BootLeg Betty

Bette Midler digs into role of Dolly for Broadway

Columbus Dispatch
Bette Midler digs into role of Dolly for Broadway
By Michael Paulson
New York Times News Service • Friday February 5, 2016

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Bette Midler has never seen Hello, Dolly! onstage.

She has seen the movie and was generally familiar with the story, but when producer Scott Rudin started calling her months ago, asking her to consider starring in a revival of the musical on Broadway, she knew that she had homework to do before committing.

She went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to watch a film of Carol Channing in the 1995 revival, and to YouTube to watch clips of Pearl Bailey in the 1975 revival. She watched The Matchmaker, a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth that is adapted from the same Thornton Wilder play that inspired the musical.

She also read production notes from Gower Champion, who directed the original production in 1964. She listened to cast albums. And she read the script, which persuaded her that the title character, a turn-of-the-century widow named Dolly Gallagher Levi, had more need and desperation than Midler had realized.

She said yes.

“It has an enormous amount of weight, and the score is irresistible,” Midler said.

“It’s a very American thing, with a joyous quality, a kind of can-do quality, and an incredible sweetness,” she said. “And in these dire times, when the whole world seems to be on fire, it seems like something people would love to see.”

Midler’s Dolly will arrive on Broadway in the spring of 2017, 50 years after the actress first appeared on Broadway as Tzeitel in the original production of Fiddler on the Roof.

In the intervening years, Midler has become an enormously popular entertainer, best known for her film roles and concert performances. In the 1970s, she appeared on Broadway in a series of concert shows; then she returned in 2013 for a one-woman play (“which pleased me no end”) called I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.

Her biggest complaint: Midtown traffic.

“Getting to the theater was a real chore. A couple of times, I had to get out of the car and run.”

During the same period, Dolly has become one of the best-known U.S. musicals, performed and spoofed and fetishized (among the show’s more charming enthusiasts: the title robot in the 2008 Pixar film WALL-E).

Although the role is most closely associated with Channing (who starred in the original and two Broadway revivals) and Barbra Streisand (who starred in the film), it also has been played by a number of brassy belters, including Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers.

The revival also will bring the show’s composer back to Broadway for the 20th time.

“Whether I like it or not, on my tombstone, it’ll say, ‘He wrote the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly!’ ” said Jerry Herman, who also wrote the music and lyrics for Mame and La Cage aux Folles.

That was several years ago.

Herman had lunch with Midler, who was charmed but couldn’t fit Dolly! into her schedule. Then along came Rudin, a veteran producer in Hollywood as well as on Broadway, and he sealed the deal. The revival will be directed by Jerry Zaks (who has won four Tony awards) and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (who has won one).

A theater and other cast members have yet to be announced; tickets don’t go on sale until the fall.

Midler, who will be 71 when the revival opens, called the role “a big challenge,” noting that she hasn’t appeared with a cast of other actors in a show in years.

“It’s a lot — I’m no spring chicken,” she said. “But I’m curious, and I love to do all the things this character is required to do. It keeps me thin, which I like, and it keeps me engaged.”

She also expects to enjoy herself, she said.

“It’s going to be fun — and, more than anything, I like to have fun.”

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