For one night only, Catherine Alcorn presents her show The Divine Miss Bette at the place where it really took off: the Slide Lounge in Sydney’s Oxford Street.
Alcorn has been successfully playing Bette Midler, on and off, since 2009. But this loud, bawdy and larger-than-life role arose from a low period in her professional life.
“Essentially I needed something that was going to launch me back into the Sydney market,” she says. “I’d been away for a few years, song writing and teaching in Canada and England. I hadn’t recently graduated or recently been part of a showcase, so no one knew me.”
One night she went to Oxford Street lounge/cabaret Slide, to see some old friends in their show The Fabulous Chandeliers.
“I was blown away by the venue and the whole concept of cabaret,” she says. “I had never considered it as a direction for me, as my art form. I just loved it. It was fun, it was loud, it was intimate. You could see the audience’s faces, you could chat with them. I love people, so I loved that aspect of the performance.”
She describes how she bowled up to the show’s writer/producer Peter Cox afterwards. “I want you to write me a show,” she told him.
Cox responded: “Well, who do you want to do?”
Says Alcorn: “I didn’t even think about it. It was as if it was totally beyond my control. I just said, ‘Bette Midler’.”
But why Bette Midler? “I suppose I’d always loved her energy on stage or on-screen,” says Alcorn, who was 10 when she saw Midler in the 1988 Garry Marshall film Beaches. “My mother was an incredible film buff and I grew up on all of these beautiful MGM classics. But until I saw that film, I’d never seen a modern actress being comedic and dramatic and singing and producing her own stuff. And after that, I suppose the desire to play her was just sort of murmuring within me.”
Together Alcorn and Cox created a show based on Midler’s early 1970s performances to predominantly gay male audiences at the Continental Bathhouse in Manhattan.
“Her song choices and her arrangements around that time were very good,” Alcorn explains. “And even now I love the raucous energy of her 70s shows, and the filth and comedy and drama of her songs. That’s the incredible thing about Bette. She will take you on a ride of emotions. Within 30 seconds, you’ll be laughing at something, and then she’ll change the tone in her voice and all of a sudden your heart’s breaking. They’re the things that we wanted to remind audiences of, things that she used to do.”
The first performance was at the Wagga Wagga Country Club at the end of 2009, the first Slide performance taking place on November 11 2010.
“I did want to do a show, but I also wanted to have a showcase piece,” explains Alcorn. “I didn’t have representation at the time, so yeah …” Her voice trails off a little at the memory. “But it just kept selling out! It kept evolving and we started doing it at festivals, and now we’re planning the 2016 tour of Queensland from February next year, at all the major theatres.”
Over the years, of course, the presentation has evolved into a show that now has a four-piece band and two back-up singers. “I’ve always wanted a live band and now I’ve arrived at a point which allows us to play and change songs. It’s never the same. If I want new choreography or if I want new costumes or new songs—well, that means new charts and more rehearsals, but I’m always going to do it because it keeps it fresh for me, it keeps it fresh for the audience, and it keeps it fresh for the band and the girls”—that is, the backup singers.
Naturally, spending so much time with a character like Bette Midler has changed Alcorn herself. At the beginning she felt “terror”; now, she enjoys interacting with the audience, and has discovered she has quick, sharp comic talents. “And you know,” she says, “that’s filtered through so many other things, like my MC-ing and my hosting work. I understand that I can hold a room now.”
In fact, she enjoys the “thrill and rush” of the cabaret’s unpredictable nature. “I can’t wait to see what happens,” she says. “You certainly don’t get that kind of improvisation if you’re in a play, because you are within the confines of the script and the direction, whereas cabaret is just a free-for-all.”
Alcorn points out that many towns in regional Australia—she gives the example of Griffith—are embracing cabaret right now. The reason, she suggests, is precisely the intimacy and interactivity that cabaret offers audiences.
“A lot of regional theatres are tapping into it,” she says. “New cabaret rooms are popping up. So you’ve got your major 400-seater main-stage room, but they’re doing these little 90-120 seater rooms as well, in spaces that they haven’t used before.”
Alcorn has produced and starred in other shows, including Go Your Own Way: The Story of Christine McVie. Nevertheless, The Divine Miss Bette will always be special to her. “I think I will always come back to Bette,” she says. “I love the show and I’m grateful for it. It’s catapulted me and leveraged me as an artist.”
And besides, she finds Midler a “fierce” and “powerful” role model. “I love that,” she says. “I never want to be anything but powerful. I think that’s what the attraction is.”
As for reprising the show at the Lounge—even just for one night—she says: “I can’t wait to bring Bette to Sydney again, be part of Mardi Gras celebrations. It’s an honour.”
The Divine Miss Bette cabaret starring Catherine Alcorn returns to Sydney for one night only, Thursday March 19 2015 at Slide Lounge, Sydney. The Divine Miss Bette forms part of the 4-week Slide Lounge Mardi Gras program featuring cabaret, comedy, circus, visual arts and community panels.
Book through Box Office (02 8915 1899) or slide.com.au