WHEN BETTE MIDLER tells you she has always wanted to play Mama Rose in “Gypsy,” well, considering the 47-year-old performer’s history of chutzpah, you just have to assume it was inevitable she’d get her wish. “I always wanted to do it — even when I was a kid,” says Midler, calling from St. Louis during a recent stop on her smashingly successful “Experience the Divine” concert tour.
“There are some shows that are just better than all of the others,” she says. “There’s ‘Gypsy,’ there’s ‘South Pacific,’ there’s ‘Guys and Dolls.’ These shows are so American, and they’re so ingrained in the consciousness, they’re classics. And when you get the chance to play them, you jump at it, because it’s a thrill to be able to open your mouth and say those words and sing those songs. There’s no false notes in any of it: The dialogue is as pure as it can be; the characters are fully fleshed-out human beings; the story evolves naturally; it has real conflict; it has everything. It’s great.”
And when CBS’ three-hour, made-for-TV “Gypsy” bows at 8 p.m. Sunday on Channel 4 with Midler playing the world’s most famous stage mother, many of her fans will no doubt remark, “Who better than Bette?”
But even Midler couldn’t escape the echoes of the famous musical’s legacy.
Inspired by the memoirs of stripper Gypsy Rose Lee, the original Broadway show, with its book by Arthur Laurents, music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and choreography by Jerome Robbins, starred Ethel Merman when it opened in 1959.
Midler is an Emmy-winning performer (most recently for her farewell to Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show”) with a successful movie career and two Oscar nominations (“The Rose” and “For the Boys”). She recently kicked off her current nationwide “Experience the Divine” with rave reviews and a record-breaking stint at Radio City Music Hall. But, she admits, “the ghost of Ethel was definitely hovering over me.”
Midler hadn’t heard Merman’s renditions of such “Gypsy” knockout numbers as “Everything’s Coming up Roses” and “Rose’s Turn” in many years, she says. “And I didn’t want to listen to it because I didn’t want to be affected by that voice when I was making my own way through the songs. Still, I did feel her performance was one of those performances that are considered legendary. . . .”
Midler follows not only Merman in the role of Rose — a mother in relentless pursuit of stardom for her two girls — but also Rosalind Russell (whose 1962 movie version co-starred Natalie Wood as Gypsy) and Tony-winning performances by Angela Lansbury in the 70s and, recently, Tyne Daly.
Peter Riegert (“Animal House”) co-stars as Herbie in CBS’ new, and for ’90s network television, unusual project — something of a welcome throwback to the golden age of television. Edward Asner, Christine Ebersole, Michael Jeter, Jeffrey Broadhurst and Andrea Martin also star with Cynthia Gibb. (“The Karen Carpenter Story”) as Gypsy.
For those familiar with her work, it’s no surprise that Midler, renowned for her camp humor, wanted her Rose to be funny.
“I always thought Ethel was funny,” says Midler, who found out (most likely from consultants Styne, Sondheim, Laurents and Robbins) that Merman, in fact, didn’t play Rose that way.
“I thought I was doing a musical comedy,” she says, laughing. “Then it turned out I was really in a drama with music. But by that time it was too late.”
The singer-actress also says, however, she “brought a lot of rage to the back end of it because I understand all that stuff, too, all that rejection, and I wanted that stuff to be very powerful — even electrifying.”
For Midler, the entire experience was even better, she says, than she had hoped for.
“We had such a great group of people,” she says. “Most of them worked for less than their usual rate (including Midler) because they love this material so much, and they wanted to serve the material more than anything else — the cameramen, the production designer, the director (the recently deceased Emile Ardolino), all of us.”
And, of course, she loved Rose.
“Those kinds of characters that are larger than life — driven, overbearing — those kinds of characters don’t come along very often. Even in the theater. And since good parts are at a premium, I’m no fool — I want to play as many of them as I possibly can. Every actress who calls herself an actress wants in her heart to play Lady Macbeth. And every musical-comedy person wants to play Mama Rose.”
But Midler has no intention of playing Mama Rose in real life: She’s doing everything she can to keep her 7-year-old daughter, Sophie, out of show business.
“I’m trying to discourage her,” says Midler, who is married to Martin Von Haselberg, “because I think it’s very hard and I think there are other things that are more rewarding spiritually — that’s the main thing. I (want) her to have a rich spiritual life. And some actors do. Some actors who really have a command of their craft lead very rich spiritual lives. But for the most part it’s a business based on superficiality, and I don’t really want her to have that. I want her to have a more meaningful life than that.”
The question is, will Sophie listen?
“Probably not” says Midler. “She doesn’t listen to me now, and she’s only 7.”
One suspects that Sophie’s mother would understand if she ended up an entertainer. After all, her mother is as successful as ever, and, many critics say, in better voice.
And when Midler looks back, she confesses she knows what it’s like to dream of stardom.
“I think when I was very young it meant a lot, because I had a rough childhood and it was the only thing I knew that could get me out, that could get me some respect,” she says. “But having been in it for a while and having learned a whole other aspect to it, the stardom means less and less and the work means more and more.”
Mama Rose would never approve.