“I bet you didn’t expect me to look quite this fabulous,” Bette Midler told the Radio City Music Hall crowd, opening her performance one night last week. But in fact she was probably wrong. In the eyes of this crowd and all the others who have flocked to Radio City to “Experience the Divine” (as Ms. Midler’s show is being billed) the past five weeks, she was fabulous before she appeared on stage and remained fabulous all night long. As one woman in the audience said at intermission: “I don’t think my heart can take all this excitement. And she does look good.”
With its gaudy costuming, bawdy burlesquerie and Ms. Midler’s booming balladeering, this is a show that parades a flamboyant star in civility-defying high style, portraying a heightened sense of life’s miseries and joys and celebrating nothing if not fabulousness, a quality maybe not so easy to define but very easy to understand.
When you got it, you got it, and to judge from the record-setting string of full houses Ms. Midler has attracted and the furious ebullience she has elicited from them, it’s a quality a lot of people enjoy basking in. Some 180,000 tickets have been sold for her 30 shows (the last of which is on Saturday), $11 million worth. Never has a single entertainer done so many consecutive performances at Radio City; no one has ever sold so many tickets or brought in so much money, either.
Who are all these people? Well, let’s scan the crowd on a recent evening. Ms. Midler is known as a performer’s performer, someone the stars come out for. Uh-huh, there’s Tommy Tune, all 6 feet 6 inches of him, decked out in a dark suit and, ever the dancer, calling attention to his feet with his white suede shoes. And like other entertainment divas — Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, for instance — Ms. Midler has long had a distinctly gay strain among her following, and they’re here in force tonight, too.
“I see we have some leather queens in the house tonight,” Ms. Midler observed from the stage.
And there are the gray-haired men, the bejeweled women, the suits and gowns, most of whom are sitting in the VIP section up front, a privilege they end up paying for by being the butt of several of Ms. Midler’s largely unprintable jokes. And how did they get these seats?
“My husband used to be Bette Midler’s pilot,” said one woman who would not give her name.
But really, Ms. Midler’s fans are notable for being an eclectic bunch, and what’s sort of delightful is that the hottest ticket in town isn’t being sold to a crowd that could exactly be called hip. (Overheard in the lobby, a conversation referring to Ms. Midler’s famous cover of a song by Bobby Freeman: “Who sang ‘Do You Wanna Dance?’ before her?” “The Beatles, I think.”) The demeanor for such a large crowd at such a high-energy performance was remarkably subdued and orderly. The average age was well over 30, the sense of fashion was suburban. (Even the leather queens were relatively dolled down.) In the chitchat between songs and at intermission, there was a lot of Lawn Guyland in the air.
There also appeared to be as many T-shirts and work boots as pin-striped suits and Ballys. A random survey in the rear of the orchestra unearthed a democratic mix that included Marilyn Kimmelman, a college dean from Philadelphia whom the seating gods had placed next to Joey Decuzzi, a plasterer from Queens. They had each come to the show with other people, but by intermission they were compatriot fans. And when they and their dates were asked collectively what had brought them to the show, Ms. Kimmelman answered for everyone, using wisdom borrowed from Mr. Decuzzi.
“He said it best,” Ms. Kimmelman said. “She does it all.”
Several people spoke to the question of Ms. Midler’s appeal. One gay man who had seen the show three times said he became a Bette Midler fan several years ago when he was emerging from the closet. (He wasn’t quite ready to announce this in the newspaper, however, so he requested anonymity.) ‘She Made It a Lot Easier’
“She spoke in her show about loneliness, about friends,” he said. “And I remember being so overwhelmed by her: her music, her style, her personality on stage, that mixture of being cantankerous and rude. She made it a lot easier for me coming out. She seemed like someone who really understood the problems of getting free. You know the song ‘I Shall Be Released‘? When she sang it, I felt that finally, after so many years of despair and not being able to talk about it, well, the song was very important to me.”
Another man, who would identify himself only as Bill, said: “I had the feeling there were a lot of lonely people in the crowd, and I believe they got a genuine, true emotional connection, a bit of an uplift from sharing in it. In a world of cynicism, I buy her. She’s telling the truth emotionally.”
That would seem to be a view shared by Tommy Tune, who outside Radio City after the show actually looked a little dewy-eyed.
“She’s my favorite entertainer,” Mr. Tune said. “And tonight was a very special night. It was such a personal performance.” So was he one of those people who had been to the show more than once?
“No, I had to wait,” he said. “I couldn’t get in.”