LOS ANGELES – Big. Bombastic. Bright. Bette. Taking her place among such legends as Ethel Merman and Rosalind Russell, Bette Midler says she jumped at the chance to star as immortal stage mother Mama Rose in CBS’s three-hour adaptation of Gypsy. It’s set â€” at least for now â€” for December.
“Of all the musical comedies I’ve ever known, it’s the one I have the most affection for, because I love the score.” Midler said Sunday at the TV critics’ press tour here. “It’s big. It’s bombastic. It’s bright. It’s American. It’s full of puns and jokes. Sort of like me.”
Midler was so hot to play Mama Rose â€” mother of fabled burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee â€” she says she “would have done it in summer stock.”
Nothing was skimped on, says Midler, “except my salary.”
While thrilled to have landed Midler in her network TV flick debut, CBS is hedging its bets by scheduling Gypsy in December instead of in November, a major “sweeps” month in which local ad rates are determined.
But that may change. In an interview Monday, CBS Broadcast Group chief Howard Stringer said that after seeing Gypsy’s rushes, he’s convinced it will be an enormous success and will push for a November airdate.
“When the decision was made, a musical seemed liked a risky idea,” Stringer said. “We felt we’d be assured of ratings success by running it in December , when it wouldn’t compete against everybody’s big-ticket sweeps programming . But that doesn’t help our local ad rates, and we have to think about that.”
Midler is well aware of her illustrious predecessors. Although she never saw Merman’s 1959 stage Mama Rose, she loves the “fantastic”Â album of Merman “trumpeting out those songs.” (For the, uh, record, Ardolino caught the show 25 times as a teenager.)
Midler did see Russell’s disappointing 1962 movie, but to her, a Russell fan, “she could do no wrong.” Besides, Midler knows how Russell must have felt. Her 1990 Stella was a bomb, too.
“We all have shadows,” says Midler. “On this show, we have the shoes of the giants. The truth is, when you do something like this, youÂ have to do the best you can. You can’t get bogged down by what other people are thinking.”
The Divine Miss M acknowledges, however, that she was a tad intimidated by the memory of the other Divine Miss M â€” Merman. “What could I do? I did the best I could and had fun doing it. It was a lifelong dream.”
Midler enjoyed the Stephen Sondeim score so much, she says she’ll do several Gypsy tunes in her forthcoming hot ticket concert tour. That’s a first. Midler loves show tunes but has avoided them throughout her career.
Her favorite from Gypsy: Rose’s Turn, because “it’s full of emoton and full of these high B’s.” It will be included in the CD and video CBS plans to market in conjunction with the show.
Comfortable pretending to be the ultimate stage mother, Midler says she wouldn’t reprise the role in real life with her 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. In fact, Midler would discourage her from getting into show biz.
“I think it’s a very hard life, especially if you’re not in the big, big, big, big, big time. I don’t want her to have to suffer thoseÂ things ‘Oh, you’re too tall, you’re too short, you’re too thin, you’re too fat. You don’t sing high enough, you don’t sing low enough.’ It wears away at your soul after a while.” .
And if Sophie, like her mom, decided to disregard her parents’ advice â€” Midler’s father “disapproved of any kind of show business except Phil Silvers” â€” Midler says she would “put a lot of other choices in her path. Show business ‘is’ enchanting. It’s full of magic.”
Speaking of magic, Midler’s moving appearance on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show almost finale last year won her an Emmy and brought tears to Carson’s eyes during their unrehearsed duet of One for the Road. Surprisingly, Midler has never seen the tape and doesn’t want to.
“It was probably the happiest night of my whole life, completely enchanting,” she says. “I did it and I walked away. I think he did, too. We’ll always have the memory. That’s why I don’t have to watch it. I just wanted to keep it the way I remembered it.
“In my whole life, I never received such an outpouring of love and good will from so many people as I did after that show. People were thrilled because they felt I had given Johnny what he deserved, that I had said thank you in a way they would have said thank you if
they could have. It was magical.”
With Gypsy under her belt, Midler would like to do similar “broad parts” in musicals, such as Mame and Annie, Get Your Gun. The musical, all but extinct from American TV, “is valuable and well-crafted. I feel bad the whole nation doesn’t celebrate this tradiion more often.
“We seem to throw magical things we’ve made aside, we tear them down, we trample on them. Maybe it’s because we’re constantly reinventing ourselves. Personally, I think it’s a real waste.”