INTERVIEW: Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory Embrace When Everything Was Possible

The Broadway veterans discuss their early careers and their benefit upcoming concert at New York City Center.

Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson
(© Ken Duncan)
Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson
(© Ken Duncan)

Kurt Peterson and Victoria Mallory have been friends for more than 40 years, as well as having co-starred on stage in a 1968 Lincoln Center production of West Side Story as Tony and Maria and the original 1971 Broadway production of Follies, in which they played Young Ben and Young Heidi, respectively.

Now, these two veteran performers are reuniting for When Everything Was Possible, A Concert (with comments), a benefit for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, to take place at New York City Center on Sunday, April 29. TheaterMania recently sat down with these wonderful performers to discuss the event and share some memories.

THEATERMANIA: How long have you been thinking about doing this concert?
KURT PETERSON. Three or four years. We’ve actually been talking about doing another project, which is a book musical, but in talking to our friends and colleagues, a lot of them wanted to hear us do the numbers that we did in our early show. So we thought maybe a concert like this could do two different things. First, it could reintroduce us to audiences, because we’ve both been away from the New York stage for a while, and we could tell a story about two kids who were struggling and persistent and made it happen for themselves, which could be inspiring for young actors out there today.

TM: What can you tell me about the structure of the show?
VM: It really starts us when we both first got to New York City. We went to school together, at the American Music and Dramatic Academy, and it follows us in years that we were in the city and doing shows here, as well as in stock.

Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson
(© Ken Duncan)
Victoria Mallory and Kurt Peterson
(© Ken Duncan)

TM: Are we only going to hear songs you actually sang on stage?
KP: No, it includes all sorts of different songs. For example, we do a snippet of “Each Tomorrow Morning,” from Dear World, which I was in. I love the score so much and Victoria does too; she saw the show so many times. We talk about how it was to watch Angela Lansbury sing it. And there are two original pieces in the show, one of which I wrote the lyrics for. I’ve always been a little snobbish about lyrics; and of course, having worked with Stephen Sondheim, I became even more of a little snob. So I finally figured I should put myself out there if I continue to dump on some people’s lyrics. And it was pretty easy writing an opening number, because it came up in a very organic way about the feelings we had when we first got to New York and also our feelings about reuniting after so many years.

TM: Did you two always go on auditions together?
KP: No. Victoria always got the roles first, and I was always so jealous. The thing is she’s been studying ballet since before she was born, and could play the classical piano, and sing so beautifully, and I was just this kid from Wisconsin who was in awe of this woman. So I would just follow the breadcrumbs and get the shows after her just to show her I could do it.

TM: But you weren’t competitive once you were in a show, right?
KP: Actually, I’ll tell you a story that’s not in this show — because I think people in the business will relate to it. When we did West Side Story, I had my dresser come back stage during the curtain call and every night he would tell me if I got more applause than she did and then we’d put a little track mark on the wall. I didn’t count them all at the end, though; maybe it was a tie.

TM: Let’s talk about Follies, the other show you did together. What was that experience like for you, working with so many great theater and film veterans?
VM: It was amazing for all these generations to come together on one stage. I think it was pretty wonderful for quite a few of them to just be in a show on Broadway. And I was just so optimistic and young that it was totally exciting to me just to watch everyone. It was great fun.

TM: Did the older actors in the cast talk to the younger actors?
KP: Alexis Smith was a little bit more standoffish than most of the cast, but that was her personality. John McMartin was a trip. He still is; he’s one of the funniest men on earth. And Gene Nelson was just terrific — what a hard worker he was, dancing at his age. And Ethel Shutta defies description, but she was as solid as a person could be.
VM: I think it was a big deal for Alexis just to get on stage and sing and dance. I’m sure she was quite petrified. I think she was really trying to focus on doing it and doing it well. But Dorothy Collins was very friendly and outgoing, and we stayed friends with her over the years.

TM: What was it like working for Michael Bennett on that show?
VM: It was a thrill of a lifetime to watch how he created all of those numbers; it was just some of the most brilliant choreography I’ve ever seen. Not just the ideas he came up with — like “the mirror number” — but how it was executed. I was so fortunate, because even though I had been cast as Young Heidi, he asked me if I wanted to be in some dance numbers. I immediately said yes and I got to be in four different numbers!

TM: The title of this show comes, in part, from Ted Chapin’s book about Follies. But does it also sum up how you felt back in 1971?
KP: Yeah. That time was very special — for musical theater, because there were so many wonderful people working in it, and in world history, because it was before AIDS. So yes, that was a time when everything was possible for most people. But when AIDS happened in the 1980s, all of a sudden it wasn’t possible for some people. A lot of people had their first acts cut short. So we’re dedicating this show to all of those people, but specifically to my little brother Matty, who passed away in 1985. He was one of the very first Midwestern AIDS casualties, at a time when we didn’t even know what AIDS was. But Vicki and I still feel that, for us, everything is still possible. We’re pretty lucky kids.

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