BetteBack November 22, 1975: Bette Midler Steals The Show At Ira Gershwin Tribute

If music is the staff of life, the fiddlers are playing loud and clear. With any luck, rock and roll will get a decent funeral and we’ll all be singing and humming and tapping our feet to good music again if the current craze for beauty continues in the upwardly mobile direction it ’s going. At least that’s the way it looks in New York.

I can offer no better proof than the positively spectacular evening that took place last week in Lincoln Center as a tribute to the genius of lyricist Ira Gershwin.

Mr. Gershwin will be 80 years old on Dec. 6. He is in such frail health that he couldn’t travel. But he must have heard the applause and the beauty of his music way out in Beverly Hills. It was a night to remember. Movie stars rubbed elbows with elderly dowagers lugging their last million in unhocked diamonds, while the cultured and the wise sipped champagne with Bette Midler freaks – proving, for always, that genius spreads to all ages and all persuasions when it has longevity.

What happened at Lincoln Center was as much a tribute to taste and intelligence as it was to Ira Gershwin, whose name and career have always been synonymous with both. Dolores Gray got everything off to a blazing start with “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” and “I Got Rhythm, and there was no place to go from there but straight ahead. This woman lights up a stage like the Fourth of July, and if somebody doesn’t get her back on Broadway, the world is in a sorrier state of affairs than we think.

She’s a hard act to follow, but Harvey Evans and two delectable chorines brought down the house with “The Real American Folk Song is a Rag,” and the brilliant Anita Ellis sent electric shocks down the spine with “Someone To Watch Over Me” and “I Loves You Porgy.”

Chita Rivera sailed through the night in ostrich feathers and peach chiffon like the reincarnation of Terpsichore (Ginger Rogers, Eat Your Heart Out), and people like John Raitt, Sandy Stewart and Barbara Cook sang medleys of Gershwin that reddened a thousand eyes with tears and a thousand hands with applause.

It was a night of show-stoppers, with each performer trying to top everybody else. But one major surprise that knocked the audience off its feet was the unexpected appearance of that saucy, sexy, Southern spitfire Elizabeth Ashley, wrapped in a black satin slip cut up to her Christmas decorations, swinging and swaying the Gershwin-Kurt Weill “Saga of Jenny” while six chorus boys tossed her toward Heaven. The screaming crowd went berserk, and that was only the first act.

After intermission, during which voices came from everywhere echoing approval (“They should have recorded this night!” “It makes me feel alive again!” ), Barbara Cook, who has one of the most beautiful voices ever heard by man, electrified the stately old Avery Fisher Hall with her moving rendition of “The Man I Love,” Elizabeth Ashley got sawed in half by Doug Henning of “The Magic Show” while singing “Do Do Do What You Done Done Done Before,” Kitty Carlisle Hart made one of her rare, magic appearances shimmering like a summer sundae in pink lemonade chiffon while her still gorgeous, lyric soprano voice hauntingly recreated “My Ship” from “Lady in the Dark,” a show Ira Gershwin
worked on with Kitty’s late husband, Moss Hart.

As I said, it was one of those nights that made history and made you wonder where all that beauty and genius and wit has gone, in the declining years of musical theater.

We soon found out where it went when they brought out Jerry Orbach, a tone-deaf mediocrity who appears in the current musical, “Chicago.” This was the kind of evening that separated the men from the boys, and poor, ossified Orbach proved what league he belongs in by turning out to be the night’s only nonprofessional embarrassment.

For some mysterious reason that can only be explained by the producers, Orbach was handed a plum in two of Gershwin’s greatest triumphs, “How Long Has This Been Going On” and “S’Wonderful.” He turned them into dirges, his voice wandering unsteadily through several keys beyond his range and ability.

But it was also the kind of night in which even a grave error like that could be forgiven. Quickly dismissed by mild, polite applause, he was immediately replaced before the audience whispers of astonishment could accelerate by the magnificent Chita Rivera, who woke everybody up to a standing ovation with her splashy production number, “Sam and Delilah” from “Girl Crazy.”

And there was more: Bobby Short, demonstrating the ease and polish that has crowds filling in to hear him nightly at the Cafe Carlyle, waxing “I Can’t Get Started” to a thrilling sheen.

Gotham, that daffy singing trio, appeared in safari suits and pith helmets doing Gershwin’s pastiche, “Sunny Disposish,” and then the fireworks exploded.

Another big-game hunter skated forth from the wings to tumultuous applause. Her name was Bette Midler, and if anybody still needs proof that Ira Gershwin is just as relevant and applicable to 1975 as he was to the music of the better musical years, she sealed the legend in gold.

After setting off a few kegs of her own of dynamite with the obscure comedy tune “My Cousin From Milwaukee,” she gleefully chided the audience (“This is the classiest night I’ve ever been associated with” ) and the orchestra (“We’re all working free tonight except the band – right fellas and gals?” ), and paid her own rhythmic tribute to Ira Gershwin by singing, with great feeling and emotion, her own contemporary arrangement of a song that could well be the theme of all artists who have achieved individuality and originality.

The song was “They Can’t Take That Away From Me,” and until you hear Bette Midler sing Ira Gershwin, you don’t know what love is. What seemed like 10 high school marching bands suddenly descended upon Lincoln Center at that precise moment, playing “Strike Up The Band” while baton-twirling nymphets and acrobats and cheerleaders turned the night into a cheering, screaming, riotous circus of joy and happiness. And above it all, the smiling caricature of Ira Gershwin beamed down from the massive stage with amusement and pride.

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