Recession be damned! The Divine Miss M. is embracing her role as the new queen of Sin City’s Strip
January 24, 2009
LAS VEGASâ€“She may be 63, but she’s still definitely divine.
Watch Bette Midler as she sashays larger than life into the Ballroom of Caesar’s Palace. The acres of gold lamÃ© wrapped around her body may make her feel (as she hisses sotto voce to those around her) “trussed up like a Christmas goose,” but no piece of poultry ever looked so luscious.
And those trademark breasts of hers have lost none of their fascinating allure. “I flopped one of those suckers down on a postage scale,” she says. “It costs $87.50 to send them to Brazil, third-class.”
But nothing about the Divine Miss M. is third class. Twenty-four hours earlier, she’s being inducted into the upper echelons of Las Vegas royalty, filling the space that has been left empty since CÃ©line Dion departed in December, 2007.
La Midler, on this starry Saturday night, is to be honoured as “Woman of the Year” by the Nevada Ballet Theatre during its annual fundraising dinner, but those in the know are well aware that it means more than that.
The overwhelmingly positive critical and audience reaction to her production on the stage of the Colosseum Theatre, The Showgirl Must Go On, is pure oxygen to this city that needs tourism the way stray kittens need love. Bette brings the crowds into the theatre and Vegas is here to say thanks.
The heavily Botoxed, stylishly black-clad, elegantly blinged women who organized this evening may not want to imitate Bette’s style, but they certainly love her sass.
“Look at this crowd,” she coos to the room with her cobra-about-to-let-loose-the-venom smile. “You paid so much money to be here tonight that for a couple of thousand dollars more, you could have bought a seat in the Senate.”
Later on, she laughs quietly over the fact that she was being honoured at a ballet gala, “Me, who could barely put one foot in front of the other,” and sardonically recalls how choreographer Jerome Robbins, when they worked on Fiddler on the Roof, said, “Bette, your time step is always five minutes late.”
But those expected Midler zingers are all part of the package. Bette is happy here in Vegas and the feeling seems mutual.
A visit to the show the next night quickly confirms why. Bette often fills the 4,000-plus-seat Colosseum at Caesar’s Palace during a recession that is leaving thousands of hotel rooms empty around the city and seeing gambling revenues dip for the first time in five decades.
The only other thing doing as well is Cirque du Soleil, and as Bette tartly quips in her show, “Aren’t you glad to come here and see me and not a bunch of French-Canadian clowns?”
Midler takes the stage like a Marine battalion, racing from side to side of the 120-foot-wide proscenium as she fires off one-liners and works up a series of “hot flashes” that she wears as badges of honour.
Not for her the huge screens where her image is broadcast to the back rows. No, she comes from a time when your face did the work without a video camera to help you. If you can’t see the eye-popping emotion she displays, then something’s wrong with your eyes, baby.
The public seem to love her, instantly and unconditionally, but for a few moments, you stop and ask yourself why, because the crazy trajectory of her career almost seems to defy such long-lasting adoration.
Born in Hawaii in 1945, she came to New York 20 years later and spent three seasons playing Tzeitel in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof.
After a brief detour to the Seattle Opera, where she was seen as the Acid Queen in the legendary 1971 version of The Who’s Tommy, she came back to New York and settled in for a run as the resident singer at the Continental Baths, a gay steam room that offered up entertainment while the patrons recovered between sessions.
Her pianist was none other than Barry Manilow, and she developed a strong cult following who pushed her first solo album, The Divine Miss M, to Grammy Award winning success in 1972.
It’s fascinating that she sings five songs from that seminal work in the course of the evening. In fact, most of her hits are a long time in the past: “The Rose” (1979), “The Wind Beneath My Wings” (1988) and “From a Distance” (1990).
And a lot of her iconic creations, like the sleekly scaly mermaid Dolores Delago (the Toast of Chicago) and her libidinous vaudevillian Soph were all created over 30 years ago in the series of revues with which she dazzled Broadway, winning a Tony Award in the process.
Her much-loved weeper movies like The Rose and Beaches are also decades past, and it’s even been nine years since her flop TV series, Bette, where Lindsay Lohan played her daughter before being replaced.
But the audiences in Vegas don’t care about the freshness of a performer’s material. In fact, it scares them. They want a certain level of comfort from the past, delivered with electric energy. That particular combination lets them feel that even though both they and the performers they’re watching are eligible for retirement, they have enough piss and vinegar to keep the grim reaper at a safe distance.
And it’s something Midler does better than anyone else.
“Thirty years ago my audiences were on drugs,” she observes dryly in the show. “Now they’re on medication.”
And although she sings some of her serious songs straight (“Hello In There” remains a highlight), she sends up numbers like “The Rose” by explaining to the audience that “I sing the first verse, you wave your cell phones instead of lighters in the second verse, and then I let you sing along on the third.”
And damned if they don’t follow her instructions to the letter. “I want to have a good time and I want my audiences to have a good time,” she explains. “That’s what it’s all about.”
And for now, that’s just what she seems to be doing.
After one strenuous sequence in the evening, she falls to the floor panting and cries out, “Come back, Celine, all is forgiven!” But the roar of unconditional love that greets her from the house doesn’t make it look like that will be happening for a while.