Bette Midler's hello to Dolly

Bette Midler performing in the solo show I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers at New York's Booth Theater in 2013.
Bette Midler performing in the solo show I'll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers at New York's Booth Theater in 2013.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

NEW YORK • Singer-actress Bette Midler has never seen Hello, Dolly! on stage.

Sure, she had seen the movie and was generally familiar with the story, but when producer Scott Rudin called her some months ago, asking her to consider starring in a revival of the musical on Broadway, she realised she needed to do some homework.

She went to a library to watch a film of Carol Channing in the 1995 revival and on YouTube to watch clips of Pearl Bailey in the 1975 revival. She watched The Matchmaker, a 1958 film starring Shirley Booth, which is adapted from the same Thornton Wilder play that inspired the musical.

She also read production notes from Gower Champion, who directed the original production in 1964, and listened to cast albums.

Finally she read the script, which persuaded her that the title character, turn-of-the-century widow Dolly Gallagher Levi, had more need and desperation than she had realised.

She said yes. "It has an enormous amount of weight and the score is irresistible," she said by telephone. "It's a very American thing, with a joyous quality, a kind of can-do quality, and an incredible sweetness, and in these dire times, it seems like something people would love to see."

Midler's Dolly will arrive on Broadway next year, 50 years after she first appeared on Broadway as Tzeitel in the original production of Fiddler On The Roof.

Over the years, Dolly has become one of the best-known American musicals, performed and spoofed and fetishised.

Although the role is closely associated with Channing (who starred in the original and two Broadway revivals) and Barbra Streisand (who starred in the film), it has also been played by brassy belters, including Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, Mary Martin, Ethel Merman and Ginger Rogers.

The revival will also bring the show's composer back to Broadway for the 20th time.

Jerry Herman, 84, who wrote the music and lyrics for Hello, Dolly! said he had been hoping for years to see a revival of the show, but was holding out for the right actress.

"There were so many suggestions of very talented women, but nobody pressed that button that made me say, 'Wow', and then when I saw Bette on television doing a part of her Vegas act, it all happened," he said.

"I said, 'This is the lady who can do it'. The time has come."

That was years ago. He lunched with Midler, who was charmed, but could not fit Dolly! into her schedule; then along came veteran producer Rudin, who sealed the deal. The revival, directed by Tony- winning Jerry Zaks, will be choreographed by Warren Carlyle.

Midler, who will be 71 years old when the revival opens, called the role "a big challenge".

She said: "It's going to be fun and more than anything I like to have fun. It's a lot - I'm no spring chicken - but I'm curious and I love to do all the things this character is required to do.

"It keeps me thin, which I like, and it keeps me engaged."

She said her age would make preparing for the role more difficult. "Everything you do in life gets harder".

But she added that she had been touring last year and felt up for it.

Herman said Midler's age might have been an issue for a different actress, but "she has youth built into her".

Midler is younger than Channing was in the last revival (she was 74 at the time, playing a role she had originated at 43). "Bette is an original and Dolly needs to be an original," Herman said.

As for the production, he said: "It's going to be beautiful and it's going to be exciting and colourful and handsome. Everything that the old girl deserves."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 26, 2016, with the headline 'Bette Midler's hello to Dolly'. Print Edition | Subscribe