BetteBack: Detour At Radio City Music Hall

New York Times
March 9, 1983


BETTE MIDLER has always tried for the nearly impossible onstage: the creation of a show-business personality who could embrace the worlds of vaudeville, legitimate theater and rock all in a single evening. Miss Midler has long possessed the theatrical resources for the task, for her sensibility contains a multitude of full-fledged characters, from sad-eyed waifs to her scintillating bawdy alter ego, The Divine Miss M.

The only uncertain element in Miss Midler’s arsenal has been her singing voice. An expressive cabaret interpreter, Miss Midler nevertheless frequently floundered when she tackled rock. Even in ”The Rose,” the size of her voice didn’t match the emotional dimensions of her Janis Joplin-like role, and in climactic moments, the singer resorted to frayed desperate shouting.

It was a happy surprise, therefore, when Bette Midler unveiled a newly fortified rock singing voice at Monday’s special preview performance of her Radio City Music Hall show, whose sold-out run ends Monday. Not only did Miss Midler stay consistently on pitch, she interpreted demanding rock ballads like ”Stay With Me” with an impressive dynamic control and sustained long phrases that never gave way to amusical histrionics.

”Stay With Me” was one of several remarkable vocal performances in which the singer’s technique matched her emotional involvement. The Leon Russell-Bonnie Bramlett ballad ”Superstar,” which Miss Midler used to sing from the viewpoint of star-struck groupie, was reconceived as the sensual obsession of a disappointed older woman. Peter Gabriel‘s apocalyptic rock ballad, ”Here Comes the Flood,” received a strong, whisky-voiced interpretation that culminated chillingly, with the singer winding her blouse over her head like a shroud. And Miss Midler’s punchy rendition of the Rolling Stones‘ ”Beast of Burden” transformed a flippant pledge of male loyalty into a reflection on the amorous difficulties facing a female rock star.

The strength of Miss Midler’s singing threw her comedy routines into brilliant relief. In one number, she and her backup trio, the Harlettes, performed an uproarious ”disco review” as mermaids in wheelchairs. Miss Midler’s patter had its usual quotient of cuttingly candid remarks and smutty jokes, but her delivery didn’t evince the same desperate desire to amuse that sometimes characterized her work in the past. Even her riskiest material was delivered with a new air of dignity. This firm sense of emotional control gave the evening a shape and purpose that her earlier revues have lacked. For the first time on a New York stage, Miss Midler’s vaudeville and rock aspirations coincided happily and with total confidence.

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3 thoughts on “BetteBack: Detour At Radio City Music Hall

  1. Mr. D- I just thought i would share that I went to the preview of Broadway’s All About Me, featuring Michael Fienstein and Dame Edna. It was fantastic, but the reason I tell my fellow Betteheads is they do a Bette Midler routine. There is a portion of the show where the two of them agree on things they like and then sing/act them out. Now it seemed that most of the script is spontaneous and the night I happened to go the two of them decided they both liked Bette Midler. Not sure if this happens every night. But even if it doesn’t the show was fantastic! It reminded of delores delago meets soph show!! Thought I would share.

    1. Thanks so much Jill. That’s nice to know. I knew Michael was a fan, but I didn’t know about Dame Edna….

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