Bette Midler just wrapped a hugely successful run on Broadway in Sue Mengers: I’ll Eat You Last (trust us, it was one of the most successful examples of “star casting” in recent years), her first appearance on Broadway since 1980.
In the one-woman show she starred as the chain-smoking, tough-as-nails Hollywood agent Sue Mengers. Though there is some talk of bringing the production to Los Angeles, The New York Times caught Midler for a moment to reflect on the production and ask her if she’ll ever consider doing Broadway again.
Midler says that the most surprising aspects of the production is having to learn the part, especially since she is primarily used to doing musicals on stage. She reveals, “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.”
She also admits that she had to prepare herself for the audience’s affection for her. She explains, “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.”
However, when Midler is asked about any particular annoying parts of the production, she is forthright about having quite a few! She says, “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.”
Midler confesses that while she doesn’t see herself doing another one-woman show, she would definitely take another shot at Broadway. However, fans of Midler’s powerful singing voice will likely be disappointed — she doesn’t think she could do a musical eight times a week. She explains, “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.”