KMB Interview: Philadelphia Daily News


Thanks Manilow Elf!!!!

Philadelphia Daily News – January 12, 2004
Just divine

WITH A TIP of the hat to poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Bette Midler calls
the pretty, carnival-like stage setting for her new show a “Coney Island
of the Mind.”

A fantasy of light and laughter, complete with the Divine Miss M flying
in on a carousel horse and lots of other funhouse effects old and new,
borrowed and blue, the stage extravaganza hitting the Wachovia Center on
Thursday has been tailored for a time and audience that’s desperately in
need of some sizable yuks and some great songs – a few hours of getting
away from it all.

“I’ve been working on this show for a long time,” Midler said in a recent
chat from the road. “It was supposed to go out the October before last,
but I just couldn’t get it together. I didn’t know what I wanted. I
didn’t feel strong enough. But now this is the most solid any of my
shows have ever been. It’s also the most high-tech and expensive.”

For the record, the show is formally billed “Kiss My Brass” – a
multilevel allusion to Midler’s sassy self, to UFO shows of bygone war
eras and also to Midler’s new, horn-endowed, 13-piece band.

There’s even a local tie-in. The show has been produced by
Philadelphia-based Clear Channel Concerts’ exec Larry Magid, as was her
first full-fledged assault on Broadway as a star, 1975’s “Clams on the
Half Shell Revue.”

When Magid met Midler

Magid first got cozy with Midler in the early 1970s when she was a
fledgling cabaret talent playing the Bijou Cafe here with piano
accompaniment by one Barry Manilow. My personal memories include the
diva-in-training throwing this fledgling journalist out of her dressing
room for asking one too many impertinent questions – but then quickly
asking me back! “Yeah, that sounds like something I would do,” she
recalled with a snort.

A few other seasoned hands are also on board for the new show – notably
longtime choreographer Toni Basil and ace gag writer Bruce Vilanch –
whose acerbic tone is most in evidence in a self-deprecating skit about
Midler’s short-lived, 2000 TV series “Bette,” and in a bitchy song and
gag routine about showbiz couples in splitsville.

But this notoriously harsh perfectionist has also had to, ahem,
“accustom” some road newcomers to the ways of her Divinedom.

The latest trio of backup singer/dancing Harlettes (following in the
footsteps of vets like Melissa Manchester and Katey Sagal) are “mostly
from Broadway, really talented and great spirits, and almost young
enough to be my kids,” smirked the now 58 but indefatigably “ageless”
Midler. (In fact, her daughter Sophie, named after the brassy
entertainer Sophie Tucker, is now 18 and touring herself – in search of
the right East Coast college. “I wouldn’t dream of putting her in my
show,” said Mom.)

Midler has found another Bette – Sussman – to serve as her musical
director. “We met and started working when I moved back to New York from
California after the earthquakes – just in time for 9/11 and lots of
benefit gigs.” (Founder of the New York Restoration Project, Midler is an
especially soft touch for urban renewal projects and even has a hunk of
scrubbed-clean New York highway named for her.)

Most of the five brass players tooting in her band hail from the
retro-swing Royal Crown Revue. They add such “oomph” to Midler’s songs
that she now wonders how she ever did without them. And just in case
you’re wondering, Midler swears this is definitely not her farewell

Why, the entertainer even makes a point (on stage) of razzing Cher for
using that ominous threat to lure in the crowds, one last time…or two.

From Barry to Bette: Come on-a my show

Midler’s long-estranged play-pal Barry Manilow also has a hand in the new
concert show. While they ended badly and didn’t talk for years, it was
Manilow’s bright idea to phone Midler out of the blue and persuade her to
do a tribute album to Rosemary Clooney, shortly before that noted
songstress’s death in June 2002.

Produced and arranged by Manilow to gently update Clooney’s hits from the
1950s – like “Come On-A My House,” “Hey There,” “This Ole House” and
“Mambo Italiano” – the album “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney
Songbook” returned Midler to the charts after a long dry spell, and the
material is prominently featured in her new stage show.

The set is in contention for a Grammy next month for best traditional pop
vocal album – ironically against Clooney’s own “The Last Concert Disc,”
which Midler insisted deserves the honor.

She also credited director Richard Jay Alexander (best known for his
recent concert staging work with Barbra Streisand) with “coming in at
the last minute and saving my ass” for this show, which unexpectedly
butted up against her reshoots for Frank Oz’s remake of the sci-fi film
“The Stepford Wives,” slated to premiere in June.

Almost a year in the making, and this time played “strictly for laughs,”
said Midler, the film sets her to comic sleuthing with Nicole Kidman and
was not without its behind-the-scenes strains.

“But aren’t they all?” this seasoned film star asked rhetorically. “You
see all those ‘making of’ documentaries, but they don’t really address
the truth of what it is to be on a set, all the things that can go on,
that do go on between personalities. Every single production is so
hard…Even a ‘First Wives Club.’ My makeup artist tells me that one was
really tough, but I have a selective memory.”

Midler remembers “laughing a lot and loving Goldie [Hawn] and Diane
[Keaton]. We’ve tried to get a sequel going, but evidently it’s going to
be over my dead body. Paramount won’t hear of it.”

Another of my personal faves, her made-for-TV revival of the musical
“Gypsy,” “was very hard to make,” Midler recalled. “The director was very
ill, dying of AIDS. Emile Ardolino. A gigantic talent. And [author]
Arthur Laurents was there and wanted it his way. Everyone wanted to
please everyone. We were under a terrible cloud.

“There are so many elements that go into making a production, so many
ways it can go wrong. To try and control the elements is so hard. With
the [“Bette”] television show, I found, we were totally at the mercy of
the writers…So when you have a product and it turns out to be good,
it’s a huge sigh of relief. It’s like climbing Mount Everest. You never
know when it’s going to come crashing down around you, and when it’s
great, you have to thank the movie gods. But this time [with “The
Stepford Wives”] we do think we’ve got a great big hit.”

And with her stage show “Kiss My Brass” “doing marvelous business,
getting great audiences” and winning good reviews, too, is it any wonder
Midler doesn’t ever want to give up this most reliable, controllable
aspect of her career?

Bette Midler, 8 p.m. Thursday, Wachovia Center, $62, $92, $177,

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