The divine Bette Midler returns in “Hello, Dolly!”
May 21, 2017, 10:17 AM
On the Great White Way, Broadway producers are constantly designing new shows, and re-designing old ones. And it certainly doesn’t hurt the chances of a Broadway revival if it features one of the biggest talents of our time, as “CBS This Morning” co-anchor Gayle King shows us:
Simply put, Bette Midler is the ultimate designing woman.
In a career spanning generations, she is constantly creating and recreating, leaving a trail of memorable personas and unforgettable performances. And at age 71, she’s re-inventing herself, yet again.
“This is the biggest challenge of my career,” she told King. “And I needed a challenge.
“I had been on the road. I came off the road two years ago. And that was a huge show. And it was a very successful show. I took it to Europe, had a great time. But I had done it. And I didn’t want to do it again.”
What she’s done instead is return to Broadway, starring in “Hello, Dolly!” — winning rave reviews, earning a Tony nomination, and playing to sold-out houses.
“It is extraordinary,” she said. “And I’m very grateful for it. And it doesn’t matter in what frame of mind I come into the theatre — I know that when I get out there, it’s going to be there. And I’m just going to sail — we’re going to go on a little journey that’s a lovely, little, joyous journey for two-and-a-half hours. And we’re gonna have a ball!”
Midler is matchmaker Dolly Levi, the role famously originated by Carol Channing back in 1964.
King asked, “Were you worried about coming after her model?”
“Terribly,” Midler replied. “And I went to see Carol.”
“Was it intimidating meeting here to talk playing this role?”
“Well, she is very close to six feet tall. And I’m very, very little. But she was so gracious and so loving and sweet. That’s all I can say. It was an unforgettable afternoon with her.”
To Midler, “Dolly” has a message aimed at one particular group: “This part is for a woman of a certain age who can make it her own. And it can be hilarious. And I really wanted it to be funny.”
“You said ‘women of a certain age.’ And every time I hear that — because now that phrase, I’m starting to hear that a lot — ”
“Oh, really? That’s a very old-fashioned and polite way of saying, mmmm …”
“I’m actually thrilled,” Midler said. “And I think the crowd is thrilled, too. Because a lot of people my age are coming. And they see me skipping, and they flip out. I skip — a step that they haven’t done since they were seven. And they feel like, ‘Wow. If she’s doing it, maybe I can do it, too.’ And I love that.”
Midler’s career pretty much began on the Great White Way, shortly after arriving in New York from Hawaii. She appeared in “Fiddler on the Roof.” She was 20.
“Well, I came to do Broadway musicals,” she said. “I had been in community theatre as a kid, 14 years old. I was fired from my first show.”
Why? “Because I upstaged the lead!” she laughed.
You might be surprised to learn that “Hello, Dolly!” is Midler’s first time back in a Broadway musical in nearly half-a-century.
“That’s a long time,” said King. “Fifty years it’s taken you to come back to the musical theatre.”
“Fif-ty years! No lie. No lie. Isn’t that interesting?”
“Since you love it so much, why did it take you so long?
“Well, I loved it. I loved it in the days that I was working in it, but it changed, you know?” Midler replied. “It changed considerably. It wasn’t musical comedy anymore. It was more musical theatre. It became much more serious. I wanted musical comedy. I wanted to be funny on the stage and I wanted to be able to sing and dance on the stage.”
When King asked Midler for the story about her salmon-pink hair highlights, Midler laughed: “There’s no story. It’s semi-permanent. Wash it in, wash it out. Have some fun!”
“But you don’t see — there I go again –‘women of a certain age’ with pink highlights.”
“Yes, you do!”
Fair to say, Bette Midler does it all — singer, comedian, actress, activist, truly comfortable center-stage.
King said, “I’ve heard you say that on stage you are absolutely fearless, that you are really in your comfort zone when you’re on the stage.”
“Yeah, I’m very happy here,” Midler replied. “I’ve been happy ever since I discovered that I could make people laugh. And it’s a great place to be. It’s warm. It’s very warm. The lights are warm. And you know, you look great because the lights are so gorgeous. And often they put you in a very beautiful costume, so you look your best. So yes, I am very comfortable here.”
At ease on stage — private in real life. “I’m shy. I’m basically quite shy,” Midler said.
“Stop, Bette Midler. Stop. You are basically shy?”
“Truly! I’m a librarian, and everyone knows it. I’ve been saying it for years. I’m like a reader. I’m a bookworm. I peek out, and I observe. I’m very observant. And I do take things from a lot of sources, but I’m shy.”
Midler has made dozens of movies, from “Hocus Pocus” and “Beaches” to “The First Wives Club.” But one role stands out for her: “The Rose.” “Oh, that was my favorite movie that I ever made. I had a great group around me, and it was a beautiful, beautiful production. Wonderful. I loved it. And I loved her, ’cause I totally understood her. I knew where she was coming from. I knew the pain that she had lived through.”
And then there’s her alter-ego, “The Divine Miss M.”
What’s she up to these days? “Well, she’s working in a Broadway show!” Midler laughed.
“Will we see her again?” King asked.
“Well, I did retire my mermaid. Last year we deep-sixed her.”
“But you always have the right to change your mind, Bette Midler.”
“I don’t want to put on a fish tail again!” Midler replied. “I’m sorry, Gail — the time has passed.”
So no more mermaid. But that’s okay. Bette Midler is standing tall, firmly rooted in the present.
In fact, she tells King, “I never look back. Never look back. Never look back. ‘Cause if you’re looking back, you can’t look forward. You can’t go forward.”
The divine Bette Midler — moving forward, and giving back, with one magical emotion: “It is love. And it’s joy, too. Towards the end of the show when you’ve heard them laughing all night long in a way that you haven’t heard a crowd laugh in many, many years, you know that you’ve given them something that nourished their souls in a way.”