Interview: Bette Midler Hangs Up The Phone On ‘Eat You Last’

New York Times
Bette Midler Hangs Up The Phone On ‘Eat You Last”
July 2, 2013

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Bette Midler wrapped up her Broadway run on Sunday in “I’ll Eat You Last,” her hit play about the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, and by Monday she was starting to decompress. Her voice was strained after three months of chain-smoking herbal cigarettes as the nicotine-and-pot-loving Mengers, but otherwise she seemed hardy during a telephone interview about her first role on Broadway in some 40 years. There was little bitterness, for instance, at the two-dozen theater insiders who declined to nominate her for a Tony Award for best actress for “I’ll Eat You Last” – a decision that was one of the biggest surprises of the theater season.

“I think it’s a great group, but it’s not my scene,” Ms. Midler said of the nominators and other powers-that-be in the Broadway industry. “I come from another world, and I think they might have felt, ‘Oh, she’s not really in our world, she’s just dropping in for a cameo.’ I can’t get worked up about it. Besides, I already have a Tony for my Broadway concert in ’73. It’s one of the most precious things I’ve won. So, I don’t know – it’s a different crowd now, and they’re four generations removed from when I was performing regularly in theater.”

If the nominators didn’t embrace her, many critics did, and audiences paid up: “I’ll Eat You Last” broke box office records at the Booth Theater and recouped its $2.4 million investment in May after 8 weeks of performances, a rare feat for a play. The producers and Ms. Midler are talking about possibly bringing the play to Los Angeles, where Ms. Mengers was a major force during the 1970s and early ‘80s before retiring and becoming a popular Hollywood hostess. As for Broadway, several producers are hopeful that the 67-year-old Ms. Midler has caught the theater bug again and will consider another play or musical at some point, given her box office prowess.

Right now, though, Ms. Midler said she just wants to catch her breath. The following are edited excerpts from the interview on Monday night.

Q.
What was the most surprising part of the Broadway experience for you, Bette?

A.
I’d never done a straight play before, never, and it was very hard work – really, really hard work. It was dense, really wordy, and I was determined to learn every word of it – not just skip over bits and pieces. It took me a long time to actually know what the play was about – that it was a long aria with slow-moving parts, and parts with laughs and tears, and that my job was to switch gears pretty radically and seamlessly in ways that I had never done before. And this wasn’t like just one day of shooting for a movie – you had to stay healthy, your brain had to stay sharp, and you needed enough wind so when a sentence went on like a paragraph, I could still breathe. There were moments I had to eat candy, and I would have a mouth full of saliva, but no time to swallow it – so I had to learn to perform through moments like that.

Q.
Was there anything you learned about yourself as an actor that you didn’t know before?

A.
I learned to accept the audience’s happiness for me, which is one of the hardest things for me to learn. I had a hard-scrabble childhood with my parents. I have a lot of baggage. To come down to the footlights and accept the audience’s affection inside a Broadway theater – that didn’t come easily to me. Sue Mengers was way tougher than I am. You go through your life, you’re a certain age, a lot of things have happened to me, but I needed to put those aside and let the audience affect me in a simple way.

Q.
What was the hardest thing you struggled with?

A.
The cigarettes nearly killed me. I answer the phone now and people calling think it’s my husband. And my allergies in that theater – it’s a very old theater. And the hairspray! I never used hairspray. And the wigs! Let’s not talk about the fricking wigs, that was such a saga. But the cigarettes were the hardest. When I made ‘The Rose,’ I did smoke, I smoked for six months, and years later I tried a cigarette again and it made me sick for two weeks. These are herbal cigarettes, but smoke is smoke. I was thrilled, though, when I finally got the timing down to smoke two at once – a cigarette in one hand and a joint in the other. That was Sue.

Q.
In hindsight, do you think it was best to return to Broadway in a new play, as opposed to a classic play or your forte, a musical?

A.
I’m very happy I did a new play. To have started this part of my life with a brand new piece, a brand new character, instead of a revival, gave me such confidence in myself. All roles are great, but I really wanted to to make something of my own. I had never done that in theater.

Q.
Any chance you’ll tour the country in “I’ll Eat You Last”?

A.
Like Laurette Taylor doing ‘Peg o’ My Heart’ until she dropped dead? I don’t think so. We’re in talks to bring it to L.A., which would be fun, because it’d be near my house and Sue’s house.

Q.
Will you do another Broadway show?

A.
John Logan’s writing in this play was so perfect for me, and Joe Mantello was such the perfect director, that it’s very hard – if the writing was irresistible in another play, I would do it again. But I did seven shows a week and I nearly died. I begged for them to add another character, like the woman who rolled dope for Sue, but they said no.

Q.
What about a musical?

A.
I always have ‘Mame’ in the back of my mind, and people do mention it, but I don’t think I have eight shows in me. I’m too old. I think people don’t understand how hard this is. Those kids who work so hard in eight shows a week, I bow to them. And I bow to the theater owners, too. They took good care of me and good care of my dressing room. I’m probably the only person who ever got a new loo out of the Shubert Organization.

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5 Responses to Interview: Bette Midler Hangs Up The Phone On ‘Eat You Last’

  1. Marcos Valenca says:

    “I’ll Eat You Last” is delicious, but I hope Miss M doesn’t loose interest in new albums and international tours.

  2. RJGinNV says:

    Love the idea of “I’ll Eat You Last” going to Los Angeles. It would be a smash, and bring a different, more “insider” clientele, seeing as how it’s in Sue’s backyard. Also, I can drive there, so even better!

    Also like the potential nod about “Mame”. I think Bette could be persuaded to do it, with a little prodding. Some Broadway shows are 6 times a week, which would be less rigorous than an 8-performance week. Here in Vegas, many shows are 6x a week–Monday, Wednesday, Thursday (dark), Friday evening, Sat/Sun (matinee and evening), and Tuesday. Less shows could equal more sell-outs, and higher ticket prices, but Bette’s never let lack of stamina show in any of her performances. Bette was born to play “Mame”. I love the idea that she’s even entertaining the notion.

  3. Brad says:

    Ugh, I love her to bits but I’m so tired of her whining about everything being too hard or such hard work. Angela Lansbury must be about 140 years old and she is still performing. She even came down to Oz and toured for the stage adaption of Driving Miss Daisy. C’mon Bette, muscle up! :op

  4. Brad says:

    Hmm, that was supposed to be :P

  5. Danielle says:

    I agree that she is kinda whiney lately. She makes it seem like the performances that we all love are killing her. She need to buck up a little. I get it’s tiring but come on. I mean, do I need to bring up Betty White…

    And why did she say her “home” was in LA? I would have assumed she would say her “home” was in NYC.