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Interview

Bette Midler talks Jewish shop on London tour stop

While promoting her new album, The Divine Miss M discusses her Hawaiian Judaism and the paucity of accurate portrayals of pogroms on film

LONDON – “Talk is cheap,” Bette Midler tells me during a meeting at London’s Claridge’s Hotel. In a form-fitting black dress, radiantly sitting on a huge chair padded with pillows so her small frame isn’t engulfed, the notoriously outrageous Midler at 69 is engaging and personable — affectionate even — when discussing today’s young talent.

“You can make friends with 15,000 people for no money at all,” said the seasoned performer, in criticism of contemporary over-the-top productions on tour.

Midler was in town to promote her new back-to-basics album, “It’s The Girls,” in which she pays homage to the girl groups of her youth, and beyond. In numbers originated by acts as diverse as The Andrews Sisters, The Shirelles, and TLC, Midler sings in harmony, even in trio — with herself.

During her childhood, “I fell in love with voices in harmony,” Midler said. “I still listen to girl groups as avidly as I ever did. This record is a small attempt to honor them for all the joy they brought to me and the world.”

Midler’s childhood was on the Hawaiian island of Oahu, which she left for New York City to pursue life as a performer at 19. But Hawaii was not always paradise for the young Midler, the only Jewish girl in her class at school.

“At the time I really hated it – I was an alien, a foreigner even though I was born there. I remember children being so cruel. You don’t forget these things,” she is quoted as saying in “Bette: An Intimate Biography of Bette Midler.”

Army brat Bette Midler on her Hawaiian youth's synagogue. 'The Jews used the building on Fridays and Saturday and the Christian Scientists used it on Sundays/' (courtesy)
Army brat Bette Midler on her Hawaiian youth’s synagogue. ‘The Jews used the building on Fridays and Saturday and the Christian Scientists used it on Sundays/’ (courtesy)

Talking to The Times of Israel, however, she warmly described Jewish life on the island where her father worked on an American naval base. The small Jewish community shared a space on the base, she said, with the Christian Scientists.

‘One of the thrills of [my parents’] life – because they had so little Jewish contact – was to see someone like Myron Cohen or Sam Levenson on The Ed Sullivan Show, being very Jewish’

“The Jews used the building on Fridays and Saturday and the Christian Scientists used it on Sundays.”

In Honolulu, there was what Midler called the synagogue “for the rich people,” Temple Emanu-El. “Of course it was called that!” she exclaimed.

“I always knew who I was and what I was,” she said.

Does she think experience of growing up Jewish in Hawaii impacted on her act?

“I wouldn’t say so, no. I will say that my family really loved Jewish humor. My dad was a funny man, he loved a good joke, and one of the thrills of [my parents’] life – because they had so little Jewish contact – was to see someone like Myron Cohen or Sam Levenson on The Ed Sullivan Show, being very Jewish.”

After moving to New York, one of Midler’s first gigs was taking over the role of eldest daughter, Tzeitel, in the original Broadway production of “Fiddler on the Roof” in February 1967, a role she played for three years.

“I still think it’s one of the most beautiful shows I’ve ever seen: the way it was lit, the choreography. It was so above so much of what was going on” at the time.”

(It is rumored that the show’s director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins, didn’t want her in the show, deeming her too short.)

The last time Midler was on Broadway was in 2013 in “I’ll Eat You Last,” a play about Sue Mengers, talent agent to among others Barbra Streisand. She wouldn’t consider going back to the stage again, however, to do a musical.

“I can’t do that, it’s too hard. It’s eight shows a week and I just can’t do it – I don’t have it in me anymore. I did seven shows a week in ‘I’ll Eat You Last’ and that was a solo performance, no actors, no music, and it was wonderful but it was hard. It was ninety minutes of non-stop talking.”

Bette Midler plays talent agent Sue Mengers in her new one-woman show "Ill Eat You Last" (image capture: YouTube)
Bette Midler plays talent agent Sue Mengers in her new one-woman show “Ill Eat You Last” (image capture: YouTube)

Midler has made musicals for the screen, including a 1993 television movie adaptation of “Gypsy,” in which she starred as the monomaniacal Mama Rose.

“It was a very hard situation. The director [Emile Ardolino, who died in 1993 of AIDS complications] was very sick at the time. It was stressful but I thought it came out wonderfully. The editor was fantastic. The production was top-drawer. I could do a musical on television, I could do a musical on film, but to actually go to the theater every night for eight shows, I can’t.”

After her run ended in “Fiddler on the Roof,” Midler’s next big break came in 1970 at The Continental Baths, a gay bathhouse in the basement of the Ansonia Hotel. It was here that she created the persona of The Divine Miss M, developed songs that would become standards for her like “Friends,” introduced her backing group The Harlettes, and met Barry Manilow, who was her pianist and later a producer on her debut album, The Divine Miss M.

Barry Manilow (photo credit: CC-BY-Weatherman90, Wikimedia Commons)
Barry Manilow (photo credit: CC-BY-Weatherman90, Wikimedia Commons)

“We had a lot of fun together,” Midler said of those early days. “When he [Manilow] left me, I was pretty devastated because I really liked what he brought to the table. I think he was hurt that I didn’t want him to leave. He was hurt that I didn’t want to see him soar; I never said that I didn’t, maybe I didn’t want to see him soar, I don’t know. But I really had counted on him. Maybe I thought he would be more loyal but I don’t blame him for wanting to have a solo career.”

In the years since, Manilow has among other things given part of his life to working on “Harmony,” a musical about the Comedian Harmonists, an all-male vocal ensemble persecuted by the Nazis in the early years of the Third Reich. Other contemporaries of Midler have also pursued passion projects related to the Jewish experience, notably Barbra Streisand, who produced, directed, and starred in the musical drama “Yentl,” adapted from the Isaac Bashevis Singer short story, “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy”.

Not to say she has to make Yentl, I put it to Midler (she laughed, mercifully), but has she ever considered a project – be it a movie, an album, or play – that was in some way a reflection of the Jewish experience?

“I’ve had projects submitted to me. There was a project about Florence Greenberg” – the Jewish American record label owner and music producer – “that came to me that didn’t turn out well, though that’s not exactly the Jewish experience.

'I don’t think the real Jewish experience has ever been captured,' said Bette Midler in a November interview with The Times of Israel. (courtesy)
‘I don’t think the real Jewish experience has ever been captured,’ said Bette Midler in a November interview with The Times of Israel. (courtesy)

“I don’t think the real Jewish experience has ever been captured, the real historical experience of wandering through the desert and what the Zionist movement was all about and how Jews had no liberty at all. And the pogroms, they’ve never covered the pogroms – has there ever been a movie about a pogrom? I’ve never seen one. Have you?”

What about Fiddler on the Roof, I ventured.

“But you don’t really see the pogrom.” Midler cited numerous episodes in the history of the Jews that she would like to see portrayed on the big screen, including the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492.

“Can you imagine having to hide what you are and having to be a marrano?” she asked.

Midler was “hysterical”, she said, when she heard the news that the Spanish government was to issue passports to the descendants of those expelled and dispersed after 1492.

“The Spanish said, ‘Come back, Jews, all is forgiven!’ I was like, ‘Transparent, moi?’ Here, they throw you out in 1492, and then 500 years later they say, ‘It’s okay, you can come back now.’ Their economy is totally flat and then they say, ‘We’d like to have you back.’ Unbelievable. You couldn’t make it up.”

So you need to form a production company in order to tell these essential Jewish stories, I put it to her.

“I don’t have it in me anymore, I’m too old,” Midler replied. “‘I’m tired, tired, tired,’ as Chris Rock likes to say.”

With a new album just behind her and a tour — rumor has it with a stop in Israel — in front of her, The Divine Miss M hardly seems on the path to retirement.

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