By Craig Zadan
April 12, 1975
THE CRUSH of bridge chairs forms a circle surrounding a large grand piano which is being pounded into a soulful vamp. Thirteen black gospel singers begin bellowing “Gone at Last,” a new Paul Simon song written just for the occasion, and three of the sleasiest-looking girls this side of Eighth Avenue join them in harmony. As the song builds momentum, a red-haired Lilliputian in clashing purple dance tights and brown knee-high boots skitters across the circle segueing the song into a crisp arrangement of “Higher and Higher.” Arms flailing, body gyrating, she hits the top note and the number climaxes.
Ten seconds of silence.
“Okay, okay, places for the Latin number. Places, places.” Bette Midler stands with a hand on her waist. “I said places” (shooting a deadly comic stare at one. of the boys).
“Sorry. I was thinking about something else,” he says apologetically.
“Your past, I suppose,” she utters out of the corner of her mouth.
The tempo is now, improbably, Latin-soul, and Bette leads her singers into “The Carioca.” “It’s forties Xavier Cugat,” director Joe Layton whispers. “It’s overproduced and terrible. And,” he hastens to add, “hopefully, terribly funny.”
Bette Midler’s Clams on the Half Shell Revue, which opens April 14th at the Minskoff Theater, was almost sold out within hours of the moment tickets went on sale. The first day’s ticket sale, amounting to well over $200,000, tops the all-time Broadway record â€” held by Bette Midler when she sold $148,000 on the first day for her Palace Theater engagement in December of 1973.
Since her triumph at the Palace, however, Bette’s career has been an enigma. Having risen to superstardom in less than two years (merely on the strength of two record albums and some highly successful concert appearances), she threatened to become the hottest property of the seventies and an obvious choice for starring roles in legit musicals, motion pictures, and television.
Instead, she disappeared. Her musical arranger and producer, Barry Manilow, went on to become a star himself and Bette showed no inclination to make a move without him. Now, perhaps precariously, she is headed back to the stage with an entirely new entourage in an omnibus musical revue built solely on her gift for comedy and song. Whether she can make it work in this bizarre comeback (which, if successful, could be filmed as a television special and recorded as a live album) won’t be known for sure until she opens next week at the Minskoff.
Getting Chubby in Paris
“WHERE WAS I?” Bette squeals in her nasal, kvetching, chatty whine. “I was sitting around getting very chubby for a year. But I was having the time of my life. I was bruised and battered and I needed a rest. So I went to Paris, France, to become very elegant and I failed mi-ser-a-bly. You know, I thought I spoke French. Then I got there and I realized I didn’t. But I ate my brains out.”
She stops long enough to look around at the cluttered rehearsal hall filled with microphone stands, sheet music, records, phonographs, tape recorders, drums … “Here we are just minutes away from the opening. God only knows what’s to become of us. I mean; I nevier imagined it would turn into this epic of death … the most mind-boggling, stupendous production ever conceived and built around one poor small five-foot-one-and-a-half-inch Jewish girl from Honolulu. All of a sudden I’m a whole industry. People run, they fetch, they carry, they nail, they paint, they sew. I had always dressed my girls from stock and now here we are with real costumes . . . they’re pinning here and tucking here and pushing tits up to the neck and showing calves. Do you know what this is? It’s a celebration of the sexual rites of a New Yorker.”
Under the direction of Joe Layton (the man who guided Barbra Streisand through each of her Emmy Award-winning TV specials), Bette’s revue will be a realization of everything she has always wanted to do but was afraid to ask for. The first act is structured with lots of extraordinary Tony Walton scenery and the second is more relaxed, sort of a production concert.
“She basically sings and talks a lot,” Layton says, “but she is guided. She’s framed and cushioned so that she doesn’t have to do
two hours of killing herself.”
THE SHOW is also set up to contain two spots that will change each night. In the first, Bette will have free rein to substitute a number at her whim. In the other spot, she will be joined by a surprise guest â€”- whoever happens to be in town and in the audience that night. Paul Simon, for one, has promised his appearance.
Though an actual book does not exist, Bette and her writers, Jerry Blatt, Bill Hennessey, and Bruce Vilanch, have been busily writing gag lines and situations. And though the show is choreographed, there will be no dancers. (“There’ll be lots of tapping,” Bette says, “but I will not be doing any of it. I’m the diva, lest you forget. The diva does not have to stoop to tapping.”)
Sharing the evening will be special guest Lionel Hampton for some nostalgia, the Michael Powell Gospel Singers for some soul, and Sharon, Robin, and Charlotte (“the world’s oldest Harlettes”) for some trash.
“What I like about working with Bette,” Layton explains, “is that she wears her whole presence on the outside. If she’s mad at you, she comes at you with a knife. If she loves you she gives you a smile. You never have to worry what she’s thinking. It makes it
much easier to deal with and gets the work done with great efficiency.”
As rehearsals drag on into the night (the show has been in rehearsal for nearly two months â€” ten hours a day), Bette becomes more somber. Her acid tongue is always in place should she feel like leveling the room with a caustic quip, but she looks drained. Some of the defenses are down.
“I have pretty good instincts,” she says quietly. “I go right to the line and even if I do things in bad taste, I do them in such aÂ way that it’s okay. I’ve thought about just going out and performing straight. Sometimes I wonder about that. But everybody elseÂ does that and it’s so boring. Do you think I should come out and be boring like that? I don’t know. Maybe I should. Can you thinkÂ of any performer who comes out and who knows how to do what I do as well as I do it? Who comes out and carries on like that andÂ doesn’t give a sâ€”? No. No, no, no. I do it because it comes easy to me. I enjoy it.” With a groan, she stretches and yawns.
“My big question is whether the lack of friction that usually existed in rehearsals will affect my creativity. Do I really need toÂ pump myself so full of anxiety and fear and loathing and negative things in order to release it during performance? It’s extremelyÂ frightening. I was relatively calm until last week and then I think I psyched myself into a fit. I had two or three days that I literally bit people and called them horrendous names. I also started dreaming. Strange dreams. I had a nightmare that David Bowie opened up across the street from me and he had the same sets and he was wearing my costumes.”