Miss M is still Divine
Post-Dispatch Pop Music Critic
Fear overcame popular entertainer Bette Midler every time she walked onto the Los Angeles lot where she rehearsed for her new “Kiss My Brass” tour – and for good reason. Rehearsals took place on the same lot where her sitcom “Bette,” perhaps the debacle of her career, was filmed.
“Every time I came through those gates, I shivered with terror and horror because I had to come back to the scene of the crime,” the singer-actress jokes during a telephone interview last month during a break in rehearsals. “I’m still in recovery from my sitcom.”
Destined to leave her with a better feeling is her tour, which repositions the brassy star on familiar turf – the concert stage. It was Midler’s over-the-top revue that solidified her name and reputation more than three decades ago, before such career highlights as the movies “The Rose,” “Ruthless People” and “Outrageous Fortune” and hit songs “From a Distance” and “The Wind Beneath My Wings.”
Her concerts have always combined music and laughs, and the shows are pure vaudeville in their spirit. This new tour is no exception. “It’s a good show, a big show, and it’s really expensive,” says Midler. “I like it a lot. It’s a pretty show that has a little bit of an old-fashioned quality to it. It’s bawdy, but it’s not frightening or vicious. It’s something that allows us to catch our breath and
remember we can have fun in a good way.”
And though their shows are both extravagant, don’t confuse Midler with another aging iconic diva, Cher. “She’s always a lot of fun, a lot of spirit, but she’s not as liberal-minded as me, and she doesn’t talk as much as I do,” says Midler. “She has a lot more hits. But we both like a lot of spectacle. I enjoy her. She doesn’t pretend to be anything but what she is, and people need that.”
Midler says her “Kiss My Brass” show will evolve over the course of the tour, which will continue at least through February (the show opened in Chicago on Wednesday and plays the Savvis Center Monday, its third date). “It’s like my playpen, my palette, my canvas,” she says. “I shape it until I like it, until it’s what I want it to be. I want it to be very colorful and very lively. It’s a big stage with lots of room to fill, lots of territory to take over.
“And everybody does what I tell them to do, which is great,” adds Midler, who is dealing with choreographers, costumers and set designers. “The hard part is putting it together because I like this and I like that. Making those decisions can be tiring. Sometimes you’re not sure which way you’re going, and you have to backtrack because you took a wrong turn and have to go back to square one.”
Originally, Midler planned to take her show out on the road a year ago, but she didn’t feel her voice was strong enough. She also remained affected by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Her depression was heightened by the country’s response to the event. Midler hoped America would re-examine what it’s “putting out into the world – are we doing things that people find not tasteful? – and really take another turn.”
But that didn’t happen, she says: “We didn’t do that when we had the chance. We went right back to what we were doing. We didn’t say, ‘Wait a second,’ and that made people even sadder. We didn’t have a chance to change. We just got swamped by the same old thing.”
Midler wants to use her show to illuminate the darkness of the times. “It’s time for a happy experience,” says Midler. “This tour is about light, trying to find the light again. There’s a lot of light in the show. My inspiration came from Coney Island, one of the first amusement parks. It was one of the first times they used light bulbs to define architecture. I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m looking
for light in a metaphorical way and literal way.”
Midler says this tour has her traveling with things she’s never featured before, including an LED wall that will show a mixture of archival and new footage. “Technically, I’ve never done this before. I’m a low-tech girl getting used to all this newfangled equipment, which is interesting. But it takes a toll on you.”
The show will highlight footage from an old television show and new clips used in the tribute to Rosemary Clooney (Midler was nominated for a Grammy last week for her “Bette Midler Sings the Songbook of Rosemary Clooney”). “I had to put film footage of her together,” says Midler. “She was so lovely and warm-hearted. I really liked her. I wanted to make sure her section of the show was especially lovely.”
She’ll have a horn section as well, which is new for Midler. “I must have been asleep,” she says. “It never occurred to me to bite the bullet and pay for horns. Almost everything I have is great for horns. I didn’t realize how much I have that counted on horns, stuff from ‘The Rose,’ stuff from Clooney. They can play all styles, vintage and new stuff, and they’re kicking. I’m thrilled.”
Returning to the stage with Midler is her mermaid character Delores Delago. It wouldn’t be a Midler concert without her. “You cannot believe Delores,” says Midler. “She’s at her height – the happiest she’s ever been. This time, Delores is making a trip to Broadway, so she’s taking her show to Broadway. We have some surprises, and the crowd will get a kick out of it.”
She’s also unveiling new Harlettes on tour (Katey Sagal and Melissa Manchester both served time as Harlettes long ago). Of this new batch, Midler says, “They’re so very young, it’s all so sad and pathetic. Only I am allowed to be ageless. But they’re all stars (in their own right), and they all sing like angels. They can sing, dance, and they’re hilarious. They can do it all.”
Much like Midler herself, who has also proven herself as fine an actress as she is a singer. Midler’s next film project is a remake of “The Stepford Wives,” in which she plays the Paula Prentiss character.
And unlike other veteran entertainers in her generation – Cher, Kiss, Alabama – Midler intends to keep on doing it all. “I’m not retiring, and you can’t make me,” she declares. “There’s still a little bit of life left in the old girl. But it is so tempting because I’m of a certain age and my daughter is going off to college. So it’d seem like it’d make sense. But I haven’t figured out what I would do.”