Two Village Girls Who Made it Big on Broadway
By Robert Heide
In summing up the 2017 Broadway theater season, Michael Riedel in his New York Post article, entitled “A Sure Bette” (dated December 29, 2017), cites Hello Dolly! as the top, hot ticket of the year. He writes about producer Scott Rudin and director Jerry Zaks delivering a brilliant, no-expense-spared revival of the well-known musical, which had whopping advance ticket sales of a cool $50 million. On January 14th, a double-page ad in the New York Times announced the departure of Bette Midler (who is leaving to make a movie) in a giant, red Valentine heart, as a farewell.
Beginning on January 20th, the song now being sung onstage at the Shubert Theatre in Hello Dolly! is “Hello Bernadette.” It should be noted that Carol Channing, who played the lead role of Dolly Gallagher Levi for countless years on Broadway and who was ultimately replaced by other stars to keep the show going (including Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, and many others), was still called “The best Dolly of them all.”
A few years back, I attended a production of Hello Dolly! at the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, New Jersey starring Tovah Feldshuh, who I felt did a great job. Now, one wonders who may ultimately replace Bernadette down the line if this musical runs forever, as has Phantom, Wicked, Hamilton, or The Lion King—shows that may never close.
These two mega-stars, Bette Midler and Bernadette Peters, both had humble beginnings right here in Greenwich Village. For the record, Bette first appeared in New York onstage at La MaMa in a show entitled Miss Nefertiti Regrets, written by the late Tom Eyen of Dreamgirls fame. A small part in Fiddler on the Roof in 1967 was the Broadway debut for Bette, but her big thrust on the showbiz scene was a breakthrough in 1970 at the gay Continental Baths doing a cabaret act with Barry Manilow. (He did the arrangements and accompanied her on the piano.) Manilow and Bette followed up with a smash hit at the Palace Theatre, and then a sell-out musical revue entitled Clams on the Half Shell at the Minskoff. Bette lived in the Village at this juncture in a house she purchased on Barrow Street.
Many times, my friend, director Ron Link, who was trying to get Bette into a show called My Name is Rachael Lily Rosenbloom and Don’t You Ever Forget It, and I would get together with Bette at the legendary Sutter’s Bakery on West 10th Street and Greenwich Avenue for coffee cake and gossip. (The show was eventually cast with Ellen Greene and became a famous Broadway one-night flop.) A live wire, Bette liked to laugh and tell jokes—a born comic and, yes, a great songstress. Bette also made many movies; my favorite is The Rose (1979) where she played a self-destructive, drug-addicted rock star modeled after Janis Joplin. Her love interest in the movie was the handsome actor Frederic Forrest (who earlier had been in my play Moon). Both were nominated for Academy Awards.
Last year in January, I attended the opening of Sunset Boulevard starring Glenn Close (another Village gal) and found myself seated in a loge alongside Bernadette Peters looking as glamorous as ever. I originally met Bernadette in 1966 when she starred at age 16 in a nostalgic, 1930s-style musical entitled Dames at Sea or Gold Diggers Afloat at Caffe Cino. And the rest, of course, is history. Dames became the longest-running show at that coffee house theater on Cornelia Street and Bernadette went on to appear in it at the Bowery Lane. From there, she jumped to Broadway in Steven Sondheim’s remarkable Sunday in the Park with George and later in a super-revival of Sondheim’s Follies. Bernadette also starred in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun, the show which originated in the 1940s, with Ethel Merman playing Annie Oakley.
During the intermission at the Palace opening of the spectacular Sunset Boulevard, we chatted about Bernadette’s early days at the Caffe Cino. “Those were the best of times for me,” she said, “I will never forget Joe Cino.” When Joe died after a ritualistic suicide in the Caffe in 1968, a memorial for him at Judson Church found Bernadette singing, black mascara tears running down her cheeks, the lead song from Dames—“It’s Raining in My Heart.” The sobs in the audience were palpable.
Now to be sure, it is Bernadette who stars and reigns on the Great White Way called Broadway. As Bette had her big moment to shine, it is time to turn the spotlight on the new Dolly and so, Hello Bernadette! Have fun and a solid run! (Note: My favorite Bernadette movie, opposite Steve Martin and Christopher Walken, is Pennies From Heaven, a musical set in the Depression era where she perfectly utters the line, “We certainly made a mess of our lives!” She delivers this line in a Chevy coupe as she and Martin are speeding away to escape the law.)