Nevertheless, She Persisted: A PeaceBang Love Letter To Miss Bette Midler As Dolly Levi

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.







Gounod’s “Roméo et Juliette:” A PeaceBang Review

I saw The Met’s Encore beautiful production of Gounod’s opera at the Revere Cinema last night. The singing was exquisite, and although I didn’t totally like Bartlett Scher’s directorial decisions (muddling the focus in the fight between Tybalt and Mercutio, for instance), the leads Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo sang gorgeously. I didn’t see much “white hot” chemistry between them, as Grigolo is a bit of a ham bone, but I sit in total awe of these artists. It’s very hard to calibrate a performance for the live Met audience that won’t come across as too bold for the HD cameras. I adore the Met; it is a temple of the gods to me, and I am grateful to be able to be a Met audience from the comfort of my local movie theatre for $28.

What I want to focus on is not the music of the opera (not my favorite, sorry Monsieur Gounod) but the devastating tragedy of the libretto by Jules Barbier and Michel Carré.

You thought Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juiet” was tragic? Believe it or not, it GETS WORSE in this adaptation, and I haven’t seen any critics mention how or why, and I feel the need to talk about it.

We all know that lovers die at the end of the play. R+ J fall in love, secretly wed, and then got caught up in the violence dividing their families. In a rage following Tybalt’s murder of his dear friend Mercutio, Romeo drives a blade into the young Capulet (Juliet’s cousin) and is banished for his crime (he could have been put to death, but the Prince of Verona is a good guy).

Romeo and Juliet have one night of conjugal bliss before Romeo has to flee. Juliet’s parents (Lady Capulet has no role in the opera — such a shame, too) muscle her into marrying their choice, Paris (a guy, not the city). Juliet understandably freaks out (she’s already married! And yuck, Paris!) and runs to Friar Lawrence, the good but in-over-his-head cleric who married the two lovers. He has a plan. She can drink a dangerous potion that will put her into a coma for 24 hours or so. She’ll be interred in the Capulet’s family crypt. Meanwhile, Friar Larry will send a message to Romeo to meet her in the tomb, where they’ll be reunited and can escape together.

All goes according to plan until Romeo finds out about Juliet’s death before Friar Lawrence can get to him. Romeo buys poison, rushes to the Capulet’s tomb to hold his darling one last time, sees Juliet there on her bier and kills himself. Juliet wakes with a panicky Friar Lawrence hovering around realizing his plan has taken a horrible turn. The friar, tending to the barely awake girl, hears Capulets approaching the crypt outside and runs away (And who can forget Milo O’Shea in the 1960 Zeffirelli film bleating, “I dare no longer stay! I dare no longer stay!”). Juliet fully wakes, sees Romeo there dead, and stabs herself to death. It’s horrible. Just horrible.

However, there are witnesses. The family busts into the tomb and finds the bodies of the star-crossed lovers there and they are chagrined. They are brought to their senses by grief. We are left to understand that the centuries old enmity between the Capulets and the Montagues ends with this final senseless destruction of two of their beautiful kids. Presumably Friar Lawrence does a lot of pastoral care and everyone is instructed by this tragedy. The death of Juliet and Romeo has some redeeming purpose.

In the opera, however, there is no redemption, and I was not ready for Barbier and Carrés different ending.

In the opera, Juliet drinks the potion, goes into the tomb (and Scher’s staging of her entombment as a wedding night ritual with ladies-in-waiting, including Lady Death, was deeply upsetting and effective) and Romeo bursts in as  per Shakespeare. He drinks the poison and then Juliet wakes before the poison takes effect. This is so the two of them can sing together, of course, and you’re grateful for it. But if you’ve been paying close attention, you can’t help but notice how, when Romeo entered the crypt, he carefully closed the door most of the way behind him. I was thinking, “Romeo, crack that door, bro! Friar Lawrence and the Prince and the chorus need to come busting in in a few minutes to find you guys dead!”

But Friar Lawrence does not come. No one comes. More devastating than you can imagine, Romeo begins to die and Juliet takes his dagger and sings about how beautiful it will be for the two of them to be able to die together, and the two of them — how else can I say this? — insert the blade into her solar plexus. Throughout the entire heartbreaking scene the two have been kissing and caressing each other in desparation, and as they die they are totally entwined in one another’s arms. Their last words are to God, and they sing, “Forgive us.”

I am so haunted by this. In Shakespeare’s play, the lovers do not ask for forgiveness: it is their stupid parents and the naive Friar Lawrence and the petty citizens of Verona who have taken sides in the long Capulet-Montague feud who are chastened and stand in need of mercy.

As I walked out of the theatre, totally gutted, I thougt, “Jesus, Gounod’s opera manages to make one of the saddest tragedies of all time even more damn tragic.” Romeo and Juliet’s bodies might not be found for decades. By then, they might be nothing but bones. Because of Romeo’s banishment, no one would think to look for him. His mother would never hear from him and never know if he was alive in another land. Friar Lawrence, probably hoping to hear from the two but accepting that it might not be safe or possible for them to contact him, would pray his fruitless prayers to a God who had already received both the lovers’ final confession. The Prince and the townspeople wouldn’t learn anything. The enmity would continue as stupidly as before. Paris would marry someone else and Juliet’s parents would never have reason to question the custom of forcing daughters to marry a man she didn’t want to marry.

No one learns anything.

I appreciate the glorious singing. I appreciate the catharsis that I experience through all great performances.

But I wasn’t ready for a twist in Shakespeare’s story that would leave two beautiful and innocent young people dead by their own hands with no witnesses and no community of accountability to get some hard-won wisdom by their actions, holding only themselves accountable to their God.

I’m grateful to the guy sitting next to me who sat with me while I absorbed the shock. He thought I was just blown away by the singing. I was waiting for everyone actually responsible for those two dead bodies to come bursting through the crypt door and see what they had caused.

I am still not over it.

Never tell me that art isn’t essential to the human endeavor.



Intersectional Feminism, Twitter Trolls, Amy Schumer’s “Formation” Parody And Me

I saw the hashtag #AmySchumerGottaGoParty pop up in my Twitter feed yesterday. It was started by Feminista Jones, who posted a short video of herself reacting to Schumer’s parody of Beyonce’s “Formation,” which, if you didn’t know, was a huge event when it came out, generating countless think pieces and becoming an instant phenomenon. Within minutes, Black Twitter was popping with negative reaction to Schumer (yes, there is such a thing as Black Twitter. It’s a free education in white supremacy, go learn).

On Twitter, I watched in “oh my god she ditint” disbelief grainy footage of Amy Schumer tossing sweaty, crimped hair and trying to twerk. It was painfully unfunny. I have been a huge fan of Schumer’s for a long time. I have watched her career with a sense of personal investment like that old female relative who sees you once in awhile, but cups your face in her hand when you’re leaving the family gathering and says, “I’ve got my eye on you. You. You’re a little something.” Then she shakes her finger at your parents. “This one. Quite a something.” And they smile and say, “Yes, yes she is.”

I think Amy Schumer is quite a something, and now I’m shaking my finger at her, because she has made too many really stupid decisions lately.

There is no way that it’s time for anyone to parody “Formation.” We’re still in the bad, ugly, evil thick of the reason it got made in the first place. I don’t think there’s ever going to be a time for a white artist to parody “Formation.” I’m aware that Beyonce and Jay-Z gave their permission, but permission isn’t endorsement. For all we know, Beyonce and Jay-Z are laughing their heads off now saying to each other, “Yep. Look at all this backlash. Pass the hot sauce.”

I get it: comics are irreverent. Comics know that sacred cows make the best burgers. Amy Schumer is great at cooking up those burgers. She usually knows exactly what she’s doing in sending up pop culture. This time, she was appears to have been either too lazy or too entitled to consider the implications of reducing Beyonce’s “Formation” to a fun, sexy twerkathon. The video not a dance party, did she miss the drowning police car at the end, or was it more convenient to ignore that and all the other references to police brutality against African Americans? Watching Schumer enact her drunk-white-girl schtick to its phrases set off air raid sirens of White Lady Cluelessness in my head.

When Roseanne Barr sang the national anthem off key while grabbing her crotch, a lot of us thought it was tacky and ineffective as comedy or political commentary, but since the national anthem belongs to all Americans, it’s fair game for all Americans to parody. Everyone can comment on it, protest it, kneel during it, adore, abhor or ignore it. It’s our shared song.

Not all songs belong to everybody, and some songs quite obviously belong to a particular group. When that group is an oppressed, traumatized minority and that song is an anthem of strength, power and resilience, it’s a monumentally insensitive and ignorant decision for someone outside that group to appropriate it for yuks.

To those who argued that Black women are in Amy Schumer’s video, it’s not for me to speak to that. This is what Feminista Jones said [please click on images to enlarge them]:


But freedom of speech! Yea, I know. I’ve heard of that. Artistic freedom and — and — and the comic’s subversive role in society! Yea, I’ve heard all about that, too. I’ve heard it from the boys who defend rape jokes and from Schumer’s white friends like Lena Dunham who pulled a grotesque, racist blooper fairly recently (during an interview with Schumer) by publicly accusing Odell Beckham, Jr. of being a misogynist for not giving her the attention she felt she deserved at the Met Gala. When she finally issued an apology to Mr. Beckham (who had never spoken to her and had no idea who she was), she qualified its sincerity by tweeting to her bud, “Glad the outrage machine roars on though, right?” Oh, okay, Mayella Ewell. Please go study some history and learn about what has happened to black men in America who were accused of paying too much attention to/not enough attention to/not enough respect to white ma’ams. And stop grinding on hot black men you don’t know and bragging about it. Your joke about “grinding on” Michael B. Jordan is super gross on too many levels to go into, but no one should have to explain it to you.

Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham’s shenanigans are Exhibit Z in a very long history of why black women so often leave the “feminism” room in disgust. Feminism isn’t just about how men treat women but how women treat other women. Who high-fived the “Formation” parody in the writer’s room, I wonder? I wonder who is in that writer’s room in the first place. There are so many other iconic videos Schumer could have parodied.

So I fired off a few furious tweets.

Amy Schumer is dead to me.

I was  a HUGE Fan of @AmySchumer until she enrolled in the Lena Dunham Academy for Insufferable White Women.

There is no possible excuse for not to know the cultural significance of for black women.I hope this ruins her career.

God knows I’m hyperbolic, but I totally don’t wish that so I deleted that Tweet and edited the last line to read,

“I hope this hurts her career.”

My tweet got picked up by some internet news websites and appeared in on a television clip somewhere. Cue the trolls.

Now, this “Formation” parody backlash happened mere days after Schumer insulted Donald Trump at her show in Tampa, Florida, causing 200 or so audience members to walk out. She had just published an open letter in response, which was likely to be appreciated by the Trumpsters just as much as her original comments. The letter is more peevish than funny and she sounds tired and fed up, but the ultimate burn is that she got these people’s ticket money.

The actually, genuinely funny thing that happened next was that the same Trump fans types who were dragging Amy Schumer for criticizing their Cheetoh-In-Chief lined up on my twitter feed to defend her! That’s how much integrity and moral clarity these people have.  Unfortunately, almost every one of these doofuses copied Schumer on their Tweets to me, so her mentions have been full of “@peacebang.” Sorry, girl!

Lots of eggs, lots of guys with guns in their avis, all the usual drama queen  who twist every comment into a Wolf Blitzer-level Situation. That’s what trolls do.

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