Howard Sherman: Bette Midler’s not too old for Broadway

The Stage
Howard Sherman: Bette Midler’s not too old for Broadway
By Howard Sherman
January 22, 2016

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Late Monday evening, it was a rumour flashing around based on a tweet. By 6:30 am on Tuesday morning, it was a fact, sparking elation. By 10 am on Tuesday, online grumbling had begun.

I am referring to the news that has been announced to play Dolly Levi in a Broadway revival of the musical Hello, Dolly!, to begin performances in March 2017, a seemingly inevitable pairing of performer and character. The excitement was over the Divine Miss M appearing in her first Broadway musical in half a century; the dissension was due to the fact that Midler would begin performances at the age of 71.

There’s no arguing that the character of Dolly was written for someone decades younger than Midler, but it was also written at a time when 70 seemed quite elderly. Today, we regularly see articles discussing Helen Mirren, five months older than Midler, as sexy. Midler herself remains a dynamo of energy and exuberance, no one’s idea of a retiree.

Yet it would seem that some combination of the production and the press saw the need to address the naysayers, because the day after the casting was announced, The New York Times ran a newsless feature interviewing Midler, roughly a year before rehearsals begin, which spoke directly to the age question, with 84-year-old composer Jerry Herman vouching for Midler’s aptness for the role in her 70s.

I happen to be entirely unconcerned about Midler’s age and I suspect the ticket-buying public will find it irrelevant as well, given Midler’s fame and reputation for delivering the goods on stage and screen. Any lyric or book adjustments that might be necessary were surely made when Carol Channing last played the role on Broadway at age 74, and Dolly is light entertainment that calls for style and charm, which Midler can certainly supply, along with her signature brassiness.

But if Midler’s casting is indeed being recognised as non-traditional casting according to age, I think it offers up a great opportunity to pursue a broadminded approach to the rest of the cast as well. Since the show makes no claim to historical accuracy, and is in fact a musical adaptation of a play that itself had at least two antecedents dating back to the 1800s, I’d love to see this surefire hit open its casting up to performers of colour without regard to what one might have been seen on the streets and in the restaurants of Yonkers and Manhattan at the time the show is set.

I’m not just suggesting that the wait staff at the Harmonia Gardens include black and Latino servers, I’m saying that perhaps Horace Vandergelder, Irene Molloy and Cornelius Hackl and others could be cast from the wide array of extraordinarily gifted BAME performers. After all, the original production broke new ground when it showcased an all-black cast replacement led by Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway in the 1960s.

Why not use any lingering sense of incongruity over a septuagenarian leading lady as a platform to really create an inclusive Dolly, with something more than one pair of BAME dancers in the chorus? On the strength of Bette Midler’s unquestionable box office allure, the production can declare that this is not your grandmother’s Dolly, and say hello to all of the talent available today. There’s plenty of time to make it happen before the parade passes by.

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