NEW YORK — A little bit of Stephen Sondheim may have rubbed off on Bernadette Peters.
Peters, one of the composer's most skilled interpreters, has lately done some Sondheim-like moonlighting — creating songs for her children's books. She's the lyricist and songwriter for two tunes so far, both on CDs packaged with the books.
That begs a question: Has she sent them to Stephen Sondheim?
"No!" she says quickly, almost squeaking it out. "They're not masterpieces. He slaves over his stuff and works really hard on it. They ARE masterpieces. This is not the same thing at all, in any way shape or form. It's like saying, 'Hey, Steve. Check this out! You think you're a writer? I'm a writer!' I would never do that!"
Peters may be demure about her songwriting, but there's no denying her love of Sondheim. This month marks her second appearance in a Broadway revival of one of his musicals in little more than a year.
Peters plays Sally Durant Plummer, a former Ziegfeld-style showgirl now wasting away in an unhappy marriage in the revival of Sondheim's 1971 musical "Follies." It's her sixth Sondheim musical.
"I'm always looking for great material. I love his material. He always writes about interesting things. You go, 'Well, this is about something.' Then you realize, 'No, no, no. It's about SOMETHING,'" she says, laughing.
In an interview in her dressing room at the Marquis Theatre, Peters sips green tea and looks arresting in a pair of tight black jeans and a black cowl neck sweater, her corkscrew red curls framing milky skin. She's the hippest-looking 63-year-old you'll likely ever meet.
New York-born Peters is in the midst of a darkly dramatic streak. Last summer, she replaced Catherine Zeta-Jones in "A Little Night Music" on Broadway, crying nightly as she sang of her character's unrequited love in "Send in the Clowns." Now she's singing the show-stopper "Losing My Mind" in "Follies."
Also this month, she's in a bleak little movie by Lisa Albright making its world premiere at the Woodstock Film Festival — "Coming Up Roses," the story of a stage mother who pushes her daughter.
Peters, who has two Tony Awards for Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Song and Dance" and Irving Berlin's "Annie Get Your Gun," says she tries to alternate dark roles with light ones, but keeps finding meaty parts that she can't turn down. "I pray for the moments — those moments that surprise you," she says.
To try to get inside the head of a middle-aged housewife pinning for lost love, Peters says she studies the script, talks to Sondheim and tries to catch the vibe that is Sally.
Eric Schaeffer, who is directing Peters, says Peters has nailed it. "She has a fragility about her Sally that is unlike any I've ever seen," he says. "She makes the part her own in a way that I think you haven't seen before, which is exciting."
In her dressing room, she has brought three big tacky mugs decorated with birds and flowers that are each labeled "Believe," ''Faith" and "Dream." Peters describes them as "very Sally" — part earnest, part delusional. After a recent performance, Sondheim said to her, "Congratulations, you're a little crazy."
Sondheim can say that — after all, the two go back a long way. The actress — together with her sister and mother — was in a national tour of "Gypsy" in 1961 when she was 13. She later originated the roles of Dot/Marie in Sondheim's "Sunday in the Park With George" and the Witch in his "Into the Woods" on Broadway in the 1980s.
She sang in "Anyone Can Whistle" at Carnegie Hall in 1995 and stepped into the formidable role of Mama Rose in the 2003 Broadway revival of "Gypsy," the same musical she had played as a teen. Many of her recordings have a Sondheim connection.
"She does have such a connection to Steve's work that a lot of artists never get or take years and years and years to try to have," says Schaeffer. "His words and music are so layered and textured. The great thing is that Bernadette can bring all of that out. And she does."
Where Peters goes into her head when she channels anguish is known only to her. She's very guarded about her private thoughts and politely evades personal questions about what she draws on to be able to cry so freely.
"You pray that you can find the heart of the character. You just pray that you can experience what this character's experiencing and bring it to the people," she says. "Do you find out a lot about yourself? I certainly do. And I find that really interesting. You know, Mama Rose to me was like the deepest therapy I ever had."
When Peters isn't belting out Sondheim, she can be found with her two dogs and cat on the Upper West Side. Her love of animals led her to co-create with Mary Tyler Moore the charity Broadway Barks, which tries to find homes for abandoned pets.
Peters says it's great to see "Follies" back in New York in a lush, $7 million production: This one has 41 people on stage and 28 musicians in the orchestra pit. "Where's a New York audience ever going to get the chance in this economic time to see like this again?" she asks.
Unlike some purists who see danger in the recent rise of theatrical spectaculars like "The Lion King" and "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," Peters isn't worried. She thinks there will always be room for a little Sondheim on Broadway.
"I bet that some of those kids that see 'Spider-Man' are going to want to go to the theater again. And as their tastes evolve, they're new theatergoers," she says. "Entertainment is entertainment. It just has to be pure. It has to be honest."