“Oh, yeah, I’m going to love being in Vegas. I’m really looking forward to being a part of the community here.”
That was Bette Midler in late 2007, speaking for my podcast in advance of her arrival for The Showgirl Must Go On. She was the first female heir to the throne voluntarily abdicated by Celine Dion at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum.
As you might have heard, the Divine Miss M takes her leave from that gargantuan stage—she remarked semi-jokingly about its size during every performance—on January 31, checking out precisely when her contract is fulfilled and not a day or performance longer. In doing so, she is the first Colosseum resident to have failed to sell out all or most of her shows or to want to extend her stay.
The Caesars and AEG Live folks will stick to happy, upbeat comments, but they must regard Midler’s time at the Colosseum as a disappointment when measured against Dion or even the other two part-time denizens, Elton John and Cher. Ticket prices were lowered and special deals were easy to find just a few months after Midler’s 2008 debut and before the economy completely immolated. One ticket broker (aka “scalper”) told me that near the end he largely stopped stocking Midler seats except for weekend shows.
This all would have surprised me back in 2007 when Midler was en route. The reason I asked her about her likely community involvement was because it was one of the knocks against Celine Dion when she first announced she was coming. I co-wrote a Newsweek piece at the time headlined “She’s Just Not Vegas” that quoted fellow performers doubting Dion would want to be a part of the Vegas entertainment community or citizenry. And while Dion did keep at arm’s length with an insular offstage lifestyle at Lake Las Vegas, she did live and pay taxes here, she did do a litany of charitable things, and her husband in particular was routinely spotted about town. Neither John nor Cher ever did, but they didn’t say they would, either.
Midler, surprisingly given her active social life and philanthropic efforts in New York, made no such efforts. I recall her popping in at the gay nightclub Krave once to stump for Barack Obama in the fall of 2008, but otherwise I can’t think of anything she showed up for or anyone who spotted her doing more than going out to dinner in those two years.
In fact, she committed several flubs; the most stunning was how she dissed the folks at the Nevada Ballet Theatre when they honored her as Woman of the Year in January. Not only did she refuse to promote the fundraiser by speaking to journalists, as is customary and reasonable, but KVBC entertainment reporter Alicia Jacobs also reported that Midler made a perfunctory, record-short acceptance speech and then departed the event.
(Full disclosure: Midler also declined to participate in Las Vegas Celebrates the Music of Michael Jackson, the August benefit show I co-produced, and made it impossible for Santa Fe and the Fat City Horns—her backing band—to appear, refusing to reschedule a soundcheck.)
None of that explains why Midler didn’t sell out consistently, though. That surprises me a little, but I did realize covering the openings of Midler’s and Cher’s shows that these women attract very different types of audiences. Whereas the Review-Journal’s Mike Weatherford wondered in his column whether Caesars was “splitting a pair of 10s” by having them both, because he assumed that all gay/diva-loving audiences are the same, you could tell that Midler’s fans are sedate and appreciative whereas Cher’s are rabid, motivated, devotional. Nobody shows up for Midler, for instance, in costume.
The show itself may also have been a problem. I loved it because I adore her and buy all her music, but it wasn’t much different in shtick and set list than the version I saw a year or so earlier in Reno. It was largely standard Bette—“Wind Beneath My Wings,” “The Rose,” “Bugle Boy of Company B”—when it could have included lesser-known but wonderful gems from her catalog, especially from the Some People’s Lives and For The Boys albums. Some of the staging was cool to see, but it proved a hard sell to persuade Midler fans who had seen essentially a version of this before to travel to Vegas to see what they’d largely already witnessed.
- Bette Midler: The Showgirl Must Go On
- 7:30 p.m. Tue. - Wed.; Fri.- Sun.
- The Colosseum at Caesars Palace
I’ve a hunch Midler will resurface at the Wynn sooner or later. Steve Wynn spoke of how she encouraged him to sign Garth Brooks, and he told me years ago he wanted her but at the time didn’t want part-time headliners. Now that he’s decided to go with that—and given the Wynn-Midler friendship that is at the heart of so many of Wynn’s entertainment decisions—I suspect it’ll happen at some point.
They ought to wait a while, though. Clearly, the demand for Midler in Vegas has been satiated for now. If/when she goes into Wynn’s smaller showroom, maybe she could follow Brooks’ lead and do something intimate and muted. If she does, Wynn will have, in fact, actually reinvented the Vegas headliner act as a sort of unplugged, low-key affair that would be a bit of high-brow counterprogramming to all the bombast. I don’t know if Wynn actually planned to go that route or got pushed by Brooks, but if that comes to pass I may have to withdraw my remarks a couple of weeks ago about the Brooks deal being a run-of-the-mill idea.
Still, something tells me that even under those circumstances, Wynn’s not going to have to go as cuckoo over Midler scalpers. It’s not likely to be as big a problem.