Bernadette Peters visits Symphony Hall on Wednesday to join Keith Lockhart at Opening Night at Pops. A Broadway fixture in shows — including “Song and Dance” (for which she won her first Tony Award), “Annie Get Your Gun” (for which she won her second), “Sunday in the Park With George,” “Into the Woods,” “Gypsy,” “Follies,” and “A Little Night Music” — Peters will receive the Isabelle Stevenson Award at the Tony Awards on June 10. This honor goes to a member of the theater community who volunteers for a humanitarian, social service, or charitable organization. Peters and Mary Tyler Moore founded Broadway Barks, an organization promoting the adoption of shelter animals.
For “Smash” fans, Peters will reprise her role as Ivy’s mother, Leigh Conroy, in the season finale on May 14. The Broadway star talked to us on the phone from New York about singing, Sondheim, “Smash,” shows, and her love for animals.
Q. At Opening Night at Pops you’ll sing “Not a Day Goes By” and “Being Alive,” two Stephen Sondheim tear-jerkers. What do you summon to deliver such honest, emotional, and wrenching performances of these gems?
A. You have to find what you really connect to in the song, and I have chosen these songs because I connect to them. Sondheim writes in a very deep way, and the songs keep going deeper and deeper. They don’t get stale.
Q. I read a 2010 New York Times interview where you said you doubt you would record or sing “Send in the Clowns” [from “A Little Night Music”] in concert because “The song just happens because of the way that scene is so well written.” Do you have to be in the scene to sing this song?
A. I didn’t even realize what [this song] was about until I was in the show and doing the scene. If I did try to approach it I would have to go back into the scene. It’s too beautiful with the scene. “Send in the Clowns” can mean anything. I remember when I did a special with Bing Crosby and he explained [the song] by saying that in the circus when something awful happens, they send in the clowns.
Q. When you sing Sondheim songs, do you feel at home?
A. I do. It sort of takes me to a place that I’m interested in that expresses my emotions in a very deep way, like “Loving you is not a choice, it’s who I am” [from “Passion”].
Q. Are there songs you always like to include in a concert?
A. Yes. I know what says hello and I know I want to sing “No One Is Alone” [from “Into the Woods”]. And “There Is Nothing Like a Dame” [from “South Pacific”] is just really fun.
Q. I’m trying to love “Smash,” but it’s more about melodrama and sex than the making of a Broadway show, don’t you think?
A. I think you’re right. They took all the events that could happen in a show and put them all in this show at the same time: a writer sleeping with a cast member, an assistant making a lot of trouble, a mean director. I’ve experienced some of those things over the course of many years. But, people like music, no matter what, and [the show] got better and better as it went on.
Q. Do any of the story lines or episodes remind you of experiences you’ve had getting a show ready for Broadway?
A. I’ve worked with tyrannical directors, but not so much anymore. They used to take their cue from Jerry Robbins and he was tough, but very talented. It makes for a very unpleasant time. I never worked with him but met him once and he was darling to me.
Q. You play Ivy’s mother, Leigh Conroy, a Tony-winning actress. Did you grow up in anyone’s show-business shadow?
A. Not in anybody’s shadow. My mother wanted to be a performer but my grandmother said it was as good as being a streetwalker.
Q. Can you share any funny onstage anecdotes that have happened during a show?
A. Marty Short used to get me laughing [in “The Goodbye Girl”], and we did a show one night where I couldn’t even stop.
Q. Has there been a backstage visitor after a show whom you’ll never forget?
A. When Jerry Lewis came back [during “Annie Get Your Gun”], I said, “Oh my God, it’s Jerry Lewis.” He was so sweet.