BetteBack September 17, 1991: Midler Gives Whopping Award Acceptance Speech Along With Great Performances At APLA Benefit

Los Angeles Times
POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Rage to Live : Benefit: Bette Midler and friends lead a Hollywood charge against AIDS at a fund-raiser at Universal Amphitheatre.


LOS ANGELES – The star-studded “Commitment to Life V” benefit Sunday at the Universal Amphitheatre didn’t unveil any new pop anthems for the AIDS era. The leitmotif of the evening’s musical entertainment, though, was nonetheless related to the crisis–the recurring element being old, quasi-inspirational standards or show tunes that, in context, were made to seem positively prescient.

Honoree-performer Bette Midler, in emotionally capping the two-hour show, made sure the full house got the connection. “Now get this,” she said between subdued verses of her old signature song “Friends.” I had some friends but they’re gone/Something came and took them away, she sang, transforming the early-’70s Buzzy Linhart ditty from a cheerful meditation on loneliness into something more definitively dirge-like without altering a word.

Midler need not have pointed out the newfound topicality of the lyric, given the capacity crowd’s rapt attention and the equally ironic relevance of much of the music that preceded her.

Opening the show backed by the Gay Men’s Chorus, Tyne Daly soft-shoed and strutted her way through Stephen Sondheim‘s updated “Together” (from “Gypsy”) as a sort of we-can-lick-this pep talk in song. Also joined by the Chorus, Angela Lansbury sang Jerry Herman’s lesser-heard “I’ll Be Here Tomorrow” (from the 1979 “Grand Tour”) as a happily defiant survivors’ creed.

And as the penultimate performer, earning the lengthiest and most spontaneous ovation, Jennifer Holliday predictably brought down the house with her perennial “Dreamgirls” showstopper “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going“–dedicated to the musical’s celebrated creator, Michael Bennett. No need to point to the irony in that choice: Bennett is among the ranks of the many gone whom the rued disease has taken from the theatrical world.

Many of those performing their one or two numbers, though, made no mention of AIDS, leaving that to the eloquent and/or bitterly angry speeches of those being honored with awards for their work in dealing with the devastation.

Perhaps the biggest single draw for many of the 6,000 attending was a brief appearance by the Commitments, the fictional Irish band assembled for the new hit film of the same name. A loud cheer punctuated the hall when an introductory clip from the movie appeared on an overhead screen, and a palpable disappointment was felt when the ersatz soul group left after its scheduled 2 1/2 numbers–the sum total of the Commitments’ only public concert appearance in America, ever.

Frontman Andrew Strong led the revue through the crescendos of “Try a Little Tenderness” and a snippet of “In the Midnight Hour,” while Robert Arkins (who plays a non-musical role as the manager in the movie, but has his own record deal in real life) sang an effective lead on “Treat Her Right.”

Two other favorites were less expected. Carol Channing followed “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” with an impeccably mistimed comic routine. And the unlikely team of Sarah Brightman and Lainie Kazan dueted on Irving Berlin’s “Anything You Can Do,” with new, fairly uproarious lyrics.

Meanwhile, the appearance of featherweight dance-pop combo the Party on the bill was a fleeting mystery, given the utter paucity of pre-teens in the crowd. Michael Feinstein was better suited to the demographic, but failed to do what he does best–pre-rock oldies–instead opting to unveil a pair of underwhelming modern ballads.

On the more pointed side, the fresh news of the AIDS-related death of actor Brad Davis added to the alternating pallor and indignation in the show’s speeches, including that of honoree Joel Weisman, Davis’ physician, who joined many in excoriating what he characterized as the right wing’s supposed “just say no” solutions.

Republican-bashing was a recurring theme, not only in heated speeches but in comedic appearances by Terry Sweeney (on film in drag as Nancy Reagan) and Robin Williams (doing a riff on Clarence Thomas’s noncommital hearing answers).

Holliday’s song was the best received of the night, but in following her, Midler still managed to top her with an affecting climax–not so much with her songs (John Lennon’s “In My Life” as well as “Friends”) as her whopper of an award acceptance speech. Starting out in character as the Divine Miss M, all baby steps and self-mocking gaggery, Midler suddenly made an abrupt shift from comedy into highly emotive self-righteousness, naming some of the dozens of her “gay mentors” from 1965 onward who’ve succumbed to AIDS.

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