It takes a certain amount of brass to call yourself ‘The Divine Miss M.”
But that’s the moniker Bette Midler has been using since early in her career, when a master of ceremonies wanted to know how to introduce her.
The inspiration came from the series of “Eloise” children’s books, about a sassy, super-sophisticated little girl.
“I was one of those little Eloise types,” she said. “Remember Eloise who lived at the Plaza? She was kind of a sophisticated child, and I was like that when I was a kid. I was always saying, ‘Oh, that’s too divine.’ I was always imitating Talulah Bankhead.
“I always wanted to be a woman of the world. I never wanted to be a kid. I never wanted to be a tomboy. I justÂ wanted to be a sophisticated woman who smoked cigarettes and hung out in cafes and talked about Sartre.”
Midler has perfected her divineness through the years, progressing from an early bit part in the film “Hawaii” to a Broadway appearance as a replacement in the original production of “Fiddler on the Roof,” to cabarets and the stages of gay bath houses – and then on to big-selling records, soldout concerts and starring film roles in ‘The Rose,” “Down and Out in Beverly Hills,” “Ruthless People” and “Outrageous Fortune.”
Midler starred as Mama Rose in the new made-for-TV version of “Gypsy,” which aired on CBS in December. And she also didÂ a sold-out seven-night concert gig at the Universal Amphitheatre.
Reviews of “Gypsy” have been admiring, while those of the concert tour – which has played to enthusiastic crowds in 29 cities – have been even more glowing.
In her “Experience the Divine” tour, Midler, 47, is returning to the concert stage for the first time in a decade, delivering her usual bawdy brand of comedy, burlesque and powerhouse singing.
Her three-hour show – which opens with her appearance on a sunburst throne – includes such old favorites as “The Rose,” as well as her rendition of the monumental “Rose’s Turn,” from “Gypsy.”
Reviewing her headline-making appearance at New York’s Radio City Music Hall, Time magazine writer Richard Corliss stated, “It may be mild hyperbole to call Midler the greatest entertainer in the universe – there are, after all,Â other galaxies yet to be explored – but who can doubt she’s the hardest-working woman in show biz?”
And paying her a backhanded compliment, New York Times reviewer Stephen Holden wrote, “Plagued in the past with pitch problems and a tendency to scream when trying to belt, Ms. Milder has finally built a voice that is full, secure, brassy and soulful.”
Talking from the road, Midler confirmed that, yes, she has been working on her’voice.
“When I started to do ‘Gypsy,’ I had to work very hard. I found a wonderful singing teacher, and she really pushed me into a vocal place where I don’t get hoarse so much anymore, and the intonation is really, really much, much better.”
Midler said she’s been absent from the concert stage for so long because, “I just got busy. I started doing films and then I got married and had my baby. And I didn’t really want to go anywhere. I wanted to sit and be in one place and raise my kid.”
(The husband is film director Martin Von Haselberg; the daughter is 7-year-old Sophie.)
She’s returning now, she said, because “I just felt like singing.”
Touring is hard work.
“There’s a lot going on, and it takes a lot of concentration. You have people behind you; people in front of you; people on all sides of you. And it goes pretty fast.
“So mostly, it’s a matter of concentrating and not being distracted for a second,” she continued. “You really don’t have the time.
Otherwise, you tend to drift and things tend to slow down. And there’s no slowing down, because once you’re on the stage, it’s like a juggernaut – it just keeps on going.”
As difficult as it is, it’s all worthwhile. “It’s great to see the people again,” she said.
“IVe kind of missed them.”
Jenifer Lewis can vouch for Midler’s on-stage energy and concentration. As one of the backup-singing Harlettes in the last concert tour, the 36-yearold Studio City resident participated in such antics as the mermaids-in-wheelchairs routine that left audiences in stitches every night. Lewis performed in her own solo show, “The Diva Is Dismissed,” in early December at the Hudson BacKStage in Hollywood, and again beginning Jan. 23.
“Bette is very present in a performance,” Lewis said.
“She’s there, she’s with you, and she’s giving 100 percent.
‘She becomes what she’s singing,” Lewis added.
“She’s in the moment of the piece.”
As for Midler’s off-stage habits, Lewis said, “She’s as quick in life as she is on stage,” which is due, at least
in part, to the fact that “she’s a bookworm. She reads all the time. She reads everything she can get her hands on.”
Midler said she wanted to play “Gypsy’s” Mama Rose, since first hearing the score in her teens.
The high-profile project was made for between $13 million and $14 million, and co-producer Craig Zadan believes a ratings success could prompt other networks to follow with their own musical projects – as in the glory days of
such televised musical events as “Peter Pan” and “Cinderella.”
Composer Jule Styne, lyricist Stephen Sondheim and script writer Arthur Laurents loosely based “Gypsy” on the life of legendary burlesque-era stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. But the 1959 musical isn’t so much the story of Lee as of her mother, a domineering woman who pushes her children into the spotlight so she can live her dashed show-business dreams through them.
Unlike Mama Rose, Midler isn’t pushing her own daughter, Sophie, into show business.
“She loves to dance – and she loves to watch people dance – and to make music,” Midler said. But so far, Sophie is showing no particular interest in a performing career.
If she does, Midler said, “I think I would discourage it. It’s a hard life. Not if you’re a star – then people bend over backward for you. But to scrape around is very, very difficult. And there’s so much more to do. There’s so muchÂ more to life than show business.”
What if Sophie goes into show business anyway? What tips could Mama Bette provide?
‘Huh,” Midler said, stumped for a moment.
“Choose your material carefully,” she said, finally. “You have to pay attention. You have to pay very, very close attention. You have to use your brain. It helps a lot if you’re intelligent, because you get a whole lot further.”
Midler’s own career has been riding a roller coaster in recent years.
Her mid-’80s films “Down and Out in B e v e r ly Hills,” ” R u t h l e ss People” and “Outrageous Fortune” were popular and performed well at the box office. But such recent films as “Stella,” “Scenes From a Mall” and “ForÂ the Boys” have flopped, while her most recent film, “Hocus Pocus,” performed just adequately.
Midler isn’t fazed. “Everybody has ups and downs,” she said, “That’s the nature of show business.”