The Post With The Most…On The Road To D.C….Thank you Manilow Elf!


By Richard Harrington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 23, 2004; Page WE07

WHEN IS a Bette Midler concert like a night at an amusement park?

Well, actually most of the time, but more literally so on Midler’s current “Kiss My Brass” tour, which is set in a Coney Island of her mind. Midler’s Luna Park midway intentionally bears a resemblance to that classic New York beach resort, the world’s largest and premier amusement park during the first half of the 20th century. Coney Island was also one of the first places to use light bulbs to define architecture.

“I had a picture of a woman on a carousel horse that I’d pulled out of a magazine and I kind of looked at it for a long time, for almost a year, and I didn’t know why I kept looking at it,” Midler says of a production kernel that bloomed into the biggest show she has ever done.

“All of the materials that I had collected during that year had to do with the ocean, the seashore, the way people behave at the seashore,” she explains. “I had a guy come in and consult with me about it and when he saw all my materials he asked me if I had ever seen Coney Island. And I said that I had been there in the late ’60s and it was pretty much a dump by then. He said you should see what it was like when it was first built in 1915! And he brought in pictures and they were extraordinary!

“I had no idea that the place was like that and it all kind of fell into place and that’s what we based the show on. It’s not really very much of a theme, it’s an environment, an invitation for people to feel that they can be very relaxed, that they’re there to have a good time. When people take it into their heads to go to an amusement park, they really want that.”

People also want cheap thrills, big laughs — or big thrills and cheap laughs — as well as good music, an emotional roller coaster ride, a little bit of magic and the occasional fish tale. Truth be told, Midler’s one of the few divine divas equipped to deliver on all fronts.

“People are really surprised at how much there is as opposed to how little there is,” she says proudly, adding that “this is the biggest, certainly the heaviest, the weightiest show I’ve ever done, at a time when everybody’s feeling the pinch and everyone wants to do smaller shows to make more money. I mean I’d like to do a smaller show and make more money, too, but it doesn’t seem to be in the cards,” she laughs.

In an era of production streamlining, it’s a relief to know Midler goes the opposite way, including touring for the first time with a horn section, and not just so she can use the show’s bawdy name.

“I wanted horns,” Midler explains, pointing out she did the “Clams on the Half Shell Revue” on Broadway with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in 1975 and once had a lone saxophone player (“That didn’t really count”).

“There’s so much music that I’ve been singing all my life that had horn charts in the recordings, and I really wanted that sound on stage,” she says. “I grew up listening to that kind of music and horns play a big part in R&B and swing music and ’40s pop, and I just wanted to fill some of the music out. Now I have ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ with a real horn part, even some of the familiar ballads. It’s a great sound — three of them are from Royal Crown Revue, which is one of my favorite bands. I worked with them a couple of years ago on ‘Bathhouse Betty’ and they’re great guys. Actually the opening number of my show is the number they do called ‘Hey Pachuco,’ which they gave us permission to use and rewrite and it’s now called ‘Kiss My Brass.’ ”

Having a horn section is also allowing Midler to address material she’s not done on past concert tours, including the gorgeous ballad “Skylark,” “The Perfect Kiss,” “When a Man Loves a Woman” (from “The Rose”), as well as “Tenderly,” “Hey There” and “C’Mon a-My House” from her latest album, “Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook.”

Which still leaves room for another chapter in the continuing saga of singing mermaid Delores Delago (this time she’s determined to flop and crawl all the way to Broadway) and Midler’s familiar neo-burlesque-meets-vaudeville comedy routines. It’s a long show, mostly because Midler had a hard time figuring out what to cut out.

“I was very naive,” she says. “I kept doing stuff and thinking, well, I’ll trim it at the end, I just want to see what stuff looks like. I do a lot of experimenting that way. But in the end a lot of it looked really, really great so I kept it and here I am. I’m very happy with it: It really thunders along and it’s highly, highly entertaining. It’s winter and everybody needs a lift.”

“Bette Midler Sings the Rosemary Clooney Songbook,” the singer’s 16th album, recently scored a Grammy nomination (she’s previously won four), but left her in an awkward position. Her competition includes Rosemary Clooney’s posthumously released “The Last Concert.”

“I really should withdraw,” Midler frets. “It would be fantastic if Rosemary won because, you know, she never won a Grammy. She was always up with Tony Bennett and he always won.”

The album’s a winner already. Released in September, it posted Midler’s best-ever opening week with sales of 71,000 copies.

And if that seems like a dream, maybe it’s because the album stepped out of a dream. Barry Manilow’s, to be precise.

Manilow, of course, began his career in the ’70s as Midler’s arranger and pianist during her breakthrough years on the New York cabaret and bath house circuit; he also produced her first two albums. But the longtime friends hadn’t talked for years after a falling-out over some now forgiven and forgotten issues. Which is why Midler was surprised when Manilow called up out of the blue to tell her he had just had a dream about producing her in an album of classic songs associated with Clooney: not imitation, but homage to someone they both idolized.

“It was a very happy experience,” Midler says. “A happy experience to know Rosemary and a happy experience to be back in the studio with Barry, and the arrangements that he called in.”

Manilow, a student of classic pop song, did some of those arrangements, but the album also features other top-flight talent, including Patrick Williams, Jorge Calandrelli and particularly Ray Ellis, “who made one of the greatest records ever, Billie Holiday’s ‘Lady in Satin.’ It’s one of the most heartbreaking documents you could hear because it’s so beautiful, and though you know Billie has hardly any voice left, it doesn’t matter because she has so much soul and so much life in those songs.”

On the album, Manilow stands in for Bing Crosby on “On a Slow Boat to China” and while Midler doesn’t expect him to pop out and surprise her on stage during this tour — “though that would be great fun!” — she’s very pleased with the reconnection.

“It’s grand. He calls and I call, we’ve sort of got a little e-mail thing going. Barry has a lot of wonderful ideas and as a musician he’s a real racehorse. He knows so much history and he’s interested in it. And he’s very forward-looking, too, and a terrible snob about music: He only likes what he likes. You can go to the mat with him and talk about what’s good about something, and he’ll get very passionate about it. So it’s still a very vibrant relationship.”

Manilow called at a good time, because Midler had been let go by Atlantic/Warner Bros. after 30 years.

“I thought, well, that’s probably the end of that,” she says, “and in a funny way, I felt that I hadn’t really done what I had meant to do in my records. I’m kind of stubborn and a lot of times I do too many things instead of concentrating on one thing. When Barry called me, he really kind of lifted me out of the doldrums and he gave me the opportunity to sing one kind of music and have it be correct and focused just on that rather than charging around like a bull in a china shop looking for new music and great new writers.”

Not that Midler isn’t doing that, as well.

“I always multi-task so I’m always listening to new songwriters, and I have songs that people have written for me that I’ve been carrying around for the last three years,” she says. “But not a whole lot of them, not enough to make an album.”

Which is one way of saying she’s not sure what her next album will be, though it sounds as if Midler might be willing to continue exploring classic popular song.

“My voice is changing,” Midler explains. “Hormonally, I have a whole lot more going on, so my voice is getting darker and I hear it getting darker and I want to serve that voice. I kind of miss my other voice, but I have to face the music. It’s a struggle, everybody goes through it, but I’m enjoying the idea of singing those great charts and picking great songs.

“I was 10 years old when I heard rock ‘n’ roll for the first time, so the first 10 years were taken up by that kind of pop music that was on the radio between ’45 and ’55. A lot of people my age and my generation kind of turned their back on it when rock ‘n’ roll came in, which is okay, but in a funny kind of way, I want to hear that kind of music again. I don’t disdain it, I don’t turn my nose up at it because it’s so familiar to me and it means so much and it’s really great music. Even the stuff that didn’t make it onto the radio because it was too avant-garde, that stuff is fascinating and worth listening to again. I’ve always been kind of an archaeologist and archivist. I really, really love music, and it all really falls into the work that I do.”

Other work that she does includes film work, of course, and Midler recently finished a remake of “The Stepford Wives,” that ’70s cult classic about men who turn their wives into robots because they can handle them better that way. It stars Nicole Kidman, Glenn Close, Faith Hill, Matthew Broderick, Christopher Walken and Jon Lovitz. Midler plays the old Paula Prentiss part, the outraged best friend of the film’s heroine (Kidman).

“It’s a creepy comedy and I think it’s quite beautiful,” Midler gushes, “and it was a cast like you’ve never seen. An amazing and a remarkable experience.”

Not unlike a Midler concert, actually.

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