatre in London, set to conclude on January 6. The cast album will be released as a two-disk set December 8.
“This cast have been up and down the West End and they've lived life,” Peters says. “They know when something special comes along. This piece is. We understand our career and life at this point. And we're just chill and fun and bonded and grateful.”
Her gratitude also extends to very dear friends, to whom she entrusted the most precious members of her family. “The only reason I came [to London] to do this show is because my friends came to live in my house and take care of my dogs," she says emphatically.
The timeless Peters is Sondheim's preeminent leading lady. Beginning in 1983 with Sunday in the Park with George, their work together is foundational, a gateway for many musical theatre fans. Originating two Sondheim roles, Dot from Sunday and The Witch from Into the Woods, Peters has gone on to embody three more Sondheim women on Broadway: Rose in Gypsy, Desiree in A Little Night Music, and Sally in Follies. With each partnership, Peters cemented her status as muse, supreme interpreter, and spellbinding chanteuse.
But despite her position in the Sondheim canon, she is humble about the extent of her contribution. “I never say I created anything with him, because I don't feel I collaborated with him,” she explains. “He always said, ‘Content dictates form.’ It seems like Steve approached each show like an actor. I don’t think he wrote to people. I think he wrote to character.”
When gently pressed as to whether or not she had any input on those characters’ personality, emotion, or journey, Peters answers: “Only once. I spoke to him about something with Dot. Because she understands [George] so well, because she loves him so much, she needs to express her feelings about that. Then he wrote ‘We Do Not Belong Together.’ [Dot] was smart enough to know when she had to leave.”
Peters joined Into the Woods late in the process, saying she was the last person who was cast when the show transferred to Broadway. Encouraged by book writer James Lapine to revisit The Witch’s last song, Sondheim presented Peters with “The Last Midnight” at the 11th hour. “I said, ‘Well, you know, I’ll put it in. I’ll be ready in about four days,’” she recalls, beginning to chuckle. “Steve said, ‘No, no, no, you have to put it in tomorrow because the critics are coming!’” She laughs, and her laugh is equal parts angelic and conspiratorial. “So, I had to do it really fast! But it was good, it was fine. It was a better number.”
As much profound sentiment as she carries for Sondheim, Peters' other great passion is animals. She's been bringing out adoptable dogs and cats in West End Woofs (And Meows), the British branch of Peters’ annual adoption event Broadway Barks, now in its 25th year. Whereas Broadway Barks began as a way to support New York area shelters—encouraging adoption, spaying and neutering—the inspiration for West End Woofs (And Meows) came to the singer during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It seemed to be very important for people to have animals,” Peters says of that period of isolation. “They realized the importance of these companion creatures. We really need them in our lives, our companions.”
The adopt-a-thon began virtually, co-hosted with Elaine Paige. The two bonded during the 2011 Broadway revival of Follies. “I’m small, but she’s smaller,” Peters said playfully. “Every night, before I’d go on stage, I’d pass her in the hall, and I’d give her this hug and say, ‘She’s like my little doll.’ Elaine goes, ‘Isn’t that the pot calling the kettle black?’”
A great friendship developed, cemented by a shared love of animals. “She had a little West Highland Terrier named Tum Tugger,” Peters recalls, confirming cheekily that the West End’s original Grizabella did in fact give her dog a Cats name.
West End Woofs (And Meows) had its first live event from St. Paul’s Church in Covent Garden in November. Highlighting the work of UK-based rescues that offer a second chance to furry friends, from eastern European herding dogs to disabled cats, Peters feels passionately about helping animals find their forever home time. As Broadway Barks has become the annual event dog lovers and cat lovers (and Bernadette Peters lovers) await, Peters notes the “loving” shelter community in London has given her a warm welcome, one she “dearly hopes” will blossom into an enduring event.
“These rescues, of these gorgeous creatures from a lot of places in the world, need to have their animals seen,” she says. “They need to be seen. That’s what this is about.”
As Peters has come to learn from Sondheim’s music (more on that in a moment), in everything there is a deeper meaning. One thing is never about what she thought it might be when she set out to do it. This period in London, for example, has Peters working on not one, but two projects inspired by people who have passed. Broadway Barks came about in collaboration with Mary Tyler Moore. Yes, this is the music and the cause of which she’s never tired of. But it's also a way for her to remember Sondheim and Moore. Keep their memory alive.
“Well, it’s quite an honor on both counts,” Peters says thoughtfully. “Mary’s legacy is her television show, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and how she inspired young women who were on their own, trying to make it on their own, in a big city, and she was a great animal activist.” Peters laughs as she remembers how fiercely Moore protected Pale Male, a hawk whose droppings drew the ire of Moore’s neighbors when he nested on top of her apartment building.
“But Steve,” Peters says, her voice softening. “This is his legacy: His music.”
Old Friends is Peters' West End debut. One would imagine there would be some adjustment from the boisterous Broadway audience Peters is accustomed to the more reserved Brits. But she shares she’s never witnessed such a display of emotion from an audience before, leaping to their feet “en masse.” She is also stunned by the diversity of audience members, noticing people of all ages and backgrounds laughing, crying, finding themselves completely arrested by the spectacle and range of emotion.
“They are up and crying,” she says. “There are all kinds of people just connecting to what he writes about—which is the human condition, in all forms, in many ways, and many emotions. And I’m so happy he’s being appreciated, just so happy for him.”
As much as the convergence of West End Woofs (And Meows) and Old Friends is representative of a life well-lived, for Peters, these beautiful experiences also encapsulate the moving nature of being alive.
“It’s about life…written in many layers,” says Peters. Over her decades of singing Sondheim's words, Peters finds her understanding of them, too, deepening—as if with each performance something inside of the song or inside of herself is unlocked.
“I never get tired of singing it,” she says of Sondheim's music. “You’re bringing all of life’s experiences that you’ve gone through. You think, ‘Oh, it’s about this.’ But then you go, ‘Oh, my God, no. It’s about this.’ An uplifting song can be more uplifting, a devastating song can be more devastating, an angry song can be more intense. You bring more information to it.”
And though Peters strives to make everything “as personal” as she can—in each song, in each spoken word of performance—she holds the revelations of this music as something sacred and private. “Everyone in the audience has their meaning for it,” she says when asked to contemplate the meaning of the phrase, “being alive.”
“If you ask anyone, it will be different,” Peters laughs. “So, I don’t actually say I know what’s going on. As long as you feel something, I’ve done my job.”
Peters is doing her job very well. So well, in fact, that Broadway babies of all ages are hopeful Old Friends will come Stateside. When asked about the likelihood of a transfer, Peters practically says with a wink, “You never know!”
At least in Manhattan, her dogs are only a cab ride away.
Below, see exclusive photos of Bernadette Peters, Elaine Paige, and some adorable animals at West End Woofs.