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Bette Midler performing in Brisbane, Australia, April 8, 2005. Jonathan Wood/Getty Images
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It Takes a Woman

Why Bette Midler recent casting in ‘Hello, Dolly!’ is the perfect choice

Rachel Shukert
January 21, 2016
Jonathan Wood/Getty Images
Bette Midler performing in Brisbane, Australia, April 8, 2005. Jonathan Wood/Getty Images

I was having drinks with a friend the other night, and he said to me: “Is it just me, or does it seem like the world has fallen into darkness?” I couldn’t help but agree with him. There’s just been so much terrible news: the fact that 2015 was the hottest year in history, boding ill for whatever ability to we have left to live more or less in our present biosphere; wells in Michigan are poisoning children, leaving many permanently disabled; you can’t go anywhere without having to talk about Making of a Murderer with people who clearly are less informed about the case than you are. But through every cloud, some light must shine through (even if it’s just the flashlights of police investigators possibly/impossibly planting DNA evidence linking to a murder you may have/may not have committed). This week, the light finally came: Bette Midler will be starring in a new Broadway production of Hello, Dolly!

Like the musical’s composer, Jerry Herman, I too have lain awake at night, bemoaning the lack of a definitive Broadway revival of the show that made Carol Channing, already a star, into something surpassing a legend, wondering: Who could possibly play Dolly in a splashy and no-expense revival?

None of the current glossy roster of leading ladies of a certain age and fame ever seemed to be quite right: Patti isn’t warm enough; Bernadette is too vulnerable; Betty Buckley, too otherworldly. I can honestly say it never occurred to me that Bette Midler, who, as far as I’m concerned, has basically based her entire latter-day stage persona on the character of one Dolly Gallagher Levi, would actually agree to do it, although I’m not sure why: she’s been playing Vegas night after night for years; she did a one-woman Broadway show, playing super-agent Sue Mengers in I’ll Eat You Last. So, surely starring in a musical where other people have other songs and scenes can’t be too difficult after that, right?

Still, I can’t tell you how perfect a choice she is. Bette Midler has everything the role requires: riveting stage presence, an instantly recognizable look, a distinctive set of a pipes, comic bawdiness, and a sublime way with a sequined headdress. And she has something we’ve never seen before: she’ll be the first iconic Jewish Dolly. (And no, before you interrupt me, Barbra Streisand’s star turn in the movie version doesn’t count. She was a terrible, and you know it, as a 29-year-old woman playing a middle-aged widow out to trap Walter Matthau into marriage. It’s the kind of age-inappropriate casting that wins Jennifer Lawrence Oscars, but that doesn’t mean it works. Ever. End rant.)

Let me explain. Dolly Gallagher Levi, for all her pushy New York Lady-ness, is not, and has never been, a particularly Jewish character. Yes, she’s meddlesome. Yes, she’s a matchmaker. And yes, she carries around a giant handbag stuffed with business cards she’s always forcing people to take. But Dolly’s indomitability has always been more of the pluckily optimistic Irish variety rather than the Jewish one that seems to say, “Yes, I survive, but only because nothing can actually kill me.”

Dolly isn’t a kvetch. She’s grieving when we meet her, for her deceased husband Ephraim Levi, but like her fellow great, Jerry Herman heroine Mame Dennis, she’s always exhorting the people around her to “Live, live, live” not “Stay home and be careful, but if you do have to go out, make sure you wear a hat!” It’s precisely the kind of character Bette Midler excels at finding both the comedy and the humanity in—the pathos behind the get-up and go, the outrageousness that knows it may be compensating for something, but revels in its own audacity nevertheless. She comes less from the Borscht Belt than from the more anarchic—and no less Jewish—world of vaudeville mixed with a heavy dash of surrealist 70’s performance art. It’s the kind of combination where anything can—and will—happen. I’m booking my ticket to New York already.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.