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'I'm a big cheerleader for people remembering people.' - Kurt Peterson on Creating 'PROUD LADIES'

Kurt Peterson's career began when Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers chose him to play Tony in the revival of West Side Story at Lincoln Center. His co-star? 20 year old, Columbus native, Victoria Mallory. The duo would spend the next several decades blazing trails in musical theatre as their individual careers flourished.

Peterson continued to originate iconic roles throughout his career, and played opposite to some of Broadway's most famous female stars in history. His new musical PROUD LADIES debuts tonight at the Springer Opera House, and celebrates the lessons he learned from each woman along the way.

We sat down with Peterson and his production partner Stephanie Skyllas to learn more about how he found himself in musical theatre in the first place, what led him to create PROUD LADIES, and what Columbus can expect tonight from its world premiere at the Springer Opera House.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

All photos courtesy of The Springer Opera House.

Q: What made you want to go into theatre?

A: (Peterson) I saw my first musical in junior high school. It was Finian's Rainbow and I was immediately hooked. I was painting sets the next day. Somehow it just resonated with me. I guess it was the right thing to see at the time. I hadn't really sung at all yet at that point.  The next musical I saw was another high school production of Rodger & Hammerstein's Cinderella. After I saw that, I just said, "Wow."

I was a really shy kid. I didn't sing for anybody, I just went down to the basement and really sang for myself for a couple of years. Then, I tried out for the musical in high school which was Boyfriend. It was the first show I ever did. After that, I did Pajama Game and Li'l Abner, and then some straight plays in high school too. It was just something I loved. 

I got to go to New York on a trip my sophomore year. I saw 110 in the Shade with Inga Swenson and Robert Horton, and it was just in the cards. I loved it.

Kurt Peterson, Broadway legend and co-producer of PROUD LADIES.

Q: Did you have a family that supported and encouraged you?

A: They did, they did. They were a little bit in the dark - but I mean, the whole town was. Back then, if you went to the guidance counselor and said you wanted to go into musical theatre they'd just look at you like you were from Mars. At the time, there really were only a couple of places that had musical theatre programs- and they were only in NewYork, not even in L.A. yet. 

I was really fortunate my junior year of high school. I was doing walk-ons at the local university, and one of the actors was from New York and he gave me this brochure. It was from this place called AMDA the American Musical and  Dramatic Academy. Which, back then, was very small. There were only two classes of 13. So he gave me this brochure and I tucked it under my arm. Talk about circumstances and the fickle finger of fate. 

I went to New York on a class trip next and I left the group and took a taxi over to the school. I didn't even say hello or introduce myself. I just walked through the halls and heard all of the people singing, and I went back and told my parents it's where I wanted to go. I made them a deal, a bargain, I said, "Give me the 12 week summer course, and then I'll come home and be the electrical engineer you want me to be." 

(laughing) You know what happened.

Q: Did your parents not know what we now know?

A: They were small town people, and they were extremely supportive, but they were frightened. You know, I didn't leave and go to a widely known university as so many others did. I went to live at the Y.M.C.A. in New York. That was scary for them. It wasn't scary for me because I was young. To me it was an adventure.

Q: What made you want to create PROUD LADIES

A: Well, there are two types of plays in terms of creating work. There's the play you want to write, and the play you need to write. This was the latter. It's the type of work that comes from your subconscious. It started almost five years ago when we were working on other projects. I just sat down and thought of the experiences I've had with some of these ladies. I'm a real cheerleader for people remembering people.

When we did When Everything Was Possible, one of the things that pushed (Columbus native) Victoria Mallory and I to want to do that work was that we wanted to pass it on. We wanted to pass on our stories, we wanted to talk about what it was like, we wanted people to know what it was like to work with some of the geniuses we were so fortunate to work with, and to give the young people today a bit more information about who the people were who made it possible for them to be out there doing what they are today.

Vicki was so into that whole idea. She was a teacher, and I am a teacher too.  

Our goal with PROUD LADIES is to highlight the relationships I am so fortunate to have had with these 23 incredible high octane, and extremely talented women. I had very strong relationships with all of them. Some were business relationships, some were friendships, some were a little bit... jarring, and some were romantic.

I'm a real cheerleader for people remembering people.
-Kurt Peterson on what led him to write PROUD LADIES.

The essence of it is that each one of these ladies taught me lessons. It starts the very first day I moved to New York and met Victoria, and then we end the show with her as well. From there, we have Dina Merrill who was a very wealthy and warm and generous actress who gave me my scholarship to AMDA or I wouldn't have even been there. So that starts.

Then, we have Ethel Merman. Of course, some of our ladies are no longer with us. But on the stage, they are.  

I actually never met Ethel, but I had a phone relationship with her.We were doing a tribute to Stephen Sondheim, Ethel was so excited to do it, and we had this whole telephone exchange which comes in all throughout the play. (laughing) And I'm not going to tell you what happened with that. You'll have to see the show.

Q: Yes, please don't tell me. I'm seeing the show and I want to be surprised! I cannot wait to hear all of your stories about these iconic women.

A: Well, they really taught me lessons. I learned so much from each of them. Someone recently was talking to me about the production and said, "It sounds like you have created the perfect mother with these ladies." Each one had a facet that was different, and they had a different lesson for me in my life.

So having said that, I guess that's what led me to create PROUD LADIES. I just really appreciated them. 

Q: That is beautiful. What a tremendously wonderful reason.

A: I also think that in the best memoir pieces, the audience is triggered and they think it's about themselves. Not that they have had the opportunity to work with these 23 amazing ladies, but that each lesson is very universal. The specific lessons that I had are universal to any human being. At the end, I sort of wrap it up for the audience and tell them to remember the angels in their lives.

You know, these women and I were really blessed to have been a part of such a developmental time in musical theatre. 

I learned so much from each of them. Someone recently was talking to me about the production and said, "It sounds like you have created the perfect mother with these ladies." Each one had a facet that was different, and they had a different lesson for me in my life.

So, at least for me, the most wonderful things my production partner, Stephanie, and I are able to bring to the table creatively, are often the things that come from the unconscious.

To be here, in Columbus, to present this story that has so much of Vicki in it is a really, really beautiful thing. This is her hometown, and we did When Everything Was Possible here at the RiverCenter in 2013 for her last performance.

Q: It was her last performance ever?

A: Yes. She fell ill very soon after and was gone rather quickly. Columbus was the best place to bring this story for its premiere. This is a really special place for us. 

Q: Stephanie, may I ask you a question?  How did you and Mr. Peterson begin working together?

A: (Skyllas) Kurt and I have been partners for nine years. We met through one of our friends who introduced us. We had both worked with them separately. We met and instantly loved each other and went to work, really.