The end of the millennium has met its match: Bette Midler in concert. The Divine Miss Millennium Tour comes to Madison Square Garden tonight and tomorrow night, to be followed by a stop at Continental Airlines Arena on Thursday. At 53, Midler will be blowing the roof off a Big Apple concert hall for the first time since she sold out 30 shows at Radio City in 1995. All of the hoo-ha about the coming of 2000 – including predictions about the end of life as we know it – pales next to the return of the Divine Miss M to live performance. When the tour opened in Boston on Oct. 8, Midler sang a down-and-dirty version of “My Way” in a flamboyant yellow headdress while a hydraulic lift took her 15 feet above the stage. She camped up “The Lady is a Tramp” while 10 hula-skirted dancers created an artificial-grass storm around her. Her beloved mermaid character, Delores Del Lago, announced her campaign for President and cruised the stage in a red-white-and-blue wheelchair. Over the course of a show that ran for nearly three hours, Midler lampooned Bill Clinton, Kenneth Starr, Bob Dole and Celine Dion. Standing in front of a cardboard mini-Titanic, she made fun of “My Heart Will Go On” while clutching the sort of enormous jewel that fell into the drink during the blockbuster movie. “The show is a half-baked reassessment of where we are in the cosmos as the millennium approaches,” says Midler. “It’s very tongue-in-cheek. I would say it’s continuing in the tradition of live shows I’ve done over the years. It’s certainly the biggest thing I’ve ever done.
” The tour has been in the works since the beginning of the year. At one point, she was going to offer a survey of 20th-century pop, but that became too burdensome. Now, the show amounts to a collection of songs that have meant the most to her. But she never dropped her interest in the tour as a millennial project, with a two-show finale on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day in Las Vegas. “I’ve never taken part in any of the big events,” she says. “I wasn’t at Woodstock. And I didn’t do any of the big celebrations. I wasn’t in Live Aid. There were a half-dozen of those I missed. We wanted very badly to play Vegas on New Year’s, because it seemed like that’s where the action was going to be.
” Midler admits that she doesn’t really know why – or even if – the upcoming New Year’s Eve should be considered such a big deal. “What is this? Is this something the media has made up? What does it really mean?
” she asks, before adding, “I think it’s a nice chance to take a breath and look around and see what happened. It’s a good thing to do. It’s not a bad thing to do. Because people do change, even in tiny increments. Anything that helps them to be less brutal and less full of hate is a good thing.
” What kind of millennium has this been for Bette, personally? “Oh, I had a fabulous time,” she exclaims. “I loved being Josephine. Joan of Arc was one of my strongest moments.
” Midler fans might argue that she burns even hotter onstage, and the singer admits she feels more natural in concert than on a movie set. (And this from a woman who received an Oscar nomination for 1979’s “The Rose” and enjoyed huge commercial success three years ago with “The First Wives Club.
“) “I think live performance is what I understand the best,” Midler says. “I’ve been doing it for so long, since I was about 14 years old. I’m home. It’s where I’m happiest, and where I’m funniest, and where I’m least worried, really. It’s very freeing for me. I really look forward to it.
” Still, it takes a lot of work to get Midler in front of an audience, considering all of the stagecraft and showbiz savvy she requires. “You know, we’re a very low-tech operation,” she says. “We do it with glue guns and gaffer’s tape. And this show was much more expensive and very elaborate.
” Midler says her preparation for an evening in concert begins the moment she wakes up. But all the hours on the treadmill and in meetings and checking the sound in the hall and going through hair and makeup are worthwhile when she connects with the audience. “It’s like flying,” she says. “It’s like a trapeze artist without a net. Waiting to see what’s going to land and what’s not going to land. Thinking on your feet. It’s pretty exciting.
” Having a daughter – Sophie, who is now 12 – has had an effect on what Midler does onstage: “I felt kind of restrained.
” And a more serious side has emerged through the singer’s persistent efforts to improve the city. The New York Restoration Project, which she heads, has cleaned up parks all over the city. And she put up $250,000 of her own money in May to save community gardens on the lower East Side. But don’t expect an environmental lecture in the Garden this week. In concert, she’s less likely to be green and more likely to favor shades of blue – as in bawdy material. “People get a kick out of it, and I love it, too. It sort of puts sex in a wholesome place. If you can laugh at it, it’s not so frightening. I think that’s part of its charm. It’s not gross. It’s not the part where you go, ‘Ew-w-w-w-w.
‘ ” Not with Bette, it isn’t. When she’s cruising around the stage, it’s the part where you go, ‘Wow-w-w-w-w.
‘ “It’s like a party going on in my head,” she says. And, bless her divinity, we’re all invited.
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