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Bernadette Peters
Photograph: Bryan Levi

Bernadette Peters on Broadway Barks and paying tribute to Stephen Sondheim

Peters is bringing back the massive NYC adoption spectacular this Saturday.

Written by Leigh Scheps

A New York City summer tradition returns in person for the first time since 2018—Broadway Barks, the dog and cat adoption spectacular and fundraiser co-founded by Bernadette Peters and Mary Tyler Moore, is back at Shubert Alley this Saturday.

The adoption event, celebrating its 24th anniversary, was canceled in 2019 due to construction renovations in Shubert Alley, which is the pedestrian walkway between Broadway and Eighth Avenue and connects 44th and 45th Streets. For the last two years, Broadway Barks was held virtually and featured dozens of animal shelters across the country in addition to New York City’s.

RECOMMENDED: Bernadette Peters shares her favorite pet-friendly NYC spots

Peters, who most recently starred in Hello, Dolly! on Broadway has been busy the last few months filming a new series called High Desert starring Patricia Arquette for AppleTV+. Last month, she also performed a tribute to the late composer Stephen Sondheim at the Tony Awards.

But perhaps her biggest and most important role in the last two decades has been helping place 2,000 rescue dogs and cats into loving homes. This year, Peters co-hosts with The Music Man star Sutton Foster. The afternoon kicks off at 3pm with the big adoption event featuring adoptable animals from 21 New York City area adoption agencies and rescue groups along with Broadway’s biggest names who use their star power to help them find loving homes. Hugh Jackman, Jane Lynch, Donna Murphy and Randy Rainbow are among the celebrities who will make an appearance.

Time Out New York spoke with Peters who teased an exciting Broadway performance during Broadway Barks and one of her final conversations with the late composer, Stephen Sondheim.

How excited or anxious are you doing this in person for the first time in four years?

I'm thrilled. I'm so excited. I'm so happy. When those animals come into [Shubert] Alley, they’re just so pure of heart. You can feel it. The whole alley is uplifted. It's just the most beautiful feeling. So everyone will experience that when they come.

What can people who come for the 5 o’clock show expect this year? I saw a few of the Hello, Dolly! dancers post that they're part of the show.

We have a lot of them back. We're going to open with the opening number that we did [for Broadway Barks in 2018] when I was in Hello, Dolly!: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.” [That performance is] on YouTube. It's so thrilling. And really kind of moving in a way. We're going to do that number again because we now seem to always open with a musical number. And, we're Broadway!

Why is it moving?

The number starts and they come out with the dogs and parasols. If you love animals, it just gets very emotional. I just think animals have that effect.

You co-founded Broadway Barks with Mary Tyler Moore in 1999 because you wanted to do something for the animals. But what specifically happened back then that made you launch this organization?

[My late husband Michael Wittenberg and my] dog had passed away and we went to the ASPCA. We were thinking in those days that it was a kill shelter. We didn’t know much. And they said "Oh no, we’re not a kill shelter." So we took Kramer home.

The city shelter has evolved so much in the last 24 years. Back in the day, euthanasia was happening a lot every day and now it's not. That is such a good thing. Now, they’re called Animal Care and Control because they do care and they're doing really wonderful work. Back then they were so crowded. They had cages piled on top of each other in the hallways with little dogs. They had a lot of purebred dogs, which they still have. They had poodles. They had Italian Mastiffs. They had Cocker Spaniels. I thought they needed help. So, I went to Mary who was a great animal lover. If you remember, she was saving Pale Male the red-tailed hawk on the top of her building on Fifth Avenue. I went to our stage managers and they said it was a great idea. I had to call the Shuberts – Jerry Schoenfeld. All he wanted to know was what was going to happen to the poop. I said don’t worry there will be people in charge of that. Then Broadway Cares said let us help you. So, Tom Viola stepped up to help us produce this every year.

What do you feel has been the lasting impact that you've seen from Broadway Barks since 1999, especially in the shelters in New York City?

Back then, we only had six shelters [be part of Broadway Barks]. I called all the rescue groups that were doing it themselves. These were grassroots rescue groups that took it upon themselves to foster these dogs. Back then people thought there was something wrong with rescues—that they were throwaways—which is so off the mark, I can't even believe I heard that come out of somebody's mouth. No, they were just homeless animals. I always thought these animals were not here by accident. They serve a greater purpose. I think they showed what the need was when the pandemic happened—how many lives they saved, the people who were stuck at home all by themselves, people living alone, that needed this loving presence in their lives.

I’ve heard you mention during the virtual Broadway Barks over the last two years that you talked to your dogs in the pandemic. Do you think they saved your life in the pandemic?

Definitely. And I had nature. It was summer, thank goodness, so I could go outside on my roof.

Bernadette Peters
Photograph: Bryan Levi

How did it feel performing the tribute for Stephen Sondheim at the Tony Awards?

I felt privileged that I could honor Steve in that way. All I really wanted to do was present the song with as much intention as what he wrote. Because those are important lyrics with an important message. He never, never, never wanted his lyrics to preach to an audience. He hated that. And they don't preach. They just lay it out there for you to just think about. And I was really honored to be there to be able to sing it.

Do you think it gave you a sense of closure at all?

Oh, no. It just keeps things open. There is never closure with his music. I want to sing it forever.

What do you recall of your last conversation with him?

He was having trouble seeing and he was going to have to learn how to write on a computer. I think in a way he was wondering about that. He was writing that last show [Square One].

That you did a workshop with Nathan Lane.

I did, yeah. That was wonderful to be able to do. I am glad I did that. We basically chit-chat. I would ask his advice about something so I always called him just to see how he was and that kind of stuff.

Do you think that the public will get to see that show that you did the workshop with?

I really don't know. I sure hope so.

Speaking of shows, is there a composer you'd like to work with if you had the chance?

Lin [Manuel Miranda.] Hip-hop is not my thing, but I loved what he did with tick, tick…Boom!

That must have been so incredible to go back to that time period of your life.

I called Steve because to me, the original song is holy, so to speak. I said, "Do you know this and is it a parody?" But he said he knew exactly what it was and he gave me his blessing to do it. I had to relearn the song because the melody is a bit different. But I have to tell you something, doing that one also became very special also because Jonathan Larson is no longer with us. To have his dream come true on the screen with all those Broadway celebrities—all those people that he yearned to have been in his shows was a very moving moment. How do you get two moments like that out of that song and [the movie] version of the song?

But I thought only moments happen in the woods?

[laughs] That’s right.

What was your retrospective seeing it all complete?

I thought the number was great. I loved working with Andrew [Garfield]. He's a magnificent actor. There’s another person I’d like to work with. We were also happy to be there. Instead of having us crowded together, [Lin] shot two at a time. We were being very cautious. There was a COVID cop who wouldn't let us talk to each other. We had to have conversations yelling at each other while standing 6-feet apart.

My last question is a fun one. If there is a best theater-themed name for an adopted pet, what would you name it?

I always name my pets people names like Gladys or Joanne. But Blackout or Shubert!

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