BetteBack September 5, 1993: It’s show time – Bette Midler Less outrageous but still divine (Interview)

The Boston Globe (Boston, MA)
It’s show time Bette Midler Less outrageous but still divine
September 5, 1993 | Steve Morse, Globe Staff



Bette Midler is back, but with a new world view. She’s no longer the Divine Miss M. She’s the Divine Mrs. M with a 6-year-old daughter, Sophie. Being a wife and mother has tempered Midler’s wild-and-free outrageousness — she wasn’t called the Queen of Sass for nothing back in the ’70s — but dare we now call her a positive role model?

Gasp. . . . yes.

“My language isn’t as strong as it was, and I don’t think I’m vicious like I was. I used to say any old thing. Now I have a certain interest in being good as opposed to being outrageous,” says Midler, who headlines Great Woods Center for the Performing Arts on Thursday through Saturday, as part of her first concert tour in a decade.

“I’d like to think of myself as a positive kind of person. I talk about things that are important, you know? Like `do your recycling, do your part.’ It’s simple, but people get the idea,” she adds during a recent phone interview from Maryland.

Midler, 47, was a pioneer of “shock pop.” Although raised in Hawaii, she rose to fame from New York chorus lines and from celebrated performances at a Manhattan gay club, the Continental Baths, during the early ’70s. There, with Barry Manilow as her musical director, she mixed show tunes, blues and bawdiness. She was the Madonna of the ’70s, but with much more wit and guile.

Which is one reason Midler, who’s also had a successful film and stage career, has never wished to be stereotyped as outrageous.

“Yes, it can become a kind of straitjacket,” she says. “I think that’s what’s happened to a lot of people in the last 10 or 15 years. Once the floodgates came down and you could say anything, it just seemed like people would say anything and then it wasn’t very entertaining. And that’s not good. I’m sorry it happened, because in the old days you could seek out performers like that, but now, with everything being so up front, it seems like there’s a variety of people all singing the same song. You don’t have to seek them out. They’re all over the TV.”

What has always separated Midler from the pack is that she’s a born entertainer, not a poseur.  says Midler, who spent much of that time making movies such as “Down and Out in Beverly Hills” and “Ruthless People.””I had a variety of motivations for going back on tour. I miss the crowds. I miss the reaction. And I miss doing my own work. I mean, whatever it is, it is my own and I don’t have to answer to anybody else for it. For the last 10 years, I’ve been saying `yes’ to other people and having to do what they want and it’s been exhausting. Enough already,”

“So here I am, and I’m having a pretty good time,” she says. “It was a struggle at first, because we didn’t have enough time to get ready, really. But that’s the usual story with sets and clothes and everything. Because I’m not really a concert artist. I’m a show person. I love to do shows. I love the idea of turning the lights on something and turning it into something magical or beautiful.

“It’s been thrilling to come back,” says Midler, whose song-and-dance routines have been doing gangbuster business at the box office. “I didn’t realize what would happen. I didn’t plan that people would be lonesome for someone like me. It’s great to see people still like to be entertained and they miss me. When you make an effort for them, they make an effort for you. And I really feel sometimes like I’m just about the only one left of my ilk. Most people have abandoned this kind of work. But I can still do it, so I think it’s good that I am.”

Look for Midler to still mix songs, shtik and character skits in which she assumes colorful roles like that of Delores Da Lago, a daffy mermaid. “She’s my favorite,” says Midler.

Don’t look, however, for the gimmicky special effects so prevalent at many amphitheater shows today. “To tell you the truth, I don’t get out much because I got depressed by a lot of what’s going on,” she says. “It’s so inhuman when you go to the big shows, the really big shows. The performer is so far away. And all of the special effects in front of the performer really obscure the humanity of the artist. I miss that. I like to see the human scale.”

“Not all performers are like that, of course. Some of the oldtimers go out of their way to reach out and make contact with the audience. But for the most part, the younger ones are pretty much all spectacle — you know, smoke and lights and stuff. It’s not what I’m about. I like to be up close and hear the audience laugh. That’s a major part of what I do — and to have some sort of roller coaster where they get to experience a lot of things, not just one thing. It’s like therapy in a way. You get to laugh; you cry once or twice; and you think about things, though not too deeply.”

This tour features songs from Midler’s last three recording projects: “For the Boys,” “Beaches” and “Some People’s Lives” (“I had never sung any of this material live”), together with some carryover classics like “The Rose” (her Grammy-winning 1979 song from the film of the same title, loosely based on Janis Joplin’s life) and John Prine’s “Hello In There.”

Although she’s wanted to focus on newer songs, she’s found that audiences are asking for many of the old tunes because they’ve seen her do them on various ’70s TV specials and on the concert film, “Divine Madness,” in 1980.

“I started in 1976 with a Cleveland HBO show. And, surprisingly, a lot of people have seen it many, many times. The same for `Divine Madness.’ I don’t know why, but those shows are like toxic waste. The stuff never goes away. It reappears again and again. You go, `But, but, but, but,’ but there’s nothing you can do. They just keep showing it. So a lot of it is familiar to people. And it’s kind of upsetting because I didn’t know it was going to be like that, since I’ve tried to eliminate some of the very familiar stuff like `Shiver Me Timbers.’ I’ve sung that so many times at so many shows in the past. It’s a Tom Waits song, and I think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written, but I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

As for songwriters she likes these days, Midler lists Julie Gold (“her `From a Distance’ is a great, great song”), Janis Ian (“she’s still writing wonderful songs”), Paul Westerberg (formerly with the Replacements), Cyndi Lauper, Lucinda Williams, Victoria Williams and a new Los Angeles writer, Brenda Burns, who “sounds a little bit like Joni Mitchell.”

“I have a friend who tries to keep me abreast of things, but it’s rough because I have a little girl now. And she takes up the extra time I used to have,” says Midler.

How else has Sophie affected her life? “Well, for the first few years, I was very circumspect. I never swore. I never used any kind of bad language. I was very careful. But then I started taking her to the {movie} sets. And the first couple of times it was OK because it was just very simple. She was on `Big Business,’ which was a kind of PG show; and she came to `Hocus Pocus,’ which she really liked. But then I made the mistake of taking her to `Gypsy’ {which Midler made for TV this year}. And then, forget about it! She came back singing `You gotta have a gimmick.’ I mean, I waited until I was about 11 years old before I noticed strippers. She’s only 6!

“But she’s a great kid, really quite wonderful. My husband is German, and he taught her German,” Midler says of Martin von Haselberg. “So she has the two languages and tends to shuffle back and forth between the two sensibilities. He’s very classically oriented and I’m out there in the stripper world. She’ll be a stripping bass player, what do I know?”

As for her own multitalents, Midler hopes to continue to mix concerts, movies and a possible return to theater (she did “Fiddler on the Roof” for three years back in the late ’60s). “I’m sort of a straw in the wind,” she says about juggling these varied interests.

Her next film project will be to play the role of Florence Greenberg, the housewife who discovered the popular girl group the Shirelles. There’s no date for production yet, but Midler is excited by the role. “Florence was quite a character. She fell in love with these girls and built a record label with them and had torrid affairs, carried on and was brought down by the Mob. It’s a very exciting story. And the music is great because Florence had everybody at the time. She had the Shirelles and Dionne Warwick and she brought Burt Bacharach to prominence.”

Meanwhile, Midler is just glad to be singing again on tour. “I really feel I’ve improved as a singer,” she says. “Plus, I took up the piano, which has helped a lot. And I’ve learned to read music, not a whole lot, but I can read two clefs. It helps. It gives you a little air of confidence. You can see those little B-flats floating around in your mind. It’s fun and makes it much more interesting. It’s not just instinct anymore.”

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