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BWW Exclusive Interview: Bernadette Peters Discusses MOZART IN THE JUNGLE, Why INTO THE WOODS Is Such an Important Work

Golden Globe and two time-Tony winner Bernadette Peters is one of the most respected and reveered performers in the history of the Broadway stage, but her career spans far beyond the lights of Times Square. She starred in Oscar nominated film PENNIES FROM HEAVENS and Mel Brooks' SILENT FILM, and she was a regular on THE CAROL BURNETT SHOW, ALLY MCBEAL, and SMASH. Beginning on December 23rd, Peters will be featured in the original dark comedy MOZART IN THE JUNGLE from Amazon Studios.

MOZART IN THE JUNGLE draws back the curtain at the New York Symphony, where artistic dedication and creativity collide with mind games, politicking and survival instincts. Based on the critically acclaimed memoir "Mozart in the Jungle: Sex, Drugs & Classical Music" by Blair Tindall, the series is seen through the eyes of a young oboist who tries to navigate through the egos and eccentricities of a world renowned orchestra, and new conductor Rodrigo (Gael García Bernal). The orchestra's old guard is represented by Thomas (Malcolm McDowell), the reluctantly outgoing conductor, and Gloria (Peters), the chairwoman of the board. The series is written by Oscar-nominee Roman Coppola, actor and musician Jason Schwartzman, Tony-nominated writer and director Alex Timbers, and Oscar-nominee Paul Weitz. Currently, you can view the pilot episode for free on Amazon.

Last week I spoke with Ms. Peters about why she signed onto the exciting new series, the eclectic cast, and (of course) the film version of INTO THE WOODS, opening in theaters on Christmas Day. To say that our conversation was one of the highlights of my professional life, would be an understatement. I have been fortunate enough to speak with many accomplished individuals in my career, but I have never been as nervous for an interview as I was with Peters. Fortunately, as soon as legendary, soothing voice came across the phone, I felt as though I was speaking with an old friend, who seemingly never ages.

BWW: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me today, it is really an honor.

Peters: Hi Matt, how are ya?

I'm doing great. How are you?

Wonderful, thank you.

I know we don't have a lot of time, so I'll just dive in if that's ok. MOZART IN THE JUNGLE tells the story of the fictional New York Symphony Orchestra, and you play Gloria the Symphony Chairperson. Can you tell us a little bit about your character?

My character runs the symphony, she's the chairwoman of the board, and the president, so she does the fundraising and the hiring and the firing. So, basically, I'm in charge of everyone. I'm in charge of the egos, so she's torn between the management part, but loving the artistry. She really would love to be as close as she could be to the conductors and everyone, but they keep her at arm's length because she's the management with the whip. It's a great push-and-pull because of that, but she loves loves loves the artistry, which is wonderful.

You mentioned that she has to deal with the symphony's egos, and early in the pilot, she introduces Rodrigo, the new prodigy conductor she has hired, and he kind of turns the whole symphony upside down. I would imagine that in your career, you've dealt with a few temperamental geniuses like Rodrigo. Do you think that his specific eccentricities are true to life? Are those things that artists deal with on a regular basis?

I think there are a lot of eccentric artists, and I think there are a lot of creative eccentric people, but that's what makes them so interesting. And that's what brings all these original ideas, which (Gloria) also loves. I just think his character is beautifully written, and lovely and artistic. That's what I love about the series; it's funny, it's surprising, and it's poetic. You don't see things that happen in this show (in other TV shows). The comedy is truly original.

What I found interesting about the episodes that I've seen is that, knowing that it's based on a book, I felt that there was a lyrical approach to the storytelling. Something very elevated about it.

Yes, and it's written by Jason Schwartzman, who's an actor, it's written by Roman Coppola, who has this great history in directing, and Paul Weitz, who is a writer and director. All great great great people. As the scripts kept coming in, we kept going, "Oh my god, do you see what happens here?" or "...what happens there?" It's just beautiful.

I recognized some of the faces in the cast, but I wasn't especially familiar with many of these people, but as I kept watching, the whole ensemble is really compelling. Can you talk a little bit about working with this group?

Oh, yes. First of all, they are so talented; and lovely, wonderful people. We are so lucky. And we have Malcolm McDowell, who's just a great actor.

Yes, he's one that I didn't need to look up.

Oh yes. I mean, I've loved his work, and we just embraced each other from the first day, and then on, we were just in love. And Gael García is just so free and original and beautiful for this role. And Saffron Burrows and Lola Kirke is just a beautiful actress. And then we have the people from New York; we have Mary Louise Wilson, and we have Debra Monk playing a great role.

It really is a great group, and as the story progresses, and you are introduced to more people, you see that there is a lot more depth to the stories that could be told by this ensemble.

Yes, absolutely.

The show focuses a lot on the personal lives and backstage politics, but I was glad to see that there was a lot of time dedicated to showing the musicians playing and what they go through to make music their livelihoods, which is not an easy thing to do. How important do you think it is for shows like this to expose the performing arts to a wider audience that might not otherwise have an understanding of the backstage machinations that go into how things are created?

Well, you know what will happen? The show itself is so good, and the music is chosen very carefully; like there's a great violin solo, and I went, "Oh my goodness. I love this piece. Can you please get me this for Christmas?"

These pieces, you go, "I want to hear this. I want to go into my apartment and put it on," and that in itself is going to add onto people's knowledge for classical music, or love for it, I should say, and they might want to go out and check out the symphony orchestra.

The show is debuting later this month, so if someone is saying, "Ok, it's a slow time of the year for TV, why should I go over to Amazon and check out MOZART IN THE JUNGLE?" what would you tell them that they would get from watching the show?

Well, as an artist myself, I look for great material, and it's few and far between, to be perfectly honest, and you know it's lucky, it's very fortunate, and rare when you hit it, and I do think that we hit it with this. It's the right combination of writers, producers, and actors, and it's one of those things, where you go, "Oh my goodness, it's happening."

So, therefore, what are we here for? Basically, it's to entertain, so I think it's going to engage the minute you start it. It's not stuffy by any means, I mean it's all about these real people and having relationships and a young girl starting out in the symphony, trying to make her way, and the older people being hard on her. It's just really good writing. So, they'll be really entertained, I think.

Well, I definitely was. Another thing that is really interesting about this show, I'm not sure that it would have had a place on a network, but it seems to really fit with online, which allows it to break free from some of the molds that the network television structure might put on it. What do you think about shows getting directly to the audience through these new online avenues? Is that good for the artists?

Oh sure. I think wherever the writing is good, that's where we should go (laughs). If the writing is good, which it is good, and the way it is being presented is streaming, as long as the quality is stellar; which it is, the way it's made, and the way it looks; it's wonderful.

Good. I'd be remiss if I didn't ask about the film version of INTO THE WOODS. Have you seen the film version yet?

No, I haven't seen it yet. I'm really looking forward to it.

I'm going to a screening next week, but from what everyone has said, it has made a wonderful transition to the screen. You obviously know the story so well, and I know you recently participated in a reunion with other members of the original cast, so what is it about this story that not only allows it to work so well on screen, but also that makes so many people across the world continue to perform year after year?

Well, first of all, I am so thrilled that a movie was made from Broadway that is beautiful and wonderful; especially this one, because fairy tales reach so many people, and there are so many beautiful lessons within it; life lessons and things to remembers. Steve and James wrote so many wonderful things to be reminded of, it's kind of a story for everyone, really. Which is thrilling.

To close, I have to ask if you have any plans to return to the stage any time soon.

There's always talks, there's always, you know, rumblings, but nothing that has lured me back yet.

Well, we can't wait, and in the meantime, we'll be very happy to see you on screen instead.

Aw, thank you so much.

Is there anyone more charming on stage or screen than Bernadette Peters? Did you watch the MOZART IN THE JUNGLE pilot on Amazon? If so, let me know what you thought in the comments below, or on Twitter @BWWMatt. I will have a review of (most of) the full first season a few days before it is released. Also, don't forget to follow @BWWTVWorld on Twitter and Like us on Facebook for all of the latest movie news, recaps, reviews, and videos.

Photo Credit:
1) Bernadette Peters and Gael Garcia Bernal: Amazon Studios
2) Malcolm McDowell, Bernadette Peters, and Gael Garcia Bernal: Amazon Studios
3) Gael Garcia Bernal: Amazon Studios
4) Bernadette Peters and the Original Broadway Cast of INTO THE WOODS: PBS

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