THE BURDEN OF BEING DIVINE By BARBARA JAEGER, Music Critic Date: 07-15-1994, Friday Section: LIFESTYLE / PREVIEWS Edition: All Editions — 3 Star, 2 Star P, 2 Star B, 1 Star Late, 1 Star Early Biographical: BETTE MIDLER
The question Bette Midler poses is rhetorical, but it’s worth pondering anyway.
“If you don’t make it as beautiful and magical as it can be, what’ s the point of going onstage?”
But in an era when audiences are conditioned to accept less and less from entertainers when they take the concert stage — how else to explain lip-syncing, choreographed moves, and scripted stage patter? — Midler is an anomaly.
She’s a throwback to the old-time school of performing. Not only can she do it all — sing, dance, and tell off-the-cuff stories and jokes — she gives it her all every time she hits the stage. Any stage.
A recent appearance on “Late Night With David Letterman” was indicative of Midler’s give-’em-all-you-got style. Most guests on late-night talk shows are content to do a scaled-down song and then feign interest while chatting it up with the host. Not Midler.
In her complete Delores DeLago mermaid regalia, she staged a full-scale production number with three backup singers. After jumping around on her glittery green fin to the brassy strains of “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy,” Midler then hopped over to the easy chair next to Letterman’s desk. Seated, she breathlessly chatted with all the enthusiasm and glee of a cheerleader, all the while flipping her fin high in the air.
Midler, on the phone from Memphis, laughs heartily at the recollection.
“Being an entertainer is sort of like being a magician or shaman,” she says, quickly adding, “But when you give yourself a title like that, it comes with an obligation. You must take people on a magic carpet ride.”
For someone whose reputation is that of a demanding, sassy, and sometimes salty-tongued diva, Midler is surprisingly soft-spoken, low-key, and down to earth. It takes only a minute or so into the thoughtful — often thought-provoking — conversation to realize that Midler offstage is radically different from the razzle-dazzle entertainer who bewitches when the spotlight is turned on.
“Today, there are a lot of big shows, but very often they are hollow,” says the 48-year-old entertainer. “There’s a lot of window dressing, but no voices.
“When I go onstage I want to make what I do more beautiful than everyday life. I want it to be an escape, in the same way that movies used to be an escape for people.”
And what an escape the Divine Miss M’s tour last year — her first in a decade — proved to be. The “Experience the Divine” road show, which included an unprecedented sold-out, 30-performance stint at Radio City Music Hall, had critics straining for adjectives to describe the all-out entertainment spectacle that was equal parts burlesque and Broadway.
“I sort of forced people to look at our culture,” says Midler. “In a funny way, we’ve become a country that has no culture. And a country without culture is one in deep spiritual and social trouble. Without culture, there are no rituals or anything to hold us together.”
As her voice rises with passion, her words rush forward with the force of a swollen stream. “Today, everyone wants to stand on his or her own square; they don’t want to join in the common culture.
“Particularly in music, all you ever hear today is what’s current. Not only have we lost sight of our cultural foundation’s underpinnings, there seems to be no respect for what came before.
“I see value in all kinds of things; it doesn’t have to be brand new or novel for me to appreciate it.”
Along with the comedy and camp in her road show, Midler mixes her contemporary hits, including “From a Distance” and “Wind Beneath My Wings,” with standards from the likes of George Gershwin and Cole Porter.
“There are people who have never heard Gershwin or Porter. They don’t know who Billie Holiday or Judy Garland was,” Midler says. ” The real travesty is that there are no programs in our schools or government to require that they know.”
Midler isn’t going back on the road just to educate. She also has some personal goals.
After scoring her initial success singing, first at the Continental Baths and later on Broadway , Midler started concentrating on her acting career, which began with her Oscar-nominated performance in the 1979 film “The Rose.”
In the Eighties, she strung together a succession of successful films — “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People,” “Big Business,” “Beaches,” and “Outrageous Fortune.” But subsequent films, including “Scenes from a Mall,” “Hocus Pocus,” and “For the Boys,” proved costly flops.
While Midler was universally praised for her roles in most of these films — even landing another Oscar nomination for 1991’s “For the Boys” — the critical lambasting seems to have sapped her enthusiasm.
“It’s disheartening to do a film, which is very hard work and which takes a lot of time, and get no satisfaction from doing it.
“I’d be happy to work again in film if something wonderful came along,” says Midler, who has two films left on her contract with Disney films. “But, for the most part, all I’ve seen is mediocre stuff. And I still love music more than anything.”
She rediscovered that love while working on the television production of the Broadway musical “Gypsy,” in which she played Mama Rose.
“I had a wonderful time singing those songs from `Gypsy,’ and I hadn’t had that feeling for a long time.
“Of course, once I made the decision to tour and I plunged in, I remembered why I had quit in the first place,” she says, with a laugh.
Even though her show proved strenuous — Midler likens it to a three-hour aerobics session — she couldn’t wait to take it out on the road again this summer.
“I had a great time, a great band, and a great crew,” she says. “When my husband [Martin Von Haselberg] and daughter [Sophie] said they wanted to come out, we decided to make it a family affair this summer.”
While the tour, which began in Miami in May and concludes in Los Angeles in September, encompasses more dates than last year’s road trip, Midler says it’s not as grueling or as hard on her voice.
“It’s a lot of traveling, but most of this tour is a day on and a day off,” she says. “That’s a big help for the voice.”
Today, Midler looks for songs that move her and that she can enhance with her voice.
“I don’t like to scream anymore,” she says. “And now I’m much more interested in the whole process of finding a song, learning it, arranging it with a band. I’ve sort of become a student.
“Growing up, I was always on the outside, wanting to be paid attention to. And I was so anxious to become a star, I would do just about anything. I had to satisfy those feelings first.
“Having done that, now I’m just happy in the the creation of art.”
And no one creates art as divine as Miss M.