Taboo-busting Bette Midler
It’s hard to believe that Bette Midler isn’t a native New Yorker. She manages to combine a chutzpah and a Manhattan-style savviness that not everyone born to a seamstress and a house painter in Honolulu could manage.
But the entertainer has been living in the city for more than 50 years and her intimate relationship with its cultural evolution is once again in sharp relief, thanks to a new production of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway and a remastering of “The Divine Miss M”, the 1972 album, which made her name.
She arrives for our early evening rendezvous in a small hotel off Madison Avenue, in convivial mood, modestly but elegantly attired in a simple sweater and large earrings. Her generous demeanour belies a busy day, with rehearsals and a Facebook Q&A with her ever-admiring fans. The singer, actress and comedienne has been actively involved in the remounting of her first disc.
“I heard it again, and I like it,” she says. “I was like, ‘Oh, don’t make me do that’, but I had to listen. I really wanted the old sound, because I think part of the charm of that record is that it’s very warm sounding.”
Some of it, indeed, was made in front of a crowd invited into the studio to eat Chinese food and observe her show.
“It’s part-live,” she says dryly. “Like me.” As an ingenue in New York (she relocated to the city in 1965 using earnings from a bit part in a long forgotten Julie Andrews fi lm called “Hawaii” Midler’s first focus was on musical theatre, notably in a longrunning production of “Fiddler on the Roof”.
As a solo singer, her style was honed in the city’s live venues, but not to the usual rock club template. Instead, she performed her show in the bathhouses where gay men met for sexual encounters. Looking back, Midler, now 70, takes satisfaction in the pathfinding role she played in the emerging Gay Pride movement.
“I had no idea at the time,” she says. “I knew there were gay people here, but I didn’t know I was helping them kick the door open, because I was just in there doing my job. And it was a great job.
“I think I was the first person on television ever to say ‘gay’ on “The Johnny Carson Show”. I said I was working in a gay bathhouse, and I think the house went up, but to me it was no big deal. I’d been in community theatres where the place was full of queens, and I’d gone to see the drag shows. I didn’t pay any attention to it, it was just like ‘Oh, humanity’.”
“[The gay community] wanted me to succeed,” she adds. “They saw something in me that I think people didn’t see. The emotionalism [of my show], the intimacy, the fearlessness, the outrageousness. That’s what they enjoyed in their life and they saw me as part of it.”
You might assume that such fearlessness evolved from her Jewish upbringing in a chiefly Asian community in Honolulu, but she won’t have it.
“I never fought anything,” she says firmly. “I was the biggest coward in the world, I was hiding in the corner. “I was the only white person in my class, so I had it the opposite way, but when I came to the ‘mainland’, as they called it, I didn’t really understand what was going on with the civil rights struggle. I mean, I knew vaguely that there was slavery, from my social studies class, but I wasn’t living in the middle of it. But as your consciousness raises, you finally say ‘This won’t do’.”
“The Divine Miss M” – which became a million-seller in the US and prompted the first of her three Grammys – was made on the back of her stage reputation. However, critical responses to her live performances just prior to the album release were not always complimentary. A reviewer for Billboard said: “Miss Midler sounded and even looked good during the Carpenters’ hit “Superstar.” But she ruined the effect when, midway through the song, she started flopping her legs and bounced out of her bodice.”
But after the album’s debut, Midler was set. In 1979 she made her film debut in “The Rose”, which won her the first two of four Golden Globes, and other big hits followed over the years, including wartime drama “For the Boys” and, most notably, “Beaches”, one of cinema’s ultimate weepies which included the anthemic song “Wind Beneath My Wings”.
With such a depth of experience, it’s no surprise that Midler is prone to conversational detours. Passionate as ever, and volubly democratic with both a lower and upper case “d”, she gets serious as she tells me she hopes Donald Trump “hasn’t poisoned the well permanently. I worry, because people have become disenfranchised in a way that they never expected to be.”
There’s a strong sense of justice running through Midler and this extends to her professional life. This summer, she appeared as a mentor on the US version of the talent show, The Voice, alongside country superstar Blake Shelton, after she was persuaded by her friend, Bruce Springsteen.
He said, ‘You have something to tell them. They don’t want to know how to do riffs like Mariah Carey. They want to know how to do what you do’. [Old school pizzazz.] A lightbulb actually went on.
“I had the best time. Blake is a doll, and these voices – young, old, tall, thin, short, fat, it doesn’t matter. If they can sing, they have an opportunity to be heard.” Midler’s eye for new talent expands to theatre. She speaks with optimism about the state of Broadway and singles out Lin-Manuel Miranda, the actor/rapper/writer whose smash hit “Hamilton” will come to London’s West End next year.
“I don’t know how many people have the skill that he has, he’s a genius,” she says. Her own contribution to Braodway’s Great White Way was such that she won a special Tony Award as long ago as 1974. She returned there for the first time in nearly 30 years in 2013, playing “superagent” Sue Mengers in “I’ll Eat You Last”. But the “Hello, Dolly!” revival, costarring David Hyde Pierce (Niles in the long-running sitcom “Frasier”), is a different proposition altogether.
“Today I met a few of the singerdancers, excellent performers, and we did what we learnt,” she reports. “It was fun. I’m dancing a lot. I’m not a trained dancer, but I really like it, I lost a lot of weight from it. I just can’t quite figure out what comes next. It’s a steep climb, but I know I’ll get there.”
With “Hello, Dolly!” opening in June, there is no sign of Midler taking a breather. “I came to the UK with that last tour, Divine Intervention,” she says. “I was really beat after that, but I just didn’t know whether it was time. My husband [artist Martin von Haselberg, to whom she has been married since 1984] and I talk about it all the time, ‘Isn’t it time?’ he asks. I say, ‘To slow down?’ and he replies, ‘No, to stop, before you really look like the picture of Dorian Gray?
“You don’t want people to come just to see if you’re still standing. But at the same time, this thing is brand new to me, and it’s energized me in a funny way, learning these skills. I’m kind of awake. I’m really intensely curious, and that will never go away.” – The Interview People