The hottest show on Broadway is sold out every single night. There is a thrilling standing ovation smack dab in the middle of the second act. And normal people are paying nearly $800 a pop to sit in the theater’s premium seats. But there’s no hip-hop here, folks. This musical’s first production was in 1964, and its marquee star is 71 years old.
She’s Bette Midler — the beloved maven of stage and screen — and the show is the extraordinary new revival of “Hello, Dolly!”
The divine comedy, which opened Thursday night, reportedly has advance ticket sales of more than $40 million. And you can’t go to any bar in Hell’s Kitchen without hearing whispers of “Bette!” “Dolly!” and “That red dress!”
The buzz is partly a result of a historic pairing — Midler, one of world’s great divas, and “Dolly,” Broadway’s favorite musical comedy. Then there’s the astounding fact that Midler hasn’t performed onstage in a musical since 1969, when she took her last bow in “Fiddler on the Roof” — which opened in 1964, the same year “Hello, Dolly!” debuted with Carol Channing.
We must, of course, credit the actress’ brilliance as a performer. Her iconic comic chops — honed in Upper West Side gay bathhouses, Upper East Side divorcée-revenge capers and Las Vegas concerts — are on delicious display as Dolly the meddling matchmaker, especially next to David Hyde Pierce as her cheerfully crotchety leading man. And there is nothing more invigorating than Midler crooning Jerry Herman’s sensational standards. But the actress’ nonstop hustle during her 50-year career is every bit as ingenious as her art.
Unlike other divas, such as Cher or Barbra Streisand, Midler masterfully appeals to pretty much every ticket-buying generation there is.
You didn’t have to have a towel wrapped around your waist to fall in love with Bette in the 1970s. Middle-Americans were just as smitten, watching her as a regular guest on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and eventually “Late Night With David Letterman.” Her gags with Letterman were darkly subversive. My favorite: “Why Bother?” And Carson was so taken with Bette, she was invited to serenade him on his penultimate episode.
As for her music career, Midler’s two most iconic songs, “Wind Beneath My Wings” and “The Rose,” came, respectively, from the 1988 film “Beaches,” a cherished dramedy about lifelong gal pals, and 1979’s “The Rose,” about a ’60s rocker. Just about everyone with a pulse knows the chorus to “Wind Beneath My Wings”: “Did you ever know that you’re my hero .?.?.” That tune came in at No. 44 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years .?.?. 100 Songs” list. And for those without a pulse, it also frequently ranks as one of the most popular songs played at funerals. There’s a Bette for all occasions!
Her gift with shtick was mined to perfection in “The First Wives Club” in 1996 and “Ruthless People” in 1986. Those comedies cemented the Divine Miss M as a tour de farce, even without her signature mermaid tail.
Perhaps most importantly — stick with me here — Midler was top-billed in the 1993 witchcraft kids movie “Hocus Pocus.” At the time, critics spewed acid, leading to its 30 percent Rotten Tomatoes rating and measly $39.5 million box office earnings. But, thanks to Halloween TV broadcasts, the film has picked up a massive cult following of 20-somethings, and brings in about $1 million each year in DVD sales. Like her kid-eating witch, Midler’s getting ’em while they’re young.
That Bette Midler is Broadway’s biggest draw is no fluke. It’s 50 years in the making.