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.
Co-Producers Kurt Peterson and Stephanie Skyllas.
(Peterson) We started working together when I was working on a Christmas album with Kelli O'Hara. We got into some turbulence - not with Kelli at all- but with mangers and lawyers and whatever. Anyhow, a project that we were totally in love with went down in flames and Stephanie was there holding my hand and helped me to mend fences and move forward. I talk about it in the Kelli chapter in our show.
Stephanie and I bonded through that experience, and then we started working on When Everything Was Possible right after that. It took quite awhile. We went out of town a couple of times with it, and then eventually did it on Broadway at City Center.
Q: Wow. What happened after that run?
A:(Skyllas) We had big plans for a world tour of it, but then Vicki fell ill and passed away rather suddenly. We decided we couldn't just let it go. We had big plans for it, and we needed to honor her and honor the show. So we decided to do the album after the fact to keep the show alive and to keep Vicki alive in all of us as well.
Q: That is beautiful.
A: (Skyllas) Thank you. We just knew we had to do it. We projected images of her that had never been seen before, and we just had some really incredible things to share.
(Peterson) The most impactful moment was when a critic said, "Anyone interested in doing musical theatre has to see this show. Not only will you learn a lot, it will give you hope." That really resonated with us, and Vicki would have loved that.
There's the play you want to write, and the play you need to write.
Q: Stephanie, for our readers, may I ask what your formal role is with the production of PROUD LADIES?
A: Of course! Kurt and I are co-producers, but then I am also the general manager. I head up all of the business side of things. Especially when we are in Georgia, I just try to let Kurt be an actor. He wears so many hats as the book writer, the actor and the producer, so I try to just let him be an actor as much as possible when we're this close to the world premiere.
Q: Mr. Peterson, is it hard to take off all of those hats? Or is it like a vacation for you?
A: That is a great question. I would say that it's not hard, but Stephanie would tell you that it's hard for me to keep just one hat on at a time. (laughing) But you know, at this point, it's important for me to just concentrate on what I'm doing on stage.
The element of wearing many hats is that it works. Stephanie is also very creative. I don't think I would be able to work with someone who didn't sort of have both parts of their brain working that way. It's so important to have an understanding of the business and also maintain our ability to create. We work well together, I think, because of the fact we each want to wear both of those hats. It gives us the opportunity to do what we love and create.
I feel very fortunate to have this team and Stephanie to help make our vision for PROUD LADIES happen.
Q: One of the things that I am fascinated with is learning about the process behind a product in the arts. So many people just see an art exhibit or a production performed on stage, and they do not realize what it takes to get to that point. My job is to help our audience to learn to love the process as much as the product, and want our audience to learn as much about it as possible.
A: (Skyllas) Thank you. I mean, how many years have we been working on this show? At least five. There are years and years and years of work before anyone outside of your team sees a thing. For us, this a culminating moment but also only the beginning.
(Peterson) Exactly. I mean, Hamilton took something like seven years. People don't realize that. Follies was around in the 60s as an idea and it wasn't done until '71.
(Skyllas) Artists work so many years before anyone earns a penny. So that speaks a lot to how important it is to us. How much we love this story. We work years before we even have an opportunity to show anyone our work.
(Peterson) Absolutely. You have to love it.
Kurt Peterson in rehearsal for PROUD LADIES at the Springer earlier this week.
Q: Thank you for speaking to the process behind your work, and why so many artists wear so many hats as they work.
A: It is so important. You know, when we wear those hats, it's not because we're interested in anything other than being here to create something beautiful.
Q: Yes. Okay, so one of the only things I know about this world premiere of PROUD LADIES is that the 23 ladies sort of "appear" on stage with you. What does that mean exactly?
A: Well, I don't know if I'd say that. What we have are these wonderful projections with a treasure trove of original photos of these ladies. Then, with each vignette, there are very specific and special images of each one. So, it's not as though I'm in a trade show where I point to each one. I'm not really looking at them onstage except for maybe very few times.
Projections on stage for tonight's world premiere of PROUD LADIES.
(Skyllas) I will say though, that for the audience it is a very unique experience. I know Kurt feels on stage a different way, but for me in the house, although it is a one man show it is clear to me that we have a cast of 24. The women play a huge role in the show. It's very exciting.
(Peterson) The stories that I tell in the show are very personal with each woman, but we are very conscious that the women range from Ethel Merman to Kelli O'Hara. That's 50-70 years. We know that these days we may have younger audiences or people who may not be as savvy with these names and faces. We want this work to touch everyone, so we've put together a program that provides biographical information about each of these women. We also have included the things the public would know these women for, in contrast to my personal stories about them. This helps the audience have that information about each of the women from the very beginning.
(Skyllas) It really is like reading a history lesson. In addition to providing biographical information about our 23 ladies, there is also information about many other individuals who are mentioned in the work. It would be a great study guide or a sort of cliff notes on this era of musical theatre history.
Q: That is wonderful, and explains so much for our readers who might not know what to expect. When I read the synopsis, I could tell their "presence" was important, but I couldn't figure out how it would work. I could tell it was very heartfelt, but I wanted to understand what it meant. Thank you for sharing your concept with our audience. It will help everyone know what to expect during tomorrow night's world premiere.
A: (Peterson) Thanks for asking. As I developed the script, I used these projected images as carrots to sort of lead me from one story to the next. The interesting thing is that I haven't experienced it all together yet. The Springer has been so wonderful to give us everything we needed to bring together this entire experience. I can't wait to share it with everyone for the first time tomorrow night.
Honestly, I've had a hard time not losing it a few times during the rehearsals. I'm sure that when I'm up there with these amazing ladies projected on the screens behind me tomorrow night, I'm going to have to work really hard to maintain what I'm setting out to do.
(Skyllas) The emotion is so real. I have a hard time keeping it together as well. The performance and the emotions are just so genuine. I've seen the show a hundred times, and every time I still am moved by all of this true, raw emotion. We really get to go on this incredible journey as the audience, and it's one of the things I love most about this show.
Q: My last question is rather more of a statement, I suppose. How lucky are these women to have had you? There isn't enough care taken to remember people and things these days. Everything is so instantaneous. It's very moving to me that you've taken the time to remember these stories- these women- in such an intentional and beautiful way.
A: (Peterson) You know, no one has ever asked us that question. Thank you.
Q: I'm sincere when I say that it's encouraging to me to know that these important stories are being preserved for future generations. As someone who is passionate about helping others tell their stories well, thank you for doing this important work. It matters.
A: Thank you. That is a very nice thing to say. You know, I promised Vicki that I wouldn't let her be forgotten. The album was a part of that, but this is a part of that promise too. PROUD LADIES is a story about those who came before us, but it is also about those continuing to carry the torch for years to come.◼︎
More to Know:
The world premiere of PROUD LADIES is on August 17 at the Springer Opera House and begins at 7:30 p.m. The premiere is a benefit for the Springer Opera House Historic Preservation Fund. Tickets are $40 for current Springer Society members and Subscribers. Regular tickets are $48. Student Tickets are $20. Tickets which include a post-show champagne reception with Mr. Peterson are $75. Group discounts are available for groups of 10 or more. For reservations, call the Springer box office at 706-327-3688 or visit springeroperahouse.org