I saw Bette Midler play Dolly Gallagher Levi, the legendary leading role in Jerry Herman’s musical “Hello, Dolly!” on Wednesday night, June 14th. It was the twentieth anniversary of my ordination and I felt that this would be the perfect way to celebrate: a return to my first church and my original religion, the Broadway theatre.
I have said many times that “Dolly” is eternally popular because it’s a resurrection narrative. The irrepressible Dolly, primarily a matchmaker (the source material is Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker”) is “a woman who arranges things/ for the pleasure and the profit it derives.” Some of the things Dolly arranges are “furniture, and daffodils, and lives.” She is a force of nature, a keen social manager, and a brilliant finagler in the ways that all widows who are left without a comfortable fortune have to finagle if they’re to keep themselves in potatoes and striped stockings, let alone chicken and dumplings.
When we meet her, Dolly is tired of finagling. She has a goal which she shares with the audience early on in the show through the device of talking to her dead husband, Ephraim Levi: she is going to get the well-known “half a millionaire,” Horace Vandergelder, to marry her. She is going to marry well and rejoin the human race after many years away. As she sings in the title song, in a phrase with pathos that is easy to miss amid the jubilation of all those dancing waiters welcoming her back to her old Saturday night stamping ground, the Harmonia Gardens,
I went away from the lights of 14th Street/ and into my personal haze/ But now that I’m back in the lights of 14th Street, tomorrow will be brighter than the good old days!
Photos by Julieta Cervantes. Click to enlarge.
If “Hello, Dolly!” is done even passably well (it’s a hard show to ruin), the audience will always burst into cheers when the trombone starts its well-known slide into the brassy trumpet chords that signal Dolly Levi’s endearingly garish, brave, be-plumed appearance at the top of the stairs at Harmonia Gardens. We weep because it is a resurrection moment, a theatrical Easter morning that thrills the same pagan soul that contrived the Orphic Mysteries and the Eleusinian Rites. “The lady… she’s here!” cries one young waiter, too much of a newbie to remember Dolly himself, but fully aware of how much she is loved and missed by the rest of the crew. The men gather around at the foot of the staircase in expectation, the curtain at the top parts, and here she comes, descending in joy, a touch of girlish trepidation, and beaming adoration down on the waiters below. She will serenade several of them by name,
“You’re lookin’ swell, Manny/I can tell Danny/you’re still glowing you’re still crowin’ you’re still/goin’ strong
You’re looking great, Stanley/lose some weight, Stanley?
On Wednesday night, June 14th at the Shubert Theatre, Miss Midler serenaded all of us, as I have no doubt she does to all her audiences every night. Midler has the most profound gift for intimacy I have ever seen in a performer, radiating warmth and her unique brand heartening humor and moxie to every row of the house. Midler’s genius is also in her inimitable sense of pacing: she never allows the tsunami of adoration coming to her from across the footlights to throw the show off its timing and manages to conduct the energy so that she uses it in the service of the work and not for personal egotistical gratification. I have seen the latter phenomenon many times from great divas (male and female), and while I too was cheering their irresistible charismatic force, a tiny part of me resented the frequent distractions and emotional manipulation. Bette Midler is an irresistible charismatic force for whom applause does not seem emotionally necessary as a salve for some original wound. She receives it graciously and with delight as someone who is as much in thrall to the gods of the theatre as we are to her. She has too much discipline as an artist to covet the applause or play to it for its own sake, and for that alone I will admire her forever.
Midler with the marvelous David Hyde Pierce, who manages to give the usually one-dimensional Horace Vandergelder an actual emotional arc.
When Midler made her entrance, the audience simply roared with love and excitement. She had just won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress In A Musical on Sunday evening when she made headlines for shutting down the orchestra when it tried to play her off as her acceptance speech outran the allotted 90 seconds. Since Broadway theatres are dark on Monday, and (Broadway star in her own right) Donna Murphy plays Dolly on Tuesdays, we were seeing Miss Midler in her first evening performance since the Tonys. It occurred to me later that evening, reflecting with my companion about the overwhelming thrill of Midler’s presence and the audience’s monumental reaction to her entrance, that part of what we were cheering for was not only the brilliance of her performance but for her “nevertheless, she persisted” moment at the Tony Awards.
In a 2008 Vanity Fair article, Bette presciently remarked that her greatest fear is that her country’s greatest years are behind it. She has been a scathing critic of the idiocy of the Trump regime, and I am not the only one who regularly hoots with appreciation at her public remarks on his and his cronies’ thieving and lying.
Miss Midler has persisted. She has been speaking her mind with a deathly combination of wit, truth and keen intelligence for a long time, and she has, thank God, never stopped. She has had a long career that defies categorization: she is singer, actress, cabaret chanteuse, performance artist, old-school vaudevillian, movie star, Broadway diva, comic. She is a mermaid, a mogul, a matchmaker. She persists. No orchestra can silence her, no role can daunt her, no audience member can resist her. Dear Miss Midler, I see what you did there, every brilliant choice of interpretation and communication and generosity to your fellow actors and the love and life force you brought to every minute of it.
I am so glad that you persist. You were right — in these terrible times, we need Dolly. And we need you.