Growing up in Hawaii, Bette Midler had no idea what she looked like. She says, “Nothing.” It’s an amazing admission from someone who is magnetically present, who has devoted so much talent and energy over the years to propel mega versions of themselves to center stage. This is Miss Divine M’s talk, after all! Beloved Continental Baths, punk frontrunner of “Clam on Half Shell Revo,” woman behind Dolores de Lago, Chicago toast!
Her childhood home near Pearl Harbor, where her father worked as a civilian, had only one mirror, and we had very few photos, Midler explains. When success arrived when she was an adult, she had a sudden tremor. “Once I started shooting, I would look at these pictures. I would say, ‘That’s not me.'” That’s not what I look like.” I didn’t recognize myself.
This wasn’t the kind of reversal I’d expect from Midler, who, at about 76 years old, was bracing for another light-hearted moment, as the Kennedy Center Honors recipient on December 5th. Then again, until her “entry” on Friday afternoon. In October the sound was unexpectedly muted. In person, she’s featuring what her 2017 Broadway co-star David Hyde Pierce calls a “Hello, Dolly!” , “small size”. In fact, as her publicist and I were waiting outside the doors of the Shubert Organization on West 44th Street, she was wandering right in front of us, undetected.
“She’s a high-ranking, educated, old-fashioned kind of sensitive and vulnerable person,” says Jan Weiner, co-founder of Rolling Stone magazine, who has been a close friend of Midler for many years. “At the same time, she can wear the brassy, loud, funny, broad ‘satirical’ side of herself.”
The brassy, loud and funny side is what propelled Midler to stardom and continues to appear in places like her Twitter account (2 million followers), where she was notorious for mocking Republicans and recently ruled a battle between Senator Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. And billionaire Elon Musk tweeted: “Girls, girls! Both of you are beautiful!” But that’s not the dominant aspect of her character this October afternoon, as she sits in a chic black suit and black shoes and talks, eagerly and thoughtfully, in what was formerly the Times Square apartment of Jacob J. “JJ” Shubert – a co-founder with his brothers In Schubert’s Theatre Empire.
The Shubert Group owns and operates 17 of 41 Broadway theaters, and its holdings feature prominently in Midler’s career: at the Shubert house in 1967, she landed her first major part on Broadway, and took on the role of Tevye Tzeitel’s daughter in the original production of “The Violinist On the roof “. And the main stage, the Shubert Theatre, directly across 44th Street from JJ’s apartment, is where Midler scored her biggest Broadway victory in 50 years as Dolly Gallagher Levi—a performance that earned her a Tony and left fans’ hands swaying with applause.
“I don’t give myself a lot of pats on the back. I’m too busy moving forward,” says Midler, as she contemplates the meaning of a profession now selected for national distinction. “I mean, I was on the right track, something consumed me. I never really understood if it was hormonal or if it was some kind of glitch in my makeup, but I did consume something. And I never wavered, from some crazy purpose. Now that I’m At my age, I should step back and take a minute and say, “What the hell is this?”
The note raises a joke that has the implication that it begins with “I can’t tell you because it’s cliched” – which is, of course, the kind of joke you want to tell Bette Midler. So she continues: It’s about an old theater actor desperate for work who is assigned to travel from New York to the Cleveland theater to deliver one line, which he practiced anxiously over and over on the way there: “Listen! I’m hearing a cannon!” I hear a cannon!”
“He jumps out of a cab,” says Midler, runs to the stage, runs to the stage, and something says “Boom!” He shouts: What is this (expletive)?! “
Midler tells the joke with a breathless feel. It’s classic Borchette belt material, a reminder that for all her business and touring clubs and gay baths in the ’60s and ’70s, Midler’s heart belongs to earlier eras, by the standards of the likes of Frank Sinatra and the Andrews sisters. Those acts were, in fact, reminding her of performing the old music she loves in the times when rock music seemed to extract everything that came before.
This is how Dolores De Lago, Midler’s mermaid character, was born.
“I happen to have a real fondness for halls and a real fond of hall singers, because I was,” she says. “It’s actually a wonderful life. I mean, I’ve loved it since I did it. So the other reason I chose the lounge is because I love music. I wanted to be able to sing those songs without getting it, you know, I got bullied, because a lot of people They turned their backs on this type of music in the late 1960s.”
Perhaps her most widely witnessed manifestation of this throwback devotion came after an astonishing invitation. For Johnny Carson who last night hosted “The Tonight Show” in 1992, the longtime talk show maestro asked Midler to be his last guest. On this occasion, she performed a sentimental performance of “One for My Baby (And One More for the Road),” Johnny Mercer-Harold Arlen’s song from 1943. The show was watched by 55 million people.
Midler says that to this day she is not sure why Carson chose her. But one can venture to guess. Just as the couch on Carson’s set was a way station for talent in every era, Midler was always a kind of crossover artist, someone who was able to expand genres, in movies especially, and remained a central figure.
Or, as she put it: “I am the people’s singer.”
Sabeed: Hello Betty!
On the first day of rehearsals for the “Hello, Dolly!” On Broadway 2017, Midler walked into a studio off Union Square and peeked into a room full of excited cast members.
“Now, look,” David Hyde Pearce recalls Midler’s ad, “You can all sing better than me. You can all dance better than me. But you’re no funnier than me!”
Midler’s comedic sentiment shook the room — an icebreaker at the start of the production that would cement a warm friendship with Pierce, better known as Niles from the NBC sitcom “Fraser.” On Broadway, he played Horace Vandergelder, in Dorley in Midler.
“There are, you know, big stars who would abandon you on stage for the sake of the audience and leave you — you know, if they looked at you, you would be shocked,” Pierce says. “That’s not her. And I wasn’t alone. He was with anyone who was on stage with her, including anyone on set. She was with you 150%.”
Midler describes her run as Dolly the highlight of her life. The role provided her with a pivotal aspect of the performance – an arena in which to feel free. “I’m not particularly good at games,” she says. “So I didn’t play as a kid. Sometimes we played hopscotch. But I didn’t.”
“When I’m on stage, I play,” Midler continues. “I’m just playing. I’m having a lot of fun. And then I have all these people involved in the joke. And they’re having fun too. Because we’re all in this place where we can enlighten each other, we can laugh at each other, we can laugh with each other, We can cry. It’s a common thing, especially in my own shows, personal shows, and shows that I collect myself.”