Television networks like to call a show that they are promoting an "event" as if that word conjures something so special you can't possibly miss it. For aficionados of the Broadway musical, Bette Midler's performance in HELLO, DOLLY! is an "event." Other than a stint as one of the daughters in the original production of FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, Midler has never been in, much less starred in, a Broadway musical. What is extraordinary about Midler is that she invented her own form of musical revue and took it into giant venues across the country. She created and performed her own bizarre cast of characters. Occasionally she would bring her extravaganzas into a Broadway theatre but she usually played to ten thousand, not the fifteen-hundred of the larger Broadway theatres. Midler's core audience was gay men from the days of her appearances at the Continental baths to her touring spectacles. Then she went Hollywood and became more mainstream. Nonetheless, for many gay men, Bette is part of gay history, the first diva to play to and for gay audiences. Given this, I was surprised to see that the audience wildly cheering her last night at the Shubert Theatre was predominantly straight. The Continental Baths was over forty years ago and many of her towel-clad audience there and then were lost in the AIDS epidemic. The audience last night was also decidedly middle-aged and older. Younger gay men have their own divas though none of them play as specifically to the gay community as Bette did back in the day.
Bette is the centerpiece of an excellent revival of the Jerry Herman-Michael Stewart-Gower Champion extravaganza, HELLO, DOLLY!, a show built to celebrate its title character and the performer who plays her. HELLO, DOLLY! is a faithful musical adaptation of Thornton Wilder's farce, THE MATCHMAKER, which played successfully on Broadway in the 1950s with Ruth Gordon giving a typically bizarre performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi. I was in high school when I saw THE MATCHMAKER and thought the play was hilarious but that Gordon was just plain weird. The next year Shirley Booth made more of the role in the lovely film adaptation. THE MATCHMAKER was my high school's Senior Play. I was student director. Like many of Thornton Wilder's works, HELLO, DOLLY is a call to celebrate life. Strangely, it is also a celebration of money, for, according to the show, only with money can one live fully. As Dolly says, "Money is like manure. You've got to spread it around to make little things grow." Dolly forces miserly, stodgy Horace Vandergelder to enjoy life as she rescues his young employees, Cornelius and Barnaby from tedium.
The musical gives its audience the gist of the play, soliloquies and all, and uses it as a foundation for a brilliant score from Jerry Herman. There isn't a weak number in HELLO, DOLLY, except, in this revival, "Penny in My Pocket," the number Horace (David Hyde Pierce), sings at the top of the second act, which was rightly cut from the original production. It's obviously there only to give Pierce another number. Jerry Herman was the last of the great Broadway composers who wrote traditional show tunes. Like Sondheim, his active career ended in the 1980s. Even in 1964, when The Beatles became big stars, one could say that his music looked back to another era and another style. He is the last great creator of traditional American popular songs, of the kind of show tunes we call The American Songbook. My kind of music.
The producers of this revival have lavished great care. Though credit is given to Jerry Zaks as director and Warren Carlyle as choreographer, the production keeps key elements of the Gower Champion original. If anything this version, with gorgeous sets by Santo Loquasto (even painted drops like the old days), and brilliantly colored costumes (also by Loquasto), are more lavish than the original. There's a big orchestra and good sized chorus. There is also a star-studded supporting cast for Ms. Midler. David Hyde Pierce is the best Horace I have seen. The wonderful Gavin Creel is totally charming as Cornelius. Kate Baldwin sings beautifully, as always. Even without Midler, this is a starry revival.
Then there's Bette Midler. Broadway musical expert Ethan Mordden has written, "The ideal Dolly is the ideal entertainer, a fabulous freak." Look who played her in the original seven-year run: Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Rate, Phyllis Diller, Ethel Merman and Pearl Bailey (with an all-Black supporting cast). I felt a sense of deja vu as I watched Bette's performance, which evoked memories of star turns I saw as a kid in that same theatre--Judy Holliday in BELLS ARE RINGING, Jackie Gleason and Robert Morse in TAKE ME ALONG. Across the street Phil Silvers and Nancy Walker in DO RE MI. Star turns by big stars. They don't make them like that anymore. The audience didn't expect them to be anything but who they were. Did anyone expect Ethel Merman to act? Like audiences in the Golden Age of the Musical, the audience was there to see Midler who played Midler playing Dolly. She flubbed her first lines, then ad libbed, "It's the meds." The audience loved it. When she finally got the line right, she got another ovation. In the final scene, her hat fell off. The audience applauded. She and David Hyde Pierce ad libbed a few lines about the hat. More applause. There was a sense that these little mistakes were what the audience wanted, what made it a live event. They could tell their friends that they saw Bette the night her hat fell off, the night she got tongue-tied on one of her first lines. It sounded like she has never gotten over the throat problems that plagued her earlier in the run. She is now almost as much of a baritone as Carol Channing was. But there was the presence, flashes of the old Bette who loved nothing more than pleasing an audience and having them show their love for her. She's 70 now, older than Carol Channing was when she did her farewell tour of HELLO, DOLLY!, but once in the spotlight Bette seemed to have boundless energy. It was a love fest and she deserved the love for giving the audience a taste of what Broadway used to be like.
It is highly likely that Bette Midler and Ben Platt, who performs in DEAR EVAN HANSEN a few yards away from the Shubert at the Music Box Theatre, will win the Tonys for best performance in a musical. What a contrast! Platt's performance is an amazing case of a performer seeming to totally lose himself in a role. Bette Midler is, splendidly, Bette Midler. That's what we paid the big bucks to see. The fact that she is surrounded by some of the best talent on Broadway singing a great score in a fabulous production only makes it an even greater event.