Interview: Minneapolis Star

Jon Bream
Star Tribune
Published 12/14/2003

Bette Midler was multi-tasking recently in her Dallas hotel room: eating breakfast, doing a phone interview, answering another phone, gushing about this, kvetching about that.

In other words, being the Divine Miss M.

She was about to head to rehearsal for her Kiss My Brass Tour, which comes to St. Paul on Friday. She was excited but exhausted — and a little on edge.

“I have a lot of people on this show who have been with me before, and they say this is the smoothest one ever,” she said. “From where I’m standing, it looks like a rocky mountain.”

That’s partly because she thinks the show is too long. “It’s gotten bigger and bigger and bigger. This [rehearsal] is when I have to rein it in.”

So many songs, too little time.

With Tina Turner retired from the road and Cher finished with her neverending farewell tour, Midler, 58, is the oldest female headliner working the arena-concert circuit.

“Ha ha ha,” she exploded with genuine laughter. “Can I use that? That’s hilarious.

“The subtitle of my tour is ‘I’m Not Retiring, and You Can’t Make Me.’ ”

It’s worth touring at her age, Midler said, because it’s so creatively inspiring in spite of the physical challenges.

“It’s rough,” she said. “I’m tired. And you don’t sleep so well after you reach a certain age.”

Oy, here comes the kvetching.

“My weight’s been up and down,” said the entertainer, who last toured in 1999. “I was very nervous about starting this. I broke my foot in May; I fell into a pothole. So I had to stop running and stop walking and stop the Stairmaster until it healed. The truth is, singing is all about wind. It’s been a struggle, but I feel good. I’m sort of keeping up with my girls [backup singers]. I have new girls, who are a hundred years younger than I am.”

Midler has a concept for the lavish production, which, of course, will include her outrageous characters Delores Del Lago and Soph the spinster. The show is set in Luna Park, which she said is the old Coney Island in New York.

“It’s got a cheesy, cheap, wonderfully decrepit quality,” she said. “In my demented vision, there’s an aspect to an amusement park that’s both joyous and also terrifying. Life is a little bit like that, and we’ve been through a lot in the last couple of years. My feeling of Coney Island of the mind, you throw off your everyday cares and you put on your play clothes and you’re a different person.”

First-ever horn section

For the first time in her 30-year touring career, Midler will be accompanied by a horn section, which will enable her to dust off some old tunes.

“I’m going to sing ‘Skylark,’ which I’ve never sung in public, ‘Midnight in Memphis,’ a whole bunch of songs from ‘The Rose,’ ‘When A Man Loves a Woman.’ I haven’t sung those songs since I recorded them.

“We have a new song we wrote for the occasion called ‘Kiss My Brass.’ I hope people will understand those lyrics because it’s awful loud.”

Midler is calling this the Kiss My Brass Tour for three reasons — the brass or horn section, “the military aspect and the pun aspect.”

In this era of political correctness, does the ribald redhead — or is she a bawdy blonde these days? — worry about being un-PC or being in bad taste?

“I think I invented [bad taste],” she said matter-of-factly. “I don’t like to hurt people’s feelings. I don’t make racial jokes. Sexual foibles are always across the board. People are cheap. Mean-spirited people, it doesn’t matter what color they are or what their class is in life. Some characters are good for comedy.”

Midler promised to perform a few tunes from her new, Grammy-nominated disc, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.” Even though those numbers don’t necessarily lend themselves to the usual spectacular Divine Miss M presentations, she wanted to sing some of them.

Will she do “White Christmas” (Clooney starred in the classic movie) in St. Paul on the first night of Hanukkah?

“Maybe I won’t; maybe I’ll sing ‘Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel,’ ” she joked.

She has rehearsed “White Christmas,” she said, but “I’m not sure where it should go in the show.”

The “Clooney Songbook” — her 16th album — was the easiest one she has recorded, Midler said.

Barry Manilow, her piano player circa 1971 from whom she had been estranged for several years, called out of the blue and suggested the idea because both are fans of Clooney, a 1950s star who died last year. It turned out to be a remarriage made in heaven.

“I decided when I agreed to the project that I wasn’t going to be my usual crotchety self; I wasn’t going to micromanage,” said Midler, who trusted every musical aspect to Manilow.

“When I put myself in his hands — which is something I very rarely do — all the stress I could have had disappeared,” she said. “I did [the recording] in less than a week — from start to finish. It was a joy.”

More film, no TV

Midler will return to the silver screen next summer in a comedy remake of “The Stepford Wives” with Nicole Kidman, Matthew Broderick, Glenn Close, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz, who plays Midler’s husband.

“It’s just fabulous,” the divine one gushed. “I think it’s going to be a big, big hit.”

By contrast, the actress doesn’t have much good to say about her 2000 TV series, “Bette.”

“It was horrible, horrible,” she said. “I made such a fool out of myself. To fall on your face every week for 18 weeks, that’s pretty rude.”

Would she consider doing a Bette Midler reality series?

“That was my [TV] swan song,” she said, tersely. “TV is really, really hard. It’s a writers’ medium, and if you don’t have the writing, you’re absolutely dead in the water. Maybe I’d do ‘Extreme Makeover.’ ”

Don’t think the Divine Miss M is all show biz. Ask what motivates her, and she’ll get into some serious multitasking.

“I have to save the world; I have to solve the Middle East crisis,” said Midler, who has been active in organizations to save parks and historic buildings in New York City, where she lives. “I don’t have a whole lot of time left, and there’s a bunch of stuff I’d like to do before I can’t do anything. Maybe I didn’t finish my work.

“I have charity ideas, and I’d like to do things for music and arts schools.

“I want to know a little bit better how the world works. I’d like to go back to school,” continued the college dropout, who is shopping for colleges for her daughter, Sophie, a high-school senior. “I went one year to college; I didn’t seem to be cut out for it. I’ve read my whole life. There are so many things I don’t know.”

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