Interview: Original Follies Star Kurt Peterson Tells Us About His Proud Ladies
Peterson brings his new musical memoir to Merkin Hall on October 10.
Kurt Peterson has acted alongside some of the best: Angela Lansbury, Dorothy Collins, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone. The list goes on. Now, this original Follies cast member (as Young Ben) is paying tribute to them all in his new musical memoir, Proud Ladies. The solo show will be seen in New York City on Monday, October 10, at the Kaufman Music Center's Merkin Hall. Here, he tells us about putting it together, bit by bit.
This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Tell me about the origin of this concert.
Ten years ago, I did an evening at City Center with my West Side Story co-star, Victoria Mallory. Afterwards, we were planning to do a big studio recording and tour it for the next 10, 15 years, but we lost her two years later, in the summer of 2014. After that, I felt both a creative and personal loss. We'd worked so hard on putting the thing together, and it was such a labor of love, and Victoria was so important in my life.
On a personal note, I was never really close to my father. I was closer to my mother, and in my life, I was just more comfortable being with women than men. Along the way of my career, there were ladies who nurtured me, who taught me life lessons, who were examples that I looked up to. Vicki was the first, because I met her on the first day of school. Dina Merrill, who was on the staff of AMDA, was another: she gave me a scholarship, and without it, I wouldn't have been able to stay in New York. And then, of course, my relationship with Angela Lansbury spanned quite a few years in different ways. I developed a relationship with Katharine Hepburn in my elevator, and I was so close to the ladies from Follies, including Dorothy Collins, and there's a love letter to her in the show.
A New York theater audience will know about all of them, and they'll know what they know about all of them, but they won't know what I know about them. Each one really did teach me a lesson.
Can you give me a preview of what you sing?
I can actually pull up the program right now. "The Glamorous Life" from A Little Night Music, "How to Handle a Woman" from Camelot, "Losing My Mind" from Follies, "When There's No One" from Carrie — that's for the section on Betty Buckley. It's quiet a list of songs, and I have a little anxiety about the evening. It's not only all these songs, but there's an incredible amount of text. I really tried to link the songs and put them in context with the story I'm telling about each one of them.
Of the women to whom you pay tribute, who do you think had the most profound impact on your life?
Victoria, certainly in a personal way, because we were boyfriend and girlfriend for eight years and we did all these shows together. Beyond that, it was Angela Lansbury. We did Dear World together and she helped me weather the disappointment of that show. And then soon after, with Fritz Holt and Barry Brown, I raised a quarter of the budget for her London Gypsy and her New York Gypsy, which gave me the first opportunity to learn how to be a producer. And of course, she was an angel in our tribute to Stephen Sondheim, and years later, she came to the concert Vicki and I did and stayed until the very end of the party. She's such a presence and provides encouragement on a professional level, and on a personal level, she's a friend. So she closes the first act.
What is it like for you to perform this show?
I just want to live up there with the ladies. That's why I've been singing through the music almost every day. I want to get to the point where it's totally in my bones. Each one of them truly affected me, and when I close my eyes, I can see them. If I can get to that point, I think I can get the audience to close their eyes and remember the angels in their lives, as well. That's what this whole thing is about, to remember the angels both living and who've passed on in our lives. And if I can get there, I'll be able to be a channel to allow us all to have that experience.