Kurt Peterson, a renowned Broadway musical theatre star and producer, comes to Columbus to accept the Columbus State University Lifetime Achievement Award in dance during the 3rd annual Broadway Ball. Peterson got his start playing Tony in the Bernstein and Rodgers revival of West Side Story alongside Columbus, Georgia hometown star Victoria Mallory. Now, his company, James Williams Productions, produces theatre performances all around the country, including the premiere of his latest work, Proud Ladies, which debuted at The Springer Opera House in August.
By SCOTTIE DECLUE
Kurt Peterson began his Broadway career when Leonard Bernstein and Richard Rodgers chose him to play Tony in the revival of West Side Story at Lincoln Center. He then starred opposite Angela Lansbury in Dear World and created the role of Young Ben in Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. On his interview with SVM, Kurt talks about how he started in show business, her working relationship with Victoria Malloy of Columbus and his planned visit to the 3rd. Annual Broadway Ball on November 30th.
You launched your Broadway career in New York City playing Tony from West Side Story, and now you have your very own production company – James Williams Productions; what can you say about that journey? What was it like starting out? It all started with my first musical, Finian’s Rainbow. I was a little kid in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and I went to see this performance called Finian’s Rainbow at the local theatre, and It was just transformative. I’ve heard this from some many other performers, that if you have that gene in you and you go see a show, it clicks. And something clicked in me, and I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I think I was painting scenery sets the next day. Starting out, I didn’t really know if I had any talent, and I remember going down into my basement and putting on some old show albums and dancing and singing. I guess I worked up some courage because soon after, I auditioned for the high school musical, The Boyfriend. I got the part and did the Charleston as Bobby Van Heusen, and that was my first role.At that point, there weren’t a lot of musical theatre schools around the country, and you had to go to New York if you wanted that option. Well, I was working this show later on and, this performer from New York had a role in the musical, and I remember he had this brochure for the AMDA, which is the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, and he gave me that brochure. I kept it, and a year later while I was on a school trip to New York, I snuck off and grabbed a cab ride to the AMDA and went inside.I remember people singing, and I just sat there for as long as I could, taking it all in. It was incredible. I took a summer course there shortly after, and I told my father not to worry because I would still be going to the University of Wisconsin to study chemical engineering, but you know I didn’t. I went back to AMDA, and that led to West Side Story, and meeting Victoria Mallory, of course. West Side in New York was a big break for two unknown kids from Stevens Point, Wisconsin and Columbus, Georgia. I was really working with the theatre giants.
Speaking of giants, you’re most recent production, Proud Ladies, featured some musical legends at the premiere in the Springer Opera House this August. You used multimedia to bring these performers back to life. What inspired this? So, back in 2014, Vicki and I did a performance at the Rivercenter called Concert with Comments, which was really a book musical based off the story of our lives. The whole back of the stage was covered with pictures I had collected throughout the years, which kind of told mine and Vicki’s story. With Proud Ladies, the concept was the same, but I thought, if we are going to tell the story of these ladies, why not have them appear on stage again. And how great was that… having Vicki on stage again. And The Springer was really tremendous in helping us put the show together, and they gave us a week of technical support that was really invaluable. And it was wonderful to share, in a way, the stage again with Vicki.
How did the show go? The show went very well, and the audience was wonderful. Each story in the show has this resonance and an important lesson, and there was this great universality because the lessons I was taught by these ladies were lessons that I could share with the audience. In the best memoir pieces, the audience feels that it’s pretty much about them. If I can get that feeling over to the audience, then I know I’ve done what I was supposed to do. I think we were really able to do that. My stories triggered stories in the audience about the great teachers, and angels, and lovers, and important figures in their lives.
Speaking of memoir, your longtime friend and stage partner, Victoria Mallory, was a hometown star in Columbus. What was it like working with Victoria? You know, we just recently celebrated the fourth anniversary of her passing, and I started getting these letters about Vicki. I have this box that’s filled with letters about how Vicki impacted these people’s lives, about how she was one of the most sweetest, endearing, and generous, and beautiful women they had ever met. So working with her was the exact same thing. It was an absolute joy. I was always so enamored with her because of her talent. She was playing piano at two, singing at three, and dancing at four, and she had this incredible confidence about herself that was such an inspiration for me. When we were able to reconnect during our performance at the Rivercenter in Columbus in 2014, well that was just an absolute joy.
The Columbus State University theatre department has invited you to the 3rd Annual Broadway Ball on November 30th. How did you come to be involved with this event? When plans were being made for Proud Ladies, Patty Taylor, who is sort of championing the dance program at CSU, saw I was coming and wrote a letter to me asking if I would be honored at the event. Patty danced with Vicki as a kid, so there was that connection also. Of course, I immediately said yes. I guess it was just part of that connection I feel with Columbus, with the Springer, and with the Rivercenter. And now, I will have a connection with Columbus State University –I’ll get to have a connection with those students. I remember the summer of 1966 with Vicki, and I think about how, at a young age, we were so in love with the art, and it just does my heart a lot of good. I really want a chance to talk with these students and give them some hope and inspiration.
Your production company has the Voice Studio, which has been a musical home for many talented students and teachers throughout the years. What impact do you feel the studio has had for people? The studio was originally and off-shute from the work I did with one of my great teachers, Paul Gavert. In the 70’s, all of Broadway began to study with Paul. I began teaching with Paul in 1975. When Paul passed away, I had this idea that I wanted to make a home for other teachers as well, and so then the studio expanded, and now we have people all the way at the top and people who just stepped off the bus.There’s this incredible energy. Now, we have 13 studios, 25 teachers, and over 300 students. And the teachers are all from specialties in different areas of performance. It has just got his life of its own, and it keeps growing. Of course, there is also the economic advantage, because, as you know, producing doesn't always produce, and not everybody makes a fortune in the theatres.
Maybe they need some inspiration to go see a show. Why theatre? What might you say is the most important aspect of theatre and stage performance? Why theatre? Well I guess there’s two ways of looking at it: there’s the aspect of performing in the theatre and being a part of it, and then there’s the aspect of being an audience member and viewing it as a fan.From the performing and producing aspect, it’s about being alive. And you’re never more alive than when your on stage and focused, and you’re never more alive than when you’re in the creative process of making something beautiful and important for the theatre and speaking with a voice. On the other side, as an audience member, I think it’s the same thing. As an audience member being connected to what's happening on stage, you feel more fully alive. It allows you to experience those emotions. The theatre gives you that. It gives you stories. You know, we’re all built to love stories in our conscious and unconscious life. So I think it's a wonderful dance between the man in the cave telling the story and the people sitting around the fire listening to the story.
So what story are you telling around the campfire next? What’s coming down the pipe? Well, you know, Proud Ladies has been keeping me pretty occupied at the moment, but there is another thing that I’ve been working on. About ten years ago, Vicki and I started working on a book musical, and we had to put it on the shelf when we did our concert, but there’s a brand new musical I’m working on called Dancing on the Moon, which is based on our story. It goes a lot deeper than our concert did. It’s a six character performance. We’ve done some readings on it, and now we’re gonna try and get it out next year on the stage.