Bette Midler knows what’s expected of her onstage in 2015.
“I have to sing well, and I have to have a great band,” she said recently. “But my audience, they’ve known me at this point for 50 years. Whether I show up in a fishtail or not, I don’t think it matters to them.”
The fishtail, of course, is a reference to her character Delores DeLago, the mermaid in a wheelchair who (mostly) sits out Midler’s new show. So what does it mean for this veteran entertainer to skip one of her most famous bits?
“It means I had to fill 20 minutes,” she answered with a throaty laugh.
As quick with a quip as ever, Midler, 69, sat down in Hollywood for a chatty interview between rehearsals for what she’s calling the Divine Intervention tour, which hits Southern California this week with concerts Thursday at Staples Center and Friday at Honda Center in Anaheim.
The road show, Midler’s first in a decade, follows the release last year of “It’s the Girls!,” a studio album collecting the singer’s vivid renditions of songs by girl groups from the Boswell Sisters to TLC.
Given that it brought Midler back to music after a stretch spent primarily focused on acting (most notably in the acclaimed Broadway play “I’ll Eat You Last,” about the late talent agent Sue Mengers), “It’s the Girls!” could be thought to have set the table for the tour. Yet Midler admitted she had another, more pressing reason for heading out on the road now.
“I’m old,” she said. “I don’t know how much longer I can do it.”
She also knows that, at a moment when records don’t sell the way they used to, touring is key for performers, even the veterans. “Streisand, McCartney, Mick and the Stones â€” they all do well,” she said. “People come out for their shows.”
As for more current pop, Midler said she keeps up with what’s happening and recognizes something of her famously eclectic approach in the work of Kelly Clarkson and Bruno Mars (who, like Midler, was born and raised in Honolulu).
“But I don’t feel like I’m really in the swim,” she said, her golden-blond hair slicked back against her head. “I’m sort of on the shoals, just treading water. But I’m comfortable with that.”
For her new concert, Midler said she was after something “smaller and a bit more intimate” than her last production, which she put on at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas beginning in 2008.
“That show was gigantic. I could never top it,” she said. Asked whether she enjoyed the Vegas experience, Midler replied, “I enjoyed it up to a point. Then it was like, ‘Who do you have to sleep with to get out of here?'”
Her stint in Sin City overlapped with the late-’00s economic crash, which hit the rapidly developing town especially hard. “The construction cranes stopped in the middle of the night, and everybody walked off the job,” she recalled. “People with those subprime mortgages just got in their cars and left. I’d never seen anything like it.”
Those on the glittering Strip weren’t insulated from the damage. By the middle of her show’s second year, Midler said, empty seats began creeping forward from the back of the auditorium. “I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this never happened to me in my life.'” Promoters asked to put her on a three-day week, which she couldn’t afford to do. “I had to pay everybody in the show, which was very, very expensive.” Midler finished out the gig in early 2010, but it left a mark.
“I still have $75,000 worth of pantyhose that nobody ever wore,” she said. “Can I offer them to you?”
Olivier Goulet, one of the creative minds behind her new traveling show, said the concept this time was to “bring the theater to arenas,” which the production seeks to accomplish with a proscenium arch that doubles as a surface for various state-of-the-art projections. There are also elaborate costumes and custom choreography by Toni Basil. Yet the focus, Goulet insisted, is Midler herself.
“I wanted to do some new songs, and I wanted to hear a blasting band behind me,” the singer said. “I hired some horns and a real funk rhythm section, which is interesting because I’m not really a funkmeister. But I have my dreams.”
Those new songs include selections from “It’s the Girls!,” which is a far more imaginative record than it might’ve been. For many artists late in their careers, the covers album is where inspiration goes to die (or at least retire).
Yet unlike, say, Rod Stewart’s snoozy series of Great American Songbook discs, Midler’s project puts across real feeling for its material â€” no surprise, perhaps, given that she’s been doing girl-group tunes since her 1972 debut, “The Divine Miss M,” which paid homage to the Dixie Cups and the Andrews Sisters.
The album, produced by Marc Shaiman, also makes unlikely connections between styles, as in a country-fried take on the Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love” and TLC’s mid-’90s R&B hit “Waterfalls,” remade here as a mournful supper-club ballad.
Midler said that interpretive ability has always come naturally to her, in large part because of her childhood in Hawaii, where pop radio in the 1950s “was about 10 years behind the time.”
So although she “came of age in the rock ‘n’ roll world,” as she put it, she’d earlier been exposed to music from the ’20s and ’30s. “I’m really a bridge,” she said.
And where does that bridge lead next? She’d like to make a jazz record, she said, and sing with an orchestra, something she got a taste of at the Academy Awards in 2014 when she performed “Wind Beneath My Wings” during the annual “In Memoriam” sequence. (Look for a spoof, with Delores DeLago in an important role, at Staples.)
“You haven’t heard anything until you’ve stood in front of 90 pieces,” Midler said. “The sound was like a wave.”
Or maybe she’ll go in a different direction. “I know a lot of Hawaiian music, which I never sang,” she said. “Somebody call Bruno!”
Where: Staples Center, 1111 S. Figueroa St.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Honda Center, 2695 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim
When: 8 p.m. Friday