Whatever Happened To Kurt Peterson?

By: May. 15, 2005
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Kurt Peterson - Then and Now...

When Lincoln Center opened, the State Theater was the home of The Music Theater of Lincoln Center. It shared the stage with the New York City Ballet and the New York City Opera. Under the artistic direction of Richard Rodgers, the Music Theater mounted lavish productions of musical chestnuts such as KISMET and ANNIE GET YOUR GUN. Many of these productions boasted their original stars in the leading roles. However, it was the 1968 production of WEST SIDE STORY which brings smiles to the faces of mature theater-goers who attended that production.

WEST SIDE STORY didn't feature any established stars of the musical theater. Instead, it was cast with youthful and talented newcomers. Victoria Mallory played Maria, Alan Castner was Bernardo, Barbara Luna was a fiery Anita, Eivind Harum was Riff, and a 20 year old newcomer from Wisconsin named Kurt Peterson appeared as Tony. Most directors will agree that the role of Tony is difficult to cast. It calls for a young actor who can sing some pretty high notes, dance well, and act with sincerity. When it came time to film WEST SIDE STORY, the creators had to dub Tony's singing voice and (according to some sources) resort to a dance double for some of the more difficult dance sequences. This was absolutely not the case with Kurt Peterson.

From Peterson's first appearance in the alley behind Doc's drugstore, to his marvelous renditions of "Something's Coming" and "Tonight", right up to his poignant death scene, the young actor charmed the audiences. He was boyishly handsome, virile and innocent at the same time. He also danced Jerome Robbins' choreography with grace and agility. Audiences expected to be enjoying his work for some years to come.

Peterson followed the limited engagement of WEST SIDE STORY with DEAR WORLD, in which he played the male ingenue opposite Angela Lansbury. He later took over for David Christmas in Off-Broadway's DAMES AT SEA and then was cast in the original--and now legendary--production of FOLLIES. He left FOLLIES to take part in a Broadway bound revival of ON THE TOWN but when the show finally came to New York, Kurt Peterson was conspicuously absent. He was also in the much-discussed production of THE BAKER'S WIFE in which he sang "Proud Lady" but the show toured forever and never made it to New York.

Then Kurt Peterson disappeared. For years no one heard anything about this man who had earned a special place in the hearts of many lovers of musical theater. It was not unusual for a thread to appear on a message board asking, "Whatever happened to Kurt Peterson?"

The good news is that Kurt Peterson is back and is once again part of New York's theater community. In fact, he's co-producing Stephen Schwartz' latest effort, a family-oriented musical called CAPTAIN LOUIE which is now previewing at the York Theater.

There was a certain amount of trepidation on the part of this writer before Peterson opened the door to his Seventh Avenue office. How had the years treated him? After all, he's 57 years old now. Would he be bald? Fat? Cranky? All fears were assuaged when he extended his hand for a hearty greeting and proved that he's aging as well as any choice wine. Time seems to have enhanced his good looks and there's still a naughty glint in his eye on certain occasions. He's trim, sociable and eager to share his experiences with others. Yes, there's a bit of gray in his hair, but that lends him an air of distinction.

Peterson's office space is filled with memorabilia from his past projects. One whole wall is devoted to WEST SIDE STORY and DEAR WORLD. He enthusiastically played private recordings for his visitor and opened scrapbooks filled with photographs and clippings. He even entertained his guest with a private rendition of a song that was cut from DEAR WORLD. Judging from the tune, he still has good timbre in his singing voice but one was immediately grateful that the song has disappeared into oblivion.

Sitting on a piano bench, he began to recount his introduction to musical theater. As a youngster in Wisconsin, he saw his first musical while in junior high school. It was FINIAN'S RAINBOW and he loved it so much that he was painting sets the next day. The next show he saw was in high school. It was CINDERELLA which he also loved and began singing the tunes from it right away. "There was no real theater culture in my little town," he says, "so I began singing. I was shy about it because my sister was in the choir, so I sang in the basement. I'd put on the 45's and LP records and stuff...and I just KNEW something was leading me to sing. I sang and sang for two years without anyone hearing me. And then I tried out for the musicals in high school and got 'em. I guess all that singing in the basement finally paid off! I did THE PAJAMA GAME, THE BOYFRIEND and L'IL ABNER.

"I came to New York on a lark in the summer of '66. I'd done walk-ons in summer stock in Wisconsin and one of the actors from New York gave me a a little brochure about AMDA (the American MUSICAL AND DRAMATIC ACADEMY), which was a very small school back then. I signed up for a six week summer course and came there not knowing anyone. I stayed at a WMCA and told my parents I'd be back in the fall to become a chemical engineer. I just fell in love with it and ultimately told my parents that I had to go back. In two years I did. After the first year I auditioned for Tommy Tune at Milwaukee Melody Top and he gave me a job as a singer. I did eight shows with the likes of Jane Powell, Patrice Munsel, Margaret Whiting, Forrest Tucker and John Raitt--and for two weeks I just sat there with my jaw open as Raitt stopped the show with the "Soliloquy" in that tent...he became one of my role models.

"Meanwhile I had signed with an agent, Jerry Khan, and he started submitting me. At that time Victoria Mallory and I were dating. We actually came to town at the exact same time and attended AMDA. She got WEST SIDE STORY at Lincoln Center. I hadn't auditioned for it because I didn't think I could sing it. In my senior year of high school I told my choir director that we should do WEST SIDE STORY but he told me that we didn't have anyone to sing the role of Tony and I said, 'Well, okay' and Victoria got the role. Then I went, 'Hey wait' and put a recording on. I drank a quart of beer and I just sang it and sang it and sang it and realized that I could do the role. I called my agent and had five auditions for Leonard Bernstein, Stephen Sondheim and Richard Rodgers before I got the role. On opening night I made sure I invited my choir teacher-- who wound up sitting beside Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers!"

As good as he was in WEST SIDE STORY, Peterson readily admits that the score presented difficulties to him The actor sings baritone and there is a very high part in "Maria" that presented problems. In rehearsal Bernstein wrote him a new obliggato which was tried several times and it really didn't work. Bernstein came up with the idea of having three chorus guys in the background enhancing what Peterson was singing. It worked and Peterson recalls that Bernstein was very "hands on" and supportive of the cast's efforts. The actor regrets that the production was never recorded, even though all the other Music Theater shows that Rodgers produced were. Sadly, Rodgers stepped down from his position after WEST SIDE STORY and the Music Theater of Lincoln Center mounted only one more production before folding.

At the same time that Peterson was auditioning for WEST SIDE STORY, he tried-out for Jerry Herman's DEAR WORLD and was cast as Julian. It was a role that was very promising in the original version, but as the cast worked its way through four different directors, the part was whittled down. Lost in the shuffle was Peterson's solo song entitled "I Like Me". He felt that there was still a great deal of his character on stage, "but there was a lot more singing in the beginning." Does the actor share Jerry Herman's disdain for the title tune? "Well, I've never really thought of it but in terms of the original concept of the show, which was more concertina-like and a little more fragile than the brassy show it became when Joe Layton came in. It wasn't the right song." Peterson claims that the show was originally more delicate and poetic, but when Joe Layton took over as director, Angela Lansbury's funny nose came off and the trumpets came into the pit. There was also more dancing. It lost much of its charm."

When asked about what he recalled most about DEAR WORLD, the actor offered an anecdote about Angela Lansbury. He recalls her as being a total professional who delivered the goods eight times a week. He never became personally close to her, but they shared a good working relationship. He remembered a time when he had prepared dinner for some cast between a matinee and evening performance; "My favorite thing to cook is clams, linguine and lots of garlic." In the show, Peterson had a scene with Lansbury where they both reclined in a bed for a lengthy period. After performing that scene, Peterson received a subtle note from the stage manager which read: "Miss Lansbury would rather you not have garlic between performances." He laughed as he told the story.

DEAR WORLD limped along for 153 performances but acquired a cult following and its original cast recording is a cherished part of many collections. It also won Angela Lansbury a Tony Award as "Best Actress In a Musical".

The actor soon was cast as a replacement in the Off-Broadway hit DAMES AT SEA. He was used to at least four weeks of rehearsal, but with this show he had a mere week to get up in the part and it required a lot of tap dancing. He admits that he did quite a bit of faking in front of audiences until he became secure in the role.

In 2003, Knopf published Ted Chapin's book entitled EVERYTHING WAS POSSIBLE, a detailed account of how the musical FOLLIES was developed and put together in 1971. Kurt Peterson contributed many of his memories to this volume and he feels that Chapin's account of his audition for the role of Young Buddy was quite accurate:

" Kurt Peterson is a distinct possibility. He reads
some scenes with the stage manager and everyone seems
pleased. John McMartin is summoned to see what they
would look like together, since they would be playing the
same person at different ages. 'Well,' says Hal Prince, "it
it looks as if over the years the nose has changed shape a
bit, but we can play with some putty.' John asks if he could
hear him sing. 'Oh, yes, fine, by all means.' Kurt chats with
the pianist, then his large voice fills the room with "Lonely
Town" from ON THE TOWN, and everyone is pleased. He
stands there smiling, his hands in his pea coat, looking
somewhat sheepish. When asked how old he is he says,
'Twenty-two, twenty-three in February,' to which Hal replies,
"No. Didn't hear that. You're twenty-two.' Kurt seems rather
dumbstruck. 'Well,' says Hal, 'I hope to see you...in rehearsal!'
'Ah, really, thank you very much.' Then Kurt beats a hasty ret-
treat. As he leaves a toothbrush falls from his pocket. The
atmosphere in the room is decidedly upbeat. A good and
successful audition can energize a room."

Peterson laughs when recalling the moment. The fact of the matter was that he'd been to a party the night before and was indeed carrying a toothbrush in his pocket.

When asked to share some of his thoughts of FOLLIES, the actor responds with a recollection of leaving the show for a couple of days to film a commercial. It afforded him the opportunity to see the show from the audience. "Oh my God!" he declared, "because being in it, especially as a kid, I was always concerned about my part and stuff...especailly in FOLLIES because it was so segmented, you were never on when this ghost was moving left and that ghost was moving right and you never got the big picture." Seeing the show from the audience's vantage point made Peterson aware of the enormity of the material and the stunning production it had been given by Hal Prince and Michael Bennett. Previous to that he didn't know what he was involved in and what the creative team had achieved.

He also looks back fondly on the cast. He had grown rather close to Dorothy Collins who played the Older Sally, as well as with Harvey Evans who played Young Buddy and has wonderful memories of Ethel Shutta, who was Hattie and stopped the show at every performance with "Broadway Baby". Also in the cast was Victoria Mallory who played "Young Heidi" She auditioned because Sondheim had been so impressed with her in WEST SIDE STORY. "Hal came up to her after the audition and said, 'Vicky, you are just terrific but I have nothing in the show for you.' She turned to Prince and said, "Mr Prince, I'm sorry you have no part for me but if you put me in the show I'll do anything you ask.' She joined the cast and sat on a stool at every rehearsal. One day Hal said, 'Vicky, become a waitress here'. Next day Michael said, 'Vicky, you can do this dance, can't you?' The next day Stephen came in and said, 'Vicky, sing this through." The song, of course, was "One More Kiss" . Telling this story always brings tears to my eyes because it shows how kids who are willing to go the extra mile can advance their careers and this is a perfect example of what the results can be."

Peterson left FOLLIES to begin rehearsals for a revival of ON THE TOWN--a production that would star Bernadette Peters and Donna McKechnie. However, after playing the Boston engagement of the show, he was dismissed and replaced with a slightly older actor. The Boston critics had cited that Peterson came across as being too young to be playing opposite McKechnie and he admits that he could have been stronger in the role. Still, this afforded him an opportunity that became the highlight of his career: He was suddenly available to play the Los Angeles engagement of FOLLIES and when the show played its last performance in New York, he asked his replacement, John Johann, if he could go on. Johann agreed and when the stage manager got on the PA system to read the announcement :"Ladies and gentlemen, at this performance the role of Young Ben will be played by Kurt Peterson" there was an enthusiastic roar of applause. It was something the actor never forgot.

It was during the run of FOLLIES that Peterson became interested in the producing aspect of show business. His friends Fritz Holt and Barry Brown were attempting to raise money for the first London production of GYPSY--a show that had never been seen on the West End until that time. They had signed Angela Lansbury to play Mama Rose and were undercapitalized by $100,000. "So I had business stationary printed up and I went out and talked to people and raised the money and became 'associate producer' on that" The Lansbury version of GYPSY was so well-received that it transferred to Broadway a year later, earning its star yet another Tony Award for her performance in it.

With the success of the GYPSY revival, Peterson was approached by AMDA (his old school) to do a fund-raiser for them. They wanted him to do a salute to Hal Prince but Prince respectfully demurred and Peterson turned to Stephen Sondheim. It was originally planned for a "little luncheon at the Waldorf with a few students showing up to sing some of his songs". The timing for such a tribute must have been right because the tribute blossomed into one of the most star spangled evenings the theater world has ever known. The glittery cast included Glynis Johns, Anthony Perkins, Chita Rivera, Nancy Walker, Dorothy Collins, Hermione Gingold, Ron Holgate, Alexis Smith, Jack Cassidy, Len Cariou--and a host of others. Every one of the performers who took part in SONDHEIM: A MUSICAL TRIBUTE had appeared the in at least one of the composer's shows. Peterson adds that "Ethel Merman had originally agreed to participate in the event and the first batch of posters had her name prominantly featured on them. However she called me and said 'A bunch of my friends are giving me a birthday party down in Florida so I won't be able to do the show...and get my name off the poster.' I never did. The poster and the ad in The New York Times bore her name."

For a while, Peterson continued to blend performing and producing. He played Robert in the Canadian premier of Sondheim's COMPANY and toured for two years in Rob Marshall's innovative version of SIDE BY SIDE BY SONDHEIM. Then he lost interest in performing. He lost interest in show business completely. For a whole period of time he wouldn't even listen to show music or go to the theater. What was the the cause of it? "It was a psychological thing." says Peterson. "Perhaps it was a time to re-charge my batteries and make sure that this was what I really wanted to do I don't know exactly what was happening, but it happened." It looked like the theater community had lost one of its most promising forces. It was a phone call that brought Peterson out of his nine year doldrum.

Years earlier Peterson branched out and became a singing coach. He renovated his voice studio overe a five year period while he was in the process of renovating himself. One of his students went on to work in Michigan theater. In 2003 the University of Michigan was planning a fund-raiser and was considering some sort of Sondheim event. When this young lady mentioned that she knew the actor who had played Young Ben in the original FOLLIES she telephoned Peterson. He explained that he wasn't singing anymore and she simply said, "Well think about it." He did, and followed it with phone calls to Virginia Sandifur, Harvey Evans and Marti Rolph-all of whom played the younger characters in FOLLIES with him. The quartet agreed to do a concert version of the show "as a lark". This time they would be playing the mature counterparts of the characters they originally essayed. The performance took place in Ann Arbor, Michigan in January, 2003. "You know there are lots of ghosts in FOLLIES, but I had many ghosts of my own..ghosts and ghosts and ghosts. Everything seemed to come together that night." The performance was extremely successful and the sound of applause somehow exorcised some of the ghosts that Peterson was carrying around internally. "Ever since that day I know that this is what I came here to do since high school. I want to 'do' and 'create' in musical theater," as the actor uttered those words it was obvious that there were tears welling in his eyes and this particular concert had been a genuine epiphany for him.

Peterson's present effort at creating in musical theater is currently on stage at the York Theater on Lexington Avenue and 54th Street. CAPTAIN LOUIE is a one-hour family musical that features the distinctive music of Stephen Schwartz (composer of the aforementioned THE BAKER'S WIFE). A delightful tale about how the powers of a child's imagination can overcome loneliness and change, it is performed by an outstanding cast of young professionals who display dynamic singing voices and enormous stage presence. Their talent, along with the imaginative direction of Meridee Stein and clever choreography of Joshua Bergasse, make for a captivating visit to the theater. Performed on a simple set designed by Jeff Subik, which is enhanced by delightful projections created by The Joshua Light Show, CAPTAIN LOUIE captivates its audience immediately. The show is based on the short book "The Trip" by Ezra Jack Keats and tells the story of a little boy who experienced estrangement when his family moves out of their old neighborhood. Louie uses his creative devices to overcome these feelings and come to terms with with moving away from his old friends. In some ways CAPTAIN LOUIE revisits the theme of being haunted by the past that was such a strong aspect of FOLLIES. It's an extremely entertaining show and the expressions of delight on the faces of the younger members of the audience proved that they were enjoying every minute of the show.

One of the most pleasing elements of CAPTAIN LOUIE is its natural sound. The young cast's voices carry into the theater without aid of amplification. making their young sound even more pure. "Actually," Peterson explains. "there is some subtle miking of the actors who are positioned far upstage. Without a bit of amplification their voices tended to get lost in the wings." The pure, natural sound of actors and singers performing is something that is very important to Peterson, who decries the amount of amplification in today's musicals. He recalls that very little soound enhancement was used in WEST SIDE STORY--and that production played in a cavernous theater which featured a larger-than-usual orchestra. He hopes that the future shows he presents will continue to sound naturalistic.

Captain Louie

After CAPTAIN LOUIE, Peterson is preparing a show entitled LAST CALL, starring Lisa Asher and featuring the songs of Victoria Shaw. Is there a chance that audiences will find Kurt Peterson back on the boards again? "Most definitely," he responds. That's something to look forward to and will surely answer the question: "Whatever happened to Kurt Peterson?" The answer will be: "He's back on stage where he belongs".

(The author acknowledges fact-checks that Steve Suskin of Playbill On-Line graciously contributed to this article.)

For more information about CAPTAIN LOUIE and to order tickets: