I spent Tuesday morning in a soundproof recording studio, but I swear I heard a big gay gasp when news broke that Bette Midler would be starring in a Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly in spring 2017. As the New York Times noted, Midler will be playing Dolly Gallagher Levi, the role that won Carol Channing a best actress Tony back in 1964. The production, which will be directed by Jerry Zaks and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, will begin previews on March 13, 2017, with opening night slated for April 20, though the theater has not yet been announced.
If anyone is wondering why this news should be so squeal-inducing for a certain segment of the homosexual population, allow me to spell out the supergay significance.
Bette Midler is a gay icon. Before she was known as a singer and camp performer with a taste for retro repertoire, Midler got her start at the Continental Baths—a gay bathhouse at 74th and Broadway in New York City—where she was known as Bathhouse Betty and was often accompanied by a young pianist named Barry Manilow. Her film career included weepfests like Beaches and camp classics like Hocus Pocus, which Outward’s own J. Bryan Lowder dubbed “the best gay Halloween movie ever.”
The show is crazy gay. Sure, it’s based on a Thornton Wilder farce about a matchmaker, but the lyrics and music are by Jerry Herman, the openly gay, openly HIV-positive genius who also composed the scores for Mame, La Cage aux Folles, and Mack & Mabel. It’s the story of a middle-aged pistol of a career woman who finds love (somewhat) against the odds.
Dolly Levi is a fantastic part for the Divine Miss M. At 70, Midler may not have the amazing pipes she once did, but I’d lay money she can still belt it out, which is exactly what you need to play Dolly. The role was written for Ethel Merman, the greatest belter of them all, but when Merman turned down the role, it was originated by Carol Channing, whose voice is distinctive but certainly not sweet. The 1969 movie version (beautifully dismantled by Tom and Lorenzo back in 2007) starred Barbra Streisand, a heterosexual woman who makes any associated property at least 78 percent gayer.
There hasn’t been a Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! since 1995-96, when Carol Channing reprised her most famous role, and while Bette Midler did a play at the Booth Theatre in 2013, she hasn’t sung on Broadway since her revue Bette! Divine Madness closed on Jan. 6, 1980. No other members of the cast of the new Hello, Dolly! have yet been named, but the only way this production could get any gayer would be if there were a part for Cher.