The New Yorker
By Hilton Als


Bette Midler is such an incredible self-creation—an artist like no other—that finding roles that can harness her enormous energy while allowing room for her wit and her extraordinary skill as a balladeer must have long been a nightmare for her agents. Early in her now more than fifty-year career, Midler did happen upon a part that tapped into her many talents. In 1979, she starred in “The Rose,” a fictional film portrait of a Janis Joplin-like singer, which moved a lot of people, not least because the script reflected aspects of Midler’s own life: her camaraderie with her gay fans and the distance she may have felt from her parents. (Her father wasn’t supportive of her aspirations and saw her perform only once.) Although “The Rose” was a milestone in Midler’s wildly diverse career—in addition to acting onstage and onscreen, she makes records, performs solo shows, and runs a charity that helps transform vacant lots into gardens and public spaces—it was just one of many. As recently as 2013, she was a hit on Broadway in “I’ll Eat You Last,” in which she played the late mega-agent Sue Mengers to superb effect. Now she is back on Broadway, in “Hello, Dolly!” (directed by Jerry Zaks, at the Shubert).

Midler was born in Honolulu in 1945, a few months after the end of the Second World War. (She has a special fondness for the Andrews Sisters and other wartime vocalists.) The Midlers were not only one of the few white families in their area; they were also Jewish. Although Midler became known for the swift, self-mocking stage patter of her creation the Divine Miss M—she’s looser and more cynical than Dolly Parton—she sometimes lets the island girl come out, and her ukulele playing while she sings a Hawaiian song is soft, slow, and tender. Midler arrived in New York in 1965. (She earned her fare by being a seasick extra in the epic, and epically boring, 1966 movie “Hawaii.”) Given that she didn’t grow up as a member of anything even approaching a majority, it makes sense that she discovered her most adoring company among other outsiders, in the pre-Stonewall gay community. In that milieu, Midler found her voice and honed it. She could speak—loudly—not just for herself but for all those men who weren’t allowed to be as out there in the world as she was.

Part of Midler’s genius has always been her ability to translate an underground sensibility for a general audience without losing either. It’s a fascinating process, one that Ellen Willis described in a 1973 piece in this magazine about one of Midler’s performances:

As an ambitious artist in every sense, she was facing familiar contradictions: how to remain “the last of the tacky women” and preserve her special relationship with her “real” fans while playing the Palace at fifteen dollars top; how to make the mass audience love her while resisting subtle and not so subtle pressures to pander.

Willis goes on to criticize Midler for how she handled that dilemma onstage, but I think that much of her best work has been inspired by the tension between being accepted and being outraged by the very idea of acceptance. Whether Midler is playing the Rose, Sue Mengers, or Dolly Levi, her quick, exaggeratedly showgirlish walk is a walk away from the audience. She needs our love, but she wants to be out of its reach, too: if she isn’t at our mercy, she can survive without us, trouper that she is.

But how can we survive our love for her? I felt that love, in a rush, when Midler made her entrance in Zaks’s fairly standard production of “Hello, Dolly!” The musical, which was first produced on Broadway in 1964, is based on Thornton Wilder’s 1955 comedy, “The Matchmaker.” Although Wilder worked on “The Matchmaker” for years, it’s not one of his more interesting pieces; it contains all the whimsy and strained humor that he disciplined himself against in more substantial plays, such as “Our Town” (1938) and the overlong but fascinating “The Skin of Our Teeth” (1942). Nevertheless, mediocre comedies can make good musicals—a great score can bolster a weak story—and “Hello, Dolly!” ’s composer and lyricist, Jerry Herman, and Michael Stewart, who wrote the book, pretty much stuck to the scenario that Wilder laid out. Horace Vandergelder (David Hyde Pierce) is a sour, money-grubbing merchant from Yonkers. He looks after his niece, Ermengarde (Melanie Moore), a crybaby who’s in love with an artist named Ambrose Kemper (Will Burton), whom Vandergelder does not like. Still, the young couple are determined to marry, with the help of the matchmaker Dolly Levi. In the meantime, Vandergelder’s two young assistants, Cornelius Hackl (Gavin Creel) and Barnaby Tucker (Taylor Trensch), head into New York City, where they fall for two women: Irene Molloy (Kate Baldwin), a hatmaker on whom Vandergelder has set his sights, and her assistant, Minnie Fay (Beanie Feldstein).

It’s not my favorite musical—Vandergelder is a one-note creation, a long misanthropic whine, and Herman is not the subtlest lyricist in the world—and until I saw Midler in the role I was partial to the 1969 Barbra Streisand film version, directed by Gene Kelly. The movie is, more or less, a reprise of “Funny Girl,” down to its overhead shots of Streisand travelling on or near water, as she did when she sang “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” in her Oscar-winning performance as Fanny Brice. Some critics thought Streisand was too young to play the middle-aged Dolly, but I didn’t mind: she looked sort of dewy, perfectly turned out, and the period costumes and the locales were richly detailed. Santo Loquasto’s costumes and sets for the current production are a little chintzy, not in comparison but in fact, though I liked the music-hall feel of the piece.

As in Wilder’s original story, the characters address the audience from time to time, which gives Midler a chance to connect with us by drawing on who she really is, as well as whom she wants to portray. (Midler’s own instincts about what works onstage and why are always her best director.) The night I saw the show, she entered with a good Yonkers accent and a lot of bounce. She was, after all, in an American musical, and an iconic one to boot; in addition to Streisand, stars ranging from Carol Channing to Pearl Bailey have tackled the role, and that’s because it plays to a diva’s strengths. The plot turns on Dolly, and the show offers ample opportunity for whoever plays the part to showcase her ability to convey pathos and defiance, grief and comedy. And who better than Midler to give us all that? (Pierce’s acting style—distant, ironical, and quizzical—complements Midler’s perfectly. Of the supporting players, Creel is the most charming and the least stressed.)

The role of Dolly isn’t necessarily tailor-made for Midler—she’s infinitely more complicated and funny and there isn’t a corny bone in her body—but she has remade the character in her own image: as a scrappy trickster with needs and vulnerabilities. No matter how much Dolly tries to engineer things in her favor, she’s forever an outsider—a widow suffering from, though not debilitated by, loneliness—and the only person who would understand how she feels is her dead husband, Ephraim. Toward the end of the first act, Dolly asks Ephraim to send her a sign so that she’ll know it’s O.K. to move on and love again. It was very sweet to watch Midler walk to the center of the stage, turn her face up to the pin spot, and start addressing a lost love: the moment was filled with memories of Midler, Bette in a thousand and one previous incarnations, including herself. It didn’t feel like nostalgia; it was more like anticipation, the excitement of looking forward to a wonderful evening with an old friend—who has such an interesting way of pronouncing things when she speaks and sings, those round “o”s and drawn-out “love”s and “you know”s.

But a different kind of reality soon intruded. Just before Midler launched into “Before the Parade Passes By,” that paean to keeping going, to moving forward, she started to cough and couldn’t stop. You could feel the audience holding its breath. As she tried to catch hers, Creel ran onstage with a glass of water and knelt before the star, whose mortality we could suddenly sense and see: Bette wouldn’t be Bette forever, and the idea was intolerable. After drinking the water, Midler lay down on the stage in a caricature of weariness, as the audience stood up to meet her energy, which, though flagging, was still greater than anyone else’s. Then she rose and walked over to the orchestra pit and asked the conductor to start again. “I can’t hear you, honey,” she said. Turning back to the audience as the music began, Midler said, “Ugh—live theatre,” and rolled her eyes. When she started to sing, the number became unlike any version I’d heard before—plaintive, sweet, a folk song about love and desire. That Zaks’s staging soon turned it into show business, with dancers and so on, wasn’t annoying: he was only doing his job, just as Midler, breaking our hearts with both her character and her real self, was doing hers. ?

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