DIVA TALK: Chatting with Bette Midler Plus Betty Buckley's "Quintessence"

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Chatting with Bette Midler Plus Betty Buckley's "Quintessence"
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Bette Midler
Bette Midler

Las Vegas audiences are in for a treat when Emmy, Grammy and Tony Award winner Bette Midler begins her two-year engagement at The Colosseum at Caesars Palace Feb. 20. Midler — who has titled her new concert act The Showgirl Must Go On — will be backed by a 13-piece band and 20 female dancers in an evening that will feature an eclectic mix of tunes and characters (expect the wheelchair-bound mermaid Delores Delago and old, old Soph). A few years ago, I had the opportunity to catch Midler's wonderful Kiss My Brass tour, and onstage the award-winning actress was a thrilling mix of singer, comedienne and social commentator. I was also utterly impressed by Midler's musicianship as she made her way through such signature tunes as "From a Distance," "Wind Beneath My Wings," "I Think It's Gonna Rain Today," "Shiver Me Timbers" and "The Rose" as well as standards like "Skylark" and "Tenderly." A few weeks ago I had the true privilege of chatting by phone with Midler, who spoke about her newest Las Vegas endeavor, her work for the New York Restoration Project (which she founded) and her thoughts about returning to Broadway. And, be sure to catch the supremely talented Midler in Las Vegas, and you'll understand why she is, to fans and critics alike, simply divine.

Listen to the
Diva Talk interview with Bette Midler.

Question: How did the Las Vegas engagement come about?
Midler: Well, Celine [Dion] was getting ready to go, and they were looking around for someone who could fill her shoes. They're mighty big shoes to fill. They called me, and I said, "Well, hmm…" I have been trooping with Kiss My Brass for a couple of years. I've gone to Australia. That was a show that I really, really love. I thought, "Well, if I could do a cut-down version of Kiss My Brass, I would be interested." So we started talking and they said, "Well, are you going to do Kiss My Brass?" And I said, "Can I do Kiss My Brass?" And they said, "Well, we would rather that you didn't." And then I was brought up short.

All my friends said, and the kids I work with said, "You know, it would be fun to do something brand new." They kind of talked me into it. We started talking about it, and I realized that it did have possibilities. The [Las Vegas] stage is so vast, and the screen is so vast. There are all these video possibilities that no one has ever had when you're on the road, because there's just no screen that's that big, and there's no house that's that pretty. It's a really beautiful house. There's no bad seat in all of Caesar's Colosseum. Every seat has excellent, excellent sightlines. The audio is absolutely top drawer, and the lighting package that's in there is fantastic. It's a state- of-the-art theatre, and it's very well run. The whole thing is so professional that you kind of are taken aback by how good it is. It didn't frighten me. When I used to play in Las Vegas in the old days, it was very casual. They didn't make as much effort. They didn't have as much at stake. They had their high rollers and their big acts and it was well run, but they really have gone all-out now. They are building theatres that are state of the art, with water that goes down floor floors.

My show has fabulous showgirls. It has the Harlettes. It has a huge band with a great horn section that's actually from Las Vegas. We're opening on the 20th of February, but we'll be there for two years: 100 shows a year for two years on and off! You know, four weeks on, four weeks off. I've never done that kind of a run before, but once I [did] six weeks at Radio City, and I had a great time! That stage was huge. I played five nights [a week], and it was two hours a night, and I did okay. So how bad could it be, even though I'm 102? [Laughs.] It should be interesting.

Bette Midler
photo by Greg Gorman

Question: Was it a difficult decision to make to commit to two years?
Midler: Actually, no. I thought, "I like to play." It is playing. And I like the idea of not having to move, not having to drive around, not having to fly anywhere. And I liked the idea that it was spread out over a year. It wasn't ten weeks at a time — it's only four weeks at a time... Even though I only do typically two or three shows a week, the stress of travel and all that kind of thing — it actually boils down to about the same thing: It's about six hours a week. . . only it's five nights a week instead of three nights a week or two nights a week. So I figured I could do it. I figured, because I am a person of a certain age and I don't know how much longer I'm going to do this… I really don't. I think there is a time when you say, "You know what, enough. Enough already." It's unseemly to be carrying on. It's not right! [Laughs.] Get off the stage, and let the other kids have a chance. So I'm of two minds. On one hand, I really love what I do and I expect to [continue] doing it. I just expect for it to transform itself. . . Question: I love the title, The Showgirl Must Go On. Who came up with that?
Midler: I did.

Question: What songs will you be doing in the show?
Midler: Wait a second, maybe I didn't come up with that. To me, I came up with everything! [Laughs.] I shouldn't take credit for what's not mine. I really would have to ask around and see if that was my idea or not. I feel like it was, but maybe it wasn't. Who knows? I will not take credit for that. But I feel it's a really good title, and I'm very proud of the logo. I think it's fantastic. It's so sprightly and so bright. It's so colorful and so joyous, and I think that's what the show is, too. I want the show to be all those things.

Question: Actually that word "joy" came to my mind before when I was thinking about favorite songs of yours. When you do "Friends," it just has so much joy in it, and I think you do bring that to your performances.
Midler: I'm certainly going to try. We have our eye on that prize. That's what we're interested in — spreading a little joy around. These are really strange, strange times. But, of course, every time is a strange time. It's all so strange! Life is strange. Everyone's pushing and pulling at each other. But that's what we have to offer, and that's what we're going to do.

Question: What songs will you be doing? What can people expect to hear?
Midler: I'll sing all the hits. There's going to be a section where I sing songs that have sort of been under the radar because they're just songs that I love to sing and the band loves to play. Delores will be there. Sophie will be there. She has a couple surprises up her sleeve. It's not the usual two-hour marathon, like I said, but I think the entrees — as my husband likes to call them — the entrée and the dessert will certainly be there, and the appetizers and all of that. We're food oriented, so we always talk in food. I said to him, "Honey, I don't think I can do Delores this time. I just can't do it!" He said, "Are you kidding? That's like going to dinner without having the entrée!" I said, "It is?" I thought there was a whole lot going on before she showed up, but he really likes her so I guess we'll do it.

Bette Midler
photo by Greg Gorman

Question: I remember seeing you a few years ago perform a terrific "Rose's Turn" at a tribute to Ethel Merman in New York, and was wondering if you were ever tempted, over the years, to come back to Broadway.
Midler: I tell you, it's a punishing schedule. It's punishing. I did the Broadway schedule one time . . . I was there at the Majestic for awhile. I enjoy it, but you know… I can't really say. It's something that has kind of [been off] the radar for awhile. I wouldn't rule it out altogether. People have come to me from time to time with ideas for shows, and if it wasn't eight times a week… I'm always tempted, but then I look at how tough it is. I don't know. Like I said, I'm not ruling it out altogether, but it hasn't been on the radar for a long time. Question: Does anything stick out in your mind from when you were working on Fiddler on the Roof years ago?
Midler: I know I was happy for it. I loved it. I had a great time... Because I'm kind of an odd duck, I never threw my hat in any ring. I've always tried to play all the fences, be on all the fences… that's not right… have my feet on both sides of the fence — that's a really attractive metaphor! [Laughs.] I've always loved people in the business. Rock-and-roll people always look down their nose about Broadway. I love them, but I love people who labor on Broadway, too. I've seen so many wonderful performances. I mean, Christine Ebersole in Grey Gardens — that's like Laurette Taylor!

When I read Bob Dylan's chronicles, he said that his girlfriend at the time took him to see The Threepenny Opera, and it changed his life. That show changed my life, too. I got the same thing out of that show that he got out of it, which was that there was an intensity from music — you could tell a story through any kind of music, and people would be moved and understand what you were trying to communicate through songs like that. That's a show that was Off-Broadway, but it was basically a theatrical show. There was a certain amount of theatre that you could bring to your performances even though they were rock-and-roll performances. I took the same thing away from it, and I feel the same way about any endeavor that people make in this kind of communication. I feel that it's all communication, that people are trying to share a certain expression that has to do with the human condition. So I don't care what kind of music it is. If it communicates to an audience something about being alive, or being dead, or being protoplasm, I'm all for it! I don't cut anything off.

Question: You're so hand on with your New York Restoration project. You went green long before it became fashionable. How will you go about running that while you're in Vegas?
Midler: I really do not know. I am very trepidatious . . . but I think that that movement has been percolating up from the ground for a long time, and it's sweeping the country now. They've really tried very hard to tell everybody to shut their water off, to plant cactus, to plant native plants so that they don't water their lawns. They really are trying to give people tax credits for changing their lawns. They try very hard. There is a lot of waste all over this country. We try very hard not to take plastic bags. We try not to take things that have a lot of packaging.

New York Restoration Project is doing just fantastic work. Everyone has gotten onboard — we've had so much support from people all over the city, and I think we've made a difference. We certainly have made a difference in community gardens — we've certainly made a difference in parks in Northern Manhattan. We've brought rowing back to the Harlem River. It hadn't been there in 40 years. We're doing wonderful work. I can certainly recommend that everybody on Playbill.com log onto our website nyrp.org and get more information than I can give you in this tiny little interview. Now I've got to go, because I'm running late and it would be rude.

Question: Thanks a lot, Bette. I hope you have a great time with the [Vegas] run.
Midler: I really do think I'm going to have a ball!

For more information or to purchase tickets for The Showgirl Must Go On, visit www.ticketmaster.com (keyword Bette Midler) or http://bette.aeglive.com.

Betty Buckley's "Quintessence"

FOR THE RECORD: Betty Buckley's "Quintessence"
On her second recording for the Playbill Records/Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway label, Betty Buckley celebrates the quintet of musicians who have been working with the Tony Award-winning singer-actress for more than a decade: musical director/arranger Kenny Werner on piano, Tony Marino on bass, Billy Drewes on reeds, Todd Reynolds on violin and Dan Weiss on drums. Entitled "Quintessence," the CD is the perfect follow-up to Buckley's debut CD on the Playbill Records label, "Betty Buckley 1967," which was recorded by the Fort Worth, TX, native when she was but 19. Together, the two discs are bookends for a thrilling career that, thankfully, is still going strong. While "1967" revels in Buckley's youthful exuberance and her natural vocal gifts, "Quintessence" boasts a more mature Buckley, one who has become a master storyteller and spellbinding actress and who has learned how to use her voice in the same manner the most gifted musician would play his or her musical instrument. Just listen to the variety of vocal colors and power that Buckley brings to each of the CD's 12 tracks: thrilling, emotion-filled sounds that range from a kittenish whisper or a dark growl to a thunderous, forceful belt.

"Quintessence" — produced by Buckley and Werner and executive-produced by Philip S. Birsh and Richard Jay-Alexander — begins with a beautiful rendition of the Sergio Mendes-Alan and Marilyn Bergman gem, "So Many Stars," that brings the listener to an almost peaceful, meditative state. In fact, many of the arrangements on the new disc have the power to seduce the listener to a tranquil, yet emotionally uplifted sense of being.

A jazzy take on the Richard Rodgers-Oscar Hammerstein II Oklahoma! classic, "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top," follows. It should be pointed out that most of the songs on this new recording are jazz influenced because the arrangements were penned especially for Buckley's debut engagement at the Blue Note Jazz Club in June 2006. In her liner notes for the disc, Buckley writes, "The opportunity [to perform at the Blue Note] inspired me to ask my musical director, arranger and pianist Kenny Werner to pull out all the stops and give me the kind of charts that let us run free. That's what he did. After almost eighteen years of collaboration, I think he has outdone himself here."

Buckley, too, has outdone herself with soul-stirring deliveries of Stephen Sondheim's "No One Is Alone" and "Anyone Can Whistle" as well as a gorgeous medley of two Antonio Carlos Jobim songs, "Dindi" and "How Insensitive," that are fraught with the all the joy and loss that love can bring. Equally touching is a pairing of "Blame It On My Youth" and My Fair Lady's "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face."

Buckley also scores with a lilting "Like a Lover," a tender and moving version of the Hoagy Carmichael standard "Stardust" and a fiery "Cry Me a River." Yet, it is during the final three tracks where Buckley truly lets loose and wows the listener with her mix of vocal and interpretative prowess. This powerful trio of tunes begins with an upbeat "Something's Coming" that ends on an ethereal high note. Then, Buckley pours out her voice and soul in a bluesy rendition of Susan Werner's "The Man I Love," which is followed by what may be the disc's highlight: a wonderful reading of the pop hit "Get Here" that Buckley builds to a breathtaking climax. Buckley aficionados will be happy to learn that four tracks that did not make the new recording — "Amelia," "A Time for Love"/"You Are There," "Heart Like a Wheel"/"The Water is Wide" and "Where Do You Start?" — are available by visiting www.rhapsody.com.

[Betty Buckley is currently offering tunes from both "Quintessence" and "Betty Buckley 1967" at Feinstein's at Loews Regency in a new act entitled Then & Now. The Tony winner will play the posh nightspot through Feb. 24; for reservations call (212) 339-4095.]

Additional casting has been announced for the upcoming Chess concerts at London's Royal Albert Hall. Broadway favorite Adam Pascal, who starred in the Actors Fund of America's Chess benefit concert, will repeat his work as Frederick Trumper for London audiences, and British actress Kerry Ellis — of Wicked fame — will play Svetlana. Pascal and Ellis join the previously announced Idina Menzel and international recording artist Josh Groban, who will play, respectively, Florence and the Russian. The concerts, scheduled for May 12 and 13 at the famed London venue, will be introduced by Chess co-creator Tim Rice. Show time is 8 PM. For ticket information visit royalalberthall.com.

Life Is a Cabaret: A Tribute to Fred Ebb is the title of the upcoming Lyrics & Lyricists program that will honor the late Broadway wordsmith. The Feb. 23-25 concerts at the 92nd Street Y will be hosted by Titanic's David Garrison and will feature the vocal talents of Tony Award winner Tyne Daly as well as Phantom of the Opera's Brent Barrett, LoveMusik's Judy Blazer and Company's Diana Canova. The singers will be backed by Scott Cady on piano, Bob Millikan on trumpet, Kevin Kuhn on guitar, Jeff Carney on bass and David Ratajczak on drums. Rob Fisher is the artistic director for the concerts, which will explore "the legacy of the lyricist whose 700 songs epitomized the wit and sophistication of Broadway." The 92nd Street Y is located in Manhattan at Lexington Avenue and 92nd Street; for tickets visit www.92y.org.

PS Classics, the label dedicated to the heritage of American popular song, will record Maureen McGovern's newest concert act, A Long and Winding Road. As previously announced, McGovern will present Winding Road for New York audiences Feb. 13-16 and Feb. 21-23 at the Metropolitan Room. Tommy Krasker, the co-founder of PS Classics, expects a spring release for the single CD. A Long and Winding Road features tunes from such celebrated sixties singer-songwriters as Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Webb, Paul Simon, Carole King, James Taylor, Randy Newman, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Paul McCartney and Laura Nyro. Song titles include "The Circle Game," "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?," "The Moon's a Harsh Mistress" and "Imagine," among others. For more information visit www.metropolitanroom.com or www.psclassics.com.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Bette Midler begins her two-year Las Vegas engagement Feb. 20
Bette Midler begins her two-year Las Vegas engagement Feb. 20
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