What Midler does onstage in Vegas might look a little undignified for a 62-year-old woman, in, say, G. K. Chesterton’s hands. But Midler knows she doesn’t possess the instrument that would allow her to just stand at a microphone in velvet and diamonds, like, say, fellow Semitic icon Barbra Streisand. “She sings like a bird. I don’t,” Midler once told a friend. Neither does her catalogue allow her to just cycle through a series of hits, like Elton John does 50 times a year in his Red Piano show at the Colosseum. “If I could play the piano like Elton John and had the hits he has, believe me, I would be sitting at the piano while the video played,” she says. “Unfortunately, I can barely play the ukulele and I don’t have his catalogue.” There is an expectation of a little more sweat at a Midler show—that she’ll be hopping on a mermaid tail and twirling poi balls in the air.
There are indeed poi balls and a mermaid costume in The Showgirl Must Go On. There’s also plenty of poking fun at the crassness of playing Vegas—“the only town that could teach Kraft something about cheese.” Showgirls parade around in dollar-sign headdresses. After a confetti cannon blows foil coins into the crowd, Midler promises “$40,000, or two T-shirts at my gift shop” to whoever finds the one embossed with a dollar sign. It’s a cute joke that has a slightly bitter aftertaste, considering that Midler, who built her career on embracing a certain kind of authenticity, is putting her name on those bedazzled tank tops, and condoning the sale of a $300 Bathhouse Betty Gift Basket (“For a clean that’s divine when you’re feeling dirty”).
“At first I said, ‘It’s not me. It’s not me.’ But eventually you have to face it. It is you. You love sparkles. You love boas and feathers. You love boobs. I’m like a magpie. I’m a sucker for whatever glitters.”
The show is not conceived with much regard for Midler newbies. Those who just wander into the theater from the casino floor might have some trouble understanding why there’s this lounge-singer mermaid named Delores Delago who rolls around in a motorized wheelchair and a character named Soph who tells filthy jokes in an old-lady voice. (“My boyfriend said to me, ‘Soph, if you would learn to cook, we could fire the chef.’ I said to him, ‘Ernie, if you would learn to fuck, we could fire the chauffeur!’ ”) Does Midler have enough die-hard fans to buy the roughly 820,000 tickets available for the run? What can be read into the fact that Cher will be filling in some of the dates Midler’s show is dark? “Elton, Cher, me? Does it get any gayer?” Midler asks from stage. (John Meglen, the co-CEO and president of AEG Live, told me that, as much as he loves the gays, he’s depending on straight people to come to the show, too.)
Midler has always been a triple threat onstage, even if now she’s not quite so threatening as a dancer. (A running theme in the show is her exhaustion at performing.) The truly amazing moments come when she’s interpreting melodies. Considering the number of times she’s sung it since recording it in 1972, it’s astonishing that Midler’s still able to milk chills from John Prine’s “Hello in There.” And she sings the showstopper of the night—“When a Man Loves a Woman”—with the same Joplin-influenced roughness she had in The Rose. But part of her brilliance lies in her ability to temper the mushy stuff—“The Rose,” “Wind Beneath My Wings”—by bracketing it with nasty, knowing comic bits. “I think of myself as a lowly clown, but I also think of myself as someone who can turn on a dime and sing a ballad and move people,” she says, citing her most direct forbear as Fanny Brice, the Ziegfeld Follies star famous for quickly transitioning from mugging to singing her tearjerking theme, “My Man.” “People don’t bother to do it anymore like they used to in the old days.”
Having managed to find an effective way to look younger than her years, Midler nevertheless frequently betrays the fact that she’s part of a much older show-business generation. “The paparazzi?” she asks. “Back then? We had one guy—Dave.” The spate of starlet crotch flashings garners a riff in her show, during which she flashes a picture of herself from the seventies, performing with her bare ass hanging out. “I was dressing like a ho before hoes knew how to dress!” She’s become a bit more prudish since then, and some of her songs have been wisely reinterpreted. When Midler growled her way through the old sock-hop hit “Do You Want to Dance?” on her 1977 NBC special, she inserted enough moaning and heavy breathing to suggest the title of the song was actually “Do You Want to Help Me Find a Broom Closet in This Place (Because I’m Not Wearing Panties. Honest)?” Now she actually sounds like she might prefer to just dance, a mercifully cringe-free choice.