I met Bernadette Peters once.
In my head, that sentence sounds very “Marley was dead: to begin with.” Actually, as I prescribe primarily to The Muppets Christmas Carol, it sounds very “The Marleys were dead: to begin with,” but whatever. I met her at a cabaret for a singer I’d become friendly with since featuring him in my magazine.
The first time I saw Bernadette perform was in the big-budget revival of Broadway classic Follies. It also happened to be the Opening Night performance of the show, something I’d lucked into attending. Having never been to an Opening Night of anything before, I arrived early to take it all in. I love watching red carpets on television but here I had the added benefit of discovering if people looked the same in person as they do on TV. It was also the night which proved to me that Barry Manilow isn’t claymation. He is, in fact, a real person.
In the show, Bernadette sang the torch ballad “Losing My Mind,” and while it may seem silly, to a boy from Texas who didn’t even visit New York until he was 21-years-old, hearing her sing one of musical theatre’s most beloved standards during an Opening Night performance was the sort of out-of-body experience I never imagined I’d have. I also was taken by the unique swell of energy in the room. I’d seen plenty of Broadway shows, but on an Opening Night, there’s a fusion of anticipation and excitement that creates a really cool stew. That and people clap more, which is something that really should happen more often outside of theaters. We’d be a happier people if we clapped for each other more.
One of the first things I learned when I moved to New York was to scan the room. There’s no telling who will be seated near you at a concert, a show, or on the subway. For example, I once spotted Perez Hilton sitting in the back corner of a black tie event wearing shorts and a baseball hat. Another time, at an Adam Lambert concert, I looked to my right and saw I was shoulder-to-shoulder with the incredibly tall singer Betty Who. Who knew?! (Wordplay!) In my commutes on the train, I’ve sat next to Cynthia Nixon, held onto the same pole as David Hyde Pierce and stood awkwardly next to John Goodman. Even at the opening night of Follies, I shared an armrest with Patrick Page who was at that time, starring in the much talked-about Broadway musical Spider Man. You just never know who is going to wind up around you.
In scanning the small club before my friend’s cabaret, I saw many Broadway faces peppered throughout the audience, but the most noticeable (and audible) was Elaine Stritch. A stage icon, she held court in her booth like the brassy, magnificent woman she was, cheering on the performer and even talking to him mid-show by shouting over the top of the audience. It was interruptive and fabulous. But in continuing my scan of the room, I saw that in the booth next to Elaine sat Bernadette Peters.
Beyond Follies, I’d seen her off stage once before, at another cabaret actually, when she sat directly in front of me. I know this because her famously curly hair obstructed my view, a story I would tell at parties for weeks. I didn’t meet her that night because I didn’t know exactly what I would say to her or why I would say it, so I left her alone. Yet on this night, when the cabaret ended and I put on my coat to leave, my friend who’d joined me for the show said he wondered if we could meet Bernadette. She was still sitting in her booth and he began blabbering on about how she was his favorite and he’d never been able to meet her and how he wanted to but didn’t want to be a pest. At some point, I cut him off and responded, “Okay, so let’s go meet her. It’s not like she’s Obama. We can just walk over there.”
To be fair, for many musical theatre lovers, Bernadette Peters might just be Obama-adjacent, but the truth was, we were in a small club in the basement of a building and most of the people in attendance were friends of the performer. That and she just sat there talking to whoever walked up. So why shouldn’t we be those people?
I’m not usually one to approach notable people in public. I figure they’re just people like you and me, only they might have cooler job or a more robust bank account. I once saw Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell being mobbed by fans near Columbus Circle and while I too would have appreciated a First Wives Club quote from the movie star, they looked miserable trying to fight their way into the building. Yet sometimes, on the rarest of occasions, I cast aside my respect for people’s privacy and selfishly decide to meet them. I once spotted Dennis Haskins, aka Mr. Belding from Saved by the Bell, at the stage door of The Drowsy Chaperone. I was lingering in the cold to meet the cast and standing to my left was Mr. Belding himself. It was if my ten-year-old inner-self took the reins and whipped my feet into motion. I marched right up to him and said, “I’m sorry to bother you,” which I wasn’t in the slightest, “but you were Mr. Belding and I love you.”
He chuckled and thanked me, to which I said, “No. Thank you. You shaped my afternoons and now I need a picture with you.” He placated me as I wrapped my arm around his shoulders and smiled a gross and relentlessly happy smile. I thanked him and then moved back to my side of the stage door, not wanting to be any more annoying than I’d already been.
For whatever reason, standing around after this cabaret listening to my friend pine after the opportunity to meet one of his idols, that same ten-year-old-self took control and I marched him over to meet her. He was notably nervous, and we joined the pseudo receiving line that had formed around her. I imagine this is what happens whenever she goes places; theatre lovers form lines and take turns tossing praises her way. When it was our turn, we approached her in the banquette booth along the back wall. Bashfully, he began to praise her for her lengthy theatre resume, but specifically Into the Woods. He told her how much he admired her and how much she had inspired him to be a performer. She was gracious and thanked him for his compliments. As he stepped back, she looked at me standing next to him. I hadn’t planned on saying anything, but for whatever reason, I had her attention.
I leaned in toward her spirally red hair and told her, without shame or hesitation, “Hi. I loved you in Cinderella with Brandy.” I could feel my friend’s inaudible gasp next to me. She cocked her head and smirked, saying, “Well that’s very kind of you.” I told her I was familiar with her theatre credits and that she was indeed great in Follies, but the place where this Texas boy learned who Bernadette was happened to be Cinderella with Brandy. I also told her it was my favorite version of the musical. She put her hand on my hand and said, “Thank you. That was a really fun project to be a part of and I’m glad it made you so happy. I rarely hear about it, so thank you.” I told her she was welcome and I walked out the door. My friend was aghast that I’d fawn over a made-for-TV Cinderella when this was stage icon Bernadette Peters from Into The Woods. But I told her the truth, which is still the best policy, even in a passing moment with a stage diva who I’ll probably never encounter again.
But even if I would encounter her again, even if somehow I ran into her every day for the next three years for some odd kismet happenstance, I’d still have told her I loved her in Cinderella, because that’s the truth. I don’t believe in wasting any more time in my life lying about this or that or trying to present myself in some way that attempts to impress a stranger.
I would be given the privilege of attending another Opening Night performance a few years later, this time for the much-hyped revival of Cats. I’d been invited by a friend who shared my love of the dancing kitties and I was beside myself. During intermission, we ducked into the small bar next door to avoid the lengthy bathroom lines. While at the bar, we ran into some people who knew my friend, among them was a Tony-nominated actress whose work I admired and an on-air TV reporter whose work I did not. I’d watched him conduct various interviews with artists of note but felt he never seemed to ask the questions I wanted the answers to.
As it happens, I’d watched him fumble an interview with Bernadette Peters on the Tony Awards red carpet. She walked up, ready to answer questions, and he had nothing prepared. He couldn’t even muster something off-the-cuff, much less something that would provide an interesting soundbite later. Sure I’d told her about Cinderella, but I’ve got plenty of questions for Bernadette Peters should I have the opportunity to really ask them. If I had three minutes on a red carpet with her, I wouldn’t even need to prepare, questions would just fly out of me. That’s not what happened to him and it irritated me. Beyond that, we’d been introduced on multiple occasions and each time, he couldn’t have been less interested in me or my little online magazine. Never mind that I too was interviewing people of note, it wasn’t worth even a moment of conversation.
Yet, being re-introduced to him during intermission at the bar, I found him to be both kind and attentive. I’m fine with being wrong about people, especially since first impressions can be so fickle and circumstantially misleading. Maybe he just froze in the face of a legend. I might do the same if I was a foot away from Oprah. (This is a lie I told myself to give him a pass. I have plenty of questions for Oprah and they are ready at any given minute of the day. This is also true for Cate Blanchett, Sarah Jessica Parker, and the Obamas.) The reporter and I had a pleasant, surface-level conversation before heading back into the theatre to watch the second act of Cats.
After the show ended, I got to attend the Open Night party, something else this Texas boy never imagined he would get to experience. In a crowd replete with famous faces, my friends and I danced the night away, yet noticeably absent from the revelry was the TV reporter who’d given me such a sour first impression. We’d said hello as we arrived, so I knew he was there, and his date was dancing with us on the dance floor so I asked him where he was. His date replied, “Oh, he won’t dance at these things. He’s too concerned with what people will think of him.”
“Yes,” his date answered. “He’s afraid people will judge him if he doesn’t keep up his put-together image.”
While I admit I loved the snarky candor of his date, I became frustrated with the reporter all over again. It frustrated me in the same way his non-interview with Bernadette had. Just when I’d benevolently (and begrudgingly) shifted him into the “second chances” column, he slid right back into that sour first impression. My inner Tyra Banks was shouting, “We were all rooting for you!” This dude was putting me through quite an interpersonal rollercoaster, even if it was entirely self-contained in my batty brain. His refusal to dance had no bearing at all on my evening, I was having the time of my life with my friends, but there were no less than a dozen Emmy, Grammy and Tony nominees dancing with joyful and wonderfully intoxicated abandon in my direct vicinity yet he was the one worried about appearances?
I’m sure his date could read that all over my face, but I responded by saying, “It’s his loss I guess. I was under the impression this was a party, not a board meeting.” The DJ then played “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child, a song that has the power to erase anything that isn’t good and pure from the world. So we danced.
It still confounds me why this reporter couldn’t bring himself to join in the revelry. It seems so simple, almost too trivial to matter, but in a room full of music and lights and dancing and joy, he chose to remain firmly planted on the borderline of fun, never allowing himself to become a part of it. I saw him standing quietly among the suits and I thought, That’s no way to live. Mostly, it made me sad for him.
I know as much as the next person about the necessity of the hustle in New York. When I started my online magazine, it took work and business cards and shaking hands and saying the right things and going to the right events and smiling at the right people. It took professionalism and poise and a whole lot of fake-it-til-you-make-it. But early on, I made the decision to never morph myself into anyone other than who I am. I never censored my social life for the good of appearances. I never stood stoically on the sidelines, allowing this once-in-a-lifetime life to pass me by. Most importantly, I never put my personality on mute so that I wouldn’t get side-eye from a stranger who may or may not be a future Tony nominee.
When I talked with him during intermission, I thought maybe I’d been too hard on him before. Maybe he had a myriad of questions for Bernadette and wanted to gush, but his fear of looking “less professional” caused him to suppress that. Even after the party, I thought about the fact that maybe he’s in an industry as cutthroat as any in entertainment and he fears appearing any way other than clean cut and stoic. Either way, how sad it must be to be trapped in a box of your own making, even if that box rests comfortably at the top of the heap in your dream industry. Is it worth it if you aren’t able to truly be yourself?
Here’s what I think: Scan the room, the world is a cool place and you never know who might be around. Ask the questions you want the answers to, you may not get that chance again. Tell the people you admire that you admire them for the reasons matter to you, even if those reasons only matter to you. Don’t spend time worrying about what strangers think, it’s not their life you’re living. And don’t stand on the sidelines. Go dance.