So. Much. Happy.
There are certainly funnier shows. There are shows where the stakes are considerably higher; where you’re dragged though the emotional wringer; shows where people sing and dance for their life. But honestly, I have never seen a production of a show that is more beat to beat, second to second, damn right Happy. This production was two and half hours of HAPPY. That magnificent score! A book by Michael Stewart that stands the test of time quite beautifully! Yes, it’s of its time but there’s nothing dusty or creaky about it. There’s no fat on its bones; every word is there for a reason and then suddenly in unexpected moments the words become poetry and catch you unawares. And the characters talk to you! I’ve often wondered why performers don’t do this in musicals. What’s all this singing to a blank spot with your arms stapled to your sides? If I had my way… They know what’s what at Shakespeare’s Globe. If an actress finds herself alone on stage there she turns and talks to the audience. And so they do in Yonkers. Actually, even when characters aren’t alone they sometimes talk to us. It’s nice to be included. Truly. It ramps up the happy.
The show LOOKS happy. And chic. Gorgeous, gorgeous picture book sets and costumes to die for in the most joyous of colour palettes. The cast: everyone looks like they’re having the time of their life (they almost certainly are) and they’re all on it. No one’s forcing or mugging. There is a lightness of touch and a precision from everyone. And then…shining at the centre of it all is The Divine.
Bette Midler makes her first entrance and the show stops. Standing ovation. I’ve heard of such things on Broadway but never experienced it. She finishes Before the Parade Passes By: standing ovation. Obligatory crazy lady at the front turns round and yells at everyone not on their feet to get up. The title song begins, Bette makes her entrance atop the staircase and the aisles are flooded with ushers trying in vain to curb the glare of phone cameras. The number ends: entire audience on its feet. It’s kind of primal. You feel your legs working on their own. The joy exchange is so immense by this point that there’s no other way to respond but to stand, give oneself nodules and sob.
We all knew Bette was funny but dear God, the level and volume of shtick on display is breathtaking. There’s vintage Bette collapsing with faux exhaustion against the proscenium half way through the title number. There’s a segment (with David Hyde Pierce) with a feathered hat that lasts about a week and somehow keeps topping itself. And there’s a gorgeous, hilaaaaaaarious section (as slick as any piece of choreography) with a chicken dinner that lasts about a fortnight and builds and builds and builds and then magically dovetails back into the story. No matter what she (or anyone) does it’s always at the service of the story. There is never any indulgence. Bette knows when she can ad-lib and stretch a moment and when the focus is on someone else. But when she does ad-lib… Half way though the dance section of the title number, she casually lands 2 lines that kill: “This is what the critics call charming” and then “This bit goes on for a while so I hope you like RED.” A lesser diva would have kept at it but a dancer was about to launch into 3 seconds of tap. Bette had had her turn; she let someone else have the spotlight!
Her technical precision with the book is seriously impressive. A singer’s natural instinct for phrasing helps bring swathes of wordy text zippily to life. And it’s not all froth. The first time she’s left on stage alone she has a gorgeous moment where she talks to her late husband but before she’s even opened her mouth you know she’s gone to some place more melancholic and you’ve gone there yourself before you even know why. The energy in the whole auditorium changes before she even speaks. Her acting chops are immense.
There’s a to-do going down over on the Twitter at the moment where a lot of musical theatre actors are angry and upset about being referred to as “performers” by Equity whilst “straight” actors are referred to as “actors.” They argue that it denigrates them in some way. Personally, I’m happy for the compliment. To my mind, the great stage actors have always been more than simply actors; they’re…performers. Watch how Mark Rylance throws those egg shells out into the Stalls at the start of Jerusalem. He’s in the play but he’s also in the audience. He may as well be winking at us. The greats play the character and they play WITH the audience. This is what Bette’s been doing for the past 12 months and it’s no wonder audiences have been losing their shit. It’s good to play. We need it now more than ever. We need the happy. We neeeed the happy; and ohhh, the happy. So. Much. Happy.