Returning to a Broadway stage for the first time in more than 30 years, Midler stars as the late showbiz “superagent” in I'll Eat You Last: A Chat with Sue Mengers, a biographical solo play penned by John Logan and directed by Joe Mantello. The award-winning performer recently chatted with Playbill about honoring Hollywood's ultimate hostess.
You've performed all over the world, but your roots are in New York theatre. How does it feel to be back on Broadway?
I can't say it feels like coming home because it actually feels like a brand new adventure. I've never done a show like this where I sit and talk for an hour and a half without any music. It's a huge challenge, but it's very exciting.
What does Broadway mean to you?
Well, everything has changed since the last time I was here. But it's full of life, vitality, and great endeavors by very talented people trying to make art. It's the heart of the city. It's irresistible.
In 1974 you won a special Tony Award for your contributions to Broadway, but you haven't been back since Bette! Divine Madness, your third Broadway concert, in 1980. As far as non-concerts, you haven't been back since you left Fiddler on the Roof, your 1967 Broadway debut. Why such a long absence?
I just got busy with other things. I think it was the enchantment of being my own boss, making my own rules, and creating my own possibilities. That became so much more fun.
Broadway producers must have tried wooing you back to the stage over the years.
Yes, I've been asked, but usually it's for a revival. Just last year someone asked me to do Mame. I'm so thrilled that I'll Eat You Last is a brand-new play; it's not me doing my version of Laurette Taylor doing The Glass Menagerie. I love that I get to originate this character—and what a character it is!
How did this project come about for you? Were you actively looking to do more theatre?
No, it just fell into my lap. I had finished my two years performing in Las Vegas, and I'd been actively recuperating. It was a really long, hard experience, and I was exhausted. The first nine months after it was over, I really just slept. But coming to the end of that particular road in Las Vegas, I knew I didn't want to do that anymore. I was looking for a new path, a new way to spend the time that I have allotted to me. I was mostly just doing some benefits, raising money for my organization, the New York Restoration Project. Then I got news through my agent that Graydon Carter, who's one of the producers, wanted me to do this. Being a fan of Sue's, both the person and the legend, I read the play, and it was fun. I felt that John Logan had really captured her tone.
She was a self-made person and a very complicated, mysterious character. Sue's personal journey is riveting, and the peak of her power in the '70s was a fantastic time in movie history. No matter what happened, she had to keep a lot of balls in the air. Being Sue Mengers was actually a massive, brilliant undertaking.
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