Do you remember the first time you saw Hello, Dolly!?
I was in Fiddler on the Roof [in the late 1960s], which was around the corner, but I was working all the same nights, so I never got to see it. When I was invited to do it, I walked to the Library for the Performing Arts, one of my favorite places, and watched it. It was the last revival Carol Channing did, in 1995. Even at 75, she was absolutely extraordinary. I met her a couple of months ago and fell in love. She’s a real light in the world. It’s very big shoes to fill.
Did she have any advice for you?
Make it your own. That’s what everyone I talked to said. You can’t do somebody else’s version of it. It’s a tall order. It’s wonderfully constructed. It’s this exquisite little jewel box, like a watch–so finely tuned, and every little piece works.
The revival has already broken box-office records. What is it that still resonates 50 years after its debut?
First of all, it’s hilarious. Second, it has that terrific score that is part of everyone’s DNA. It’s thoroughly American and familiar. It also has a sweetness and a lightheartedness that is genuinely needed in these dark times. That’s why I decided to do it. People have had a rough few years and there’s a lot of violence and ugliness in the world, and this is like a valentine, a sunbeam, a ray of sunshine.
How different is a big Broadway production from a Las Vegas concert series?
It’s much smaller. Also, I’m the boss when I do my own shows. Now I’m an employee, I’ve been hired, so it’s up to me to bring what I can. But I’m terrified that I’m going to turn around and say, “What are all these people doing on my stage?” I’ve worked for myself for close to 50 years. It’s going to be a collaborative effort. It’s a change of pace, but I think I’m up to it. I’ve met human beings before, so I think I’ll be fine.
Do you think Broadway is friendlier than Hollywood to women over a certain age?
I do. I don’t think it enters into their equation. They think about the material first–Does it have resonance? Will it reach an audience?–and then cast it according to what the play requires. I don’t think they care who comes as long as there are bodies in the seats. Everyone hopes for a good box office, but they’re more willing to take a risk on Broadway than they are in Hollywood.
You recently reissued your first album, The Divine Miss M, which turns 45 next year. What made you want to revisit it?
I hadn’t realized that much time had passed. It’s a really interesting reflection of the time that it was made, kind of a fearless mixtape of music that may not have been looked at in a positive light. All this stuff that I unearthed and put a new polish on, I presented as something worthy. Also, if I waited until it was 50, I might not be around!
As a mentor on The Voice, did you give young artists similar advice to what you received early on?
I wasn’t really mentored. I had a singing teacher here and a dancing instructor there, but I followed my own sense of what was dramatic or interesting as a performer. These kids don’t get exposure. You have to turn the lightbulb on, and if someone doesn’t, you can flounder for years. They don’t give it to you in schools anymore. There’s very little art in public schools. If they don’t teach kids to be human beings, performers are going to be more and more robotic.
Is there anything you haven’t done that you still want to tackle?
Dolly is a big stretch. I’ve been in a Broadway show, but never the lead. It’s a brand-new thing, and at my age , it’s quite a challenge: she has to be funny, she has to sing, and she has to dance. I might be done after this. I’ve done a lot.
This appears in the December 26, 2016 issue of TIME.