06 June 2017


But a different kind of reality soon intruded. Just before Midler launched into “Before the Parade Passes By,” that paean to keeping going, to moving forward, she started to cough and couldn’t stop. You could feel the audience holding its breath. As she tried to catch hers, Creel ran onstage with a glass of water and knelt before the star, whose mortality we could suddenly sense and see: Bette wouldn’t be Bette forever, and the idea was intolerable. After drinking the water, Midler lay down on the stage in a caricature of weariness, as the audience stood up to meet her energy, which, though flagging, was still greater than anyone else’s. Then she rose and walked over to the orchestra pit and asked the conductor to start again. “I can’t hear you, honey,” she said. Turning back to the audience as the music began, Midler said, “Ugh—live theatre,” and rolled her eyes. When she started to sing, the number became unlike any version I’d heard before—plaintive, sweet, a folk song about love and desire. That Zaks’s staging soon turned it into show business, with dancers and so on, wasn’t annoying: he was only doing his job, just as Midler, breaking our hearts with both her character and her real self, was doing hers. ♦

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