Bette Midler has been busy. And not just in the past few months, rehearsing for her star turn as Dolly Gallagher Levi in the much-ballyhooed revival of “Hello, Dolly!” — but in the past 50 years, since her Broadway debut.
Back then, she was just another wide-eyed hopeful, understudying Tzeitel in “Fiddler on the Roof.” You can catch her on YouTube in a clip from the 1968 Tony Awards belting out “matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match . . . ”
Now, after her series of popular Broadway concerts, film roles (cue the women of a certain age who weep at the mere whisper of “Beaches”), all the records sold (more than 30 million) and awards won (three Grammys, three Emmys and a special Tony Award for her 1973 concert at the Palace Theatre), Midler is back on Broadway at the Shubert Theatre playing the biggest matchmaker of all. Opening night is April 20.
“I’m excited, I’m unnerved, I’m utterly game,” said Midler, 71, in an interview on NBC’s Sunday “Today” show in December. Her most recent Broadway run was in the 2013 one-woman show “I’ll Eat You Last: A Chat With Sue Mengers.”
Directed by four-time Tony-winner Jerry Zaks, this “Dolly” also features “Frasier” alum David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the crotchety turn-of-the-last-century Yonkers magnate whom Dolly sets her sights on marrying — though she’s got a whole lot of other matches to set right first — and one raucous night at the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, complete with that high-stepping title song and dance number.
The show has quite a pedigree. Inspired by Thornton Wilder’s play “The Matchmaker,” this musical version — with book by Michael Stewart, music and lyrics by Jerry Herman — debuted in 1964 starring Carol Channing. The 1969 film starred Barbra Streisand, and the show became a standard-bearer for American musical theater, performed in regional theaters and schools across the country.
The current production is breaking Broadway records, from the highest-ever first-day ticket sales to its recent highest-ever weekly gross at the Shubert (nearly $2 million for the week ending April 2).
“I was more than thrilled,” Midler said of ticket sales. “I hope I do them proud. I really do.”
Is anyone really worried?
“You know Bette is going to put on a show — guaranteed,” says Lee Roy Reams, who starred as Cornelius Hackl in Carol Channing’s 1978 Broadway revival, then directed Channing in her 1995 revival. “For Midler, it’s a wonderful marriage of actress and role.”
He ought to know — he played Dolly himself, one of the many times the casting of Dolly broke the rules.
The list of Dollys over the years is like a Who’s Who of entertainers, starting with Shirley Booth (TV’s “Hazel,” in Wilder’s play) and Channing (who put her indelible stamp on the musical). When Pearl Bailey took over the role in 1967 with an all-black cast, it caused a sensation — Bailey won a Tony Award, proving there’s something universal in Dolly’s DNA that defies ethnic, racial and (eventually) gender boundaries.
Since then, Dollys have run the gamut, from Hollywood legends (Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable) to Broadway belters (Ethel Merman) to TV stars (Phyllis Diller, Sally Struthers).
And now, the Divine Miss M — along with Tony-winner (and Queens native who was raised in Hauppauge) Donna Murphy, who’ll play the role Tuesdays starting June 13.
“She knows how to play toward an audience, and she’s aggressive as an actress,” says Reams of Midler. “She’s got it all. I think she wants to show that. Dolly takes advantage of all the things she does so well.”