Bette Midler, Glowin’, Crowin’, Goin’ Strong and Ready for ‘Hello, Dolly!’
By MICHAEL PAULSON JAN. 20, 2016
Bette Midler has never seen “Hello, Dolly!” onstage.
Sure, she’d seen the movie, and she was generally familiar with the story, but when the producer Scott Rudin started calling her some months ago, asking her to consider starring in a revival of the musical on Broadway, she realized she needed to do some homework.
She went to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts to watch a film of Carol Channing in the 1995 revival, and to YouTube to watch clips of Pearl Bailey in the 1975 revival. She watched “The Matchmaker,” a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth, which is adapted from the same Thornton Wilder play that inspired the musical.
And that was not all. She read production notes from Gower Champion, who directed the original production in 1964. She listened to cast albums. And finally she read the script, which persuaded her that the title character, a turn-of-the- century widow named Dolly Gallagher Levi, had more need and desperation than she had realized.
She said yes.
“It has an enormous amount of weight, and the score is irresistible,” Ms. Midler said in a telephone interview hours after her agreement to star in a revival of “Hello, Dolly!” was announced. “It’s a very American thing, with a joyous quality, a kind of can-do quality, and an incredible sweetness, and in these dire
times, when the whole world seems to be on fire, it seems like something people would love to see.”
Ms. Midler’s Dolly will arrive on Broadway in the spring of 2017, 50 years after the actress first appeared on Broadway as Tzeitel in the original production of “Fiddler on the Roof.” In the intervening years, Ms. Midler has become an enormously popular entertainer, best known for her film roles and her concert performances. In the 1970s, she appeared on Broadway in a series of concert shows; then she returned in 2013 for a one-woman play (“which pleased me no end”) called “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.”
Her biggest complaint? Midtown traffic. “Getting to the theater was a real chore. A couple of times, I had to get out of the car and run.”
Over the same period, “Dolly” has become one of the best-known American musicals, performed and spoofed and fetishized (among the show’s more charming enthusiasts: the title robot in the 2008 Pixar film “Wall-E”). Although the role is most closely associated with Ms. Channing (who starred in the original and two Broadway revivals) and Barbra Streisand (who starred in the film), it has also been played by any number of brassy belters: Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers among them.
The revival will also bring the show’s composer back to Broadway for the 20th time.
“Whether I like it or not, on my tombstone it’ll say, ‘He wrote the music and lyrics for ‘Hello, Dolly!’” said Jerry Herman, who wrote the music and lyrics for “Hello, Dolly!,” as well as those for “Mame” and “La Cage aux Folles.”
“The morning after the reviews came out in 1964, I got a call from David Merrick, and he said, ‘Whatever you’re doing, put on your pants and come down to the St. James, ’cause you’ll only see this once or twice in a lifetime,’” Mr. Herman recalled in a separate telephone interview. “I did, and I saw a line that went around Eighth Avenue, and Merrick himself pouring coffee for people wanting to buy tickets. It was a sight worth getting dressed for.”
Mr. Herman, 84, said he had been hoping for years to see a revival of the show but was holding out for the right actress.
“There were so many suggestions of very talented women, but nobody pressed that button that made me say, ‘Wow,’ and then when I saw Bette on television doing a part of her Vegas act, it all happened,” he said. “I said, ‘This is the lady who can do it.’ The time has come.”
That was several years ago. Mr. Herman had lunch with Ms. Midler, who was charmed but couldn’t fit “Dolly!” into her schedule; then along came Mr. Rudin, a veteran producer in Hollywood as well as on Broadway, who sealed the deal. The revival will be directed by Jerry Zaks (who has won four Tony awards) and choreographed by Warren Carlyle (who has won one); the production has not yet announced a theater or other cast members, and tickets do not go on sale until fall.
Ms. Midler, who will be 71 years old when the revival opens, called the role “a big challenge,” noting that it had been years since she had appeared with a cast of other actors in a show, but she also said, “It’s going to be fun, and more than anything I like to have fun.”
“It’s a lot — I’m no spring chicken — but I’m curious, and I love to do all the things this character is required to do,” she added. “It keeps me thin, which I like, and it keeps me engaged.”
She said her age would make preparing for the role more difficult — “Everything you do in life gets harder” — but also noted that she had been touring last year and felt up for it. “I had a fabulous time,” she said. “It was not easy, but it was not as hard as I thought it was going to be.”
Mr. Herman said that Ms. Midler’s age might have been an issue for a different actress, but that “she has youth built into her, and I think she’s going to sail through this.” Ms. Midler is also younger than Ms. Channing was in the last revival (she was 74 at the time, playing a role she had originated at 43).
“Bette is an original, and Dolly needs to be an original,” Mr. Herman said. As for the production, he said: “It’s going to be beautiful, and it’s going to be exciting and colorful and handsome. Everything that the old girl deserves.”
© 2016 The New York Times Company