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A CurtainUp Feature
Hello Dollys. . .They Never Say Good-Bye
Seeing Dolly won't be a first for me. I've seen it numerous times with many different stars, including three times with Carol Channing, the original Dolly. In fact, this newest revival had me recalling all the Dollys I have seen portray "That Darned Exasperating Woman" (the title that was originally ascribed to the show), some laudable others I've heard about.
My own most recently seen Hello, Dolly! was a 2006 production starring Tovah Feldshuh at the Paper Mill Playhouse, where Betsy Palmer had previously played Dolly to great acclaim. Feldshuh actually added an Irish accent to her portrayal, giving the role that touch of veracity that seems to have been overlooked by most interpreters. Memory of that production had me wondering if Tony Award-winner Donna Murphy, the current production's Dolly on Tuesdays (beginning June 13th), will also affect a slight brogue.
Of course Dolly has become a role that happily accommodates but needs no ethnic touches to delight. And expectations are high for the Divine Miss M to dazzle us anew with her own unique branding as a super diva.
Still many of the stars who have sashayed down the grand staircase of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant over the years have been inclined toward emphasizing (misguidedly perhaps) the role's approximation of a typical Jewish matchmaker. This was particularly so in 2002 when famed Jewish stage and screen star Molly Picon played the role at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, Mass. And who could have been more Jewish than the formidable songstress Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film version (again misguidedly).
Why Dolly continues To Be a MagnetUnless you're a Dolly addict, you may wonder what it is about the meddlesome widow of Ephram Levi that makes it such a perfect fit for so many different types of leading ladies, especially those of a certain age. In 1967, after Carol Channing finally decided to take some time off, popular African-American star Pearl Bailey undertook the role and captivated a whole new audience for during her 3-year run. It's unlikely that she bothered with any Irish-izing.
for so Many Different types of Leading Ladies
Channing and Bailey were hardly similar types, and neither was Thelma Carpenter the extraordinarily beautiful and petite who stepped in for Bailey at Wednesday matinees over 100 times.
Dolly as a Magnet for Film StarsDolly has also been a refreshing and revitalizing showcase for fabled and still able film stars, dancers and comediennes. The Broadway runs have featured in succession the following: In 1966, Fred Astaire's best dancing partner Ginger Rogers. . .. She was followed by big band singer/big mouth comedienne of radio, stage and screen Martha Raye in 1967.. . . 20th Century Fox musical film star Betty Grable, known for her "million dollar legs" may or may not have tried to show them off from 1967 until she was replaced by hilarious TV/ nightclub standup comedienne Phyllis Diller 1969.
The Reign of Herman's Own First Choice: Ethel MermanAfter Diller it was time for the return of the stage Divas. Beginning on March 28, 1970 the legendary Ethel Merman belted out Herman's tunes, including two he wrote especially for her. Actually, Merman was Herman's first choice to play Dolly and at her request her gig included "World Take Me Back," and "Love Look in my Window" two songs dropped from the original score. (Too bad Bette Midler won't be singing those songs). Merman's reign as Dolly began on March 28, 1970, harnessed the miserly Horace Vandergelder Through December 27, 1970.
Pearl Bailey returned for a revival on November 6, 1975 for approximately seven weeks, after which Channing made a successful return in the role 1978 the closing date of which I'm uncertain about. However, she did return once more October 19, 1995 to January 28, 1996 (presumably for the last time) to eat those dumplings.
Like Merman, Channing was famous for not missing a performance, so there isn't much likelihood of your having seen her standby, Jo Anne Worley during her stint from 1964 to 1965. However, Worley's comic talents were seen by millions on Merv Griffin's TV show in 1966 and later on Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In.
For trivia fans: Channing's first Broadway assignment was as understudy to star Eve Arden in the hit musical-comedy Let's Face It (1941). So are we surprised that the glib wise-cracking film and TV star Arden (Our Miss Brooks and The Mothers-in-Law) would play Dolly later in her career in a successful road tour?
You may have been lucky enough to catch Bibi Osterwald as a replacement Dolly during the week of November 6, 1967. Osterwald previously stood by for Channing in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1949 to 1951) and also appeared with her in The Vamp (1955). Osterwald did get to play the role 122 times over the course of the entire Broadway run, but only played it once when Rogers was the star. Osterwald is best known as Sophie Steinberg in the 1972-73 TV series Bridget Loves Bernie. Looking back you can see that each of these leading ladies wowed both the show's followers and audiences being introduced to Dolly for the first time.
And Don't Forget the Road Show DollysEven if you never had the treat of seeing any of the Dollys on Broadway, the lady is likely to have come to a city near you over the past 40 years via a big city tour, at a professional regional theater, a community theater, or in a school. Not everyone who played Dolly was a super-star, but many bravely and ably tackled the diva quality that the role demands.
Some Notable Road Show Dollys you may have seen include Kathy Halenda, a veteran of 11 national tours and acclaimed for her cabaret show The Brassy Broads of Broadway, played Dolly at the Mac-Hayden Theatre in Chatham, N.Y. in 2003. . . Janet Carroll, known as Hollywood's most actively working film, TV, stage and recording star and most recently seen on Broadway as Aunt March in the 2004-5 musical version of Little Women, played Dolly at the Kansas City Starlight Theater where she also appeared in eight major musicals over a period of five years. . .Tony, Oscar and Emmy-nominated entertainer Lainie Kazan, who began her career as understudy to Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl (1964), played Dolly at the Claridge Hotel in Atlantic City (date unknown). Dorothy Lamour, filmdom's famed sarong-clad songstress, headlined a road company near the end of the 1960s.
Add to that list Tony Award-winner Victoria Clark (The Light in the Piazza, Cinderella) played Dolly at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in 2004; also Michelle Lee who starred in a three-city tour in 2005, under the direction of Lee Roy Reams, who played Cornelius in the show's 1978 revival and directed the 1995 revival.
As for notable Dollys abroad, the legendary musical theater star Mary Martin not only played Dolly in London's West End but also in Japan and Vietnam. And if you were in Melbourne in 2002, you might have caught Australian musical theater star Amanda Muggleton's strut down the runway as Dolly.
And Not All Dollys SingA listing of all the major stars and minor comets who have found Dolly the perfect vehicle has to be incomplete. You can be sure that there are some great performers who have not been given their due in this recap of Hello, Dolly's history. However, there remains another formidable list of Dollys who do not have to be escorted down the runway by a bevy of handsome waiters to the strains of Jerry Herman's title song. Before the Jerry Herman-Michael Steward musical adaptation, there were the plays that were its inspiration.
The history/genesis of the musical Hello, Dolly! is well documented but indulge me a few adornments. Although theatrical scholarship has authoritatively established that the story's roots and its characters extend all the way back to ancient Rome and, in particular, a fragment from a farce by Plautus called The Pot of Gold which presumably inspired Moliere's The Miser.
Many dramatists have used elements from these plays, but the plot's essentials were first used as the basis for British playwright John Oxenford's one-act 1835 farce A Day Well Spent. This was a revised and enhanced version of Einen Jux Will er Sich Machen (He Intends To Have a Fling) by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy (regarded in his homeland as "the king of farce"). It was this version that provided the inspiration for American playwright Thornton Wilder's The Merchant of Yonkers.
As staged by famed German director Max Reinhardt, Wilder's play opened on Broadway at the Guild Theater on December 1938. Despite having a first class cast headed by Jane Cowl, one of Broadway's most popular leading ladies, and featuring a young Tom Ewell as Cornelius Hackle, it was a dismal failure and lasted only 39 performances.
On the advice of the renowned director Tyrone Guthrie, Wilder did a complete overhaul which resulted in The Matchmaker with the role of Dolly Levi tailored to suit the idiosyncratic star Ruth Gordon. The play, directed by Guthrie, opened to good reviews on August 12, 1955 and played a total of 486 performances.
Of course, the list of notable actresses who have headlined The Matchmaker both at home and abroad is virtually endless and invites a game of one degree of separation. My own memory recalls a gentler and uniquely endearing Dolly as portrayed by Elizabeth Franz in a McCarter Theater production in 1994.
A 1958 film version starring the incomparable Shirley Booth, plus Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Perkins and Paul Ford was, unfortunately, not a success. The age-old plot about a widow who finds mates for those seeking them for a price also fits a 1911 silent film unsurprisingly called The Matchmaker and starring the then popular Florence Lawrence.
The story of a widow who connives and contrives to bring romance to several couples and herself in a big city restaurant also served producer-playwright Charles Hoyt for his hit musical extravaganza called A Trip to Chinatown that starred the former popular operetta soubrette cum vaudeville headliner Trixie Friganza. It was produced in either 1891, 1893 or 1896 at the Madison Square Theater depending on whether you trust The Broadway Data Base, Friganza's bio, or Musicals 101.com.
While The Musical Theater Research Project confirms the 1891 date but also states that it was Anna Boyd who originally played the widow. One answer may be that the show which played 657 performances on Broadway (almost 2 years) was such a hit that several road companies toured the country while a second New York production was brought in to play simultaneously with the original. Hopefully, some knowledgeable reader can solve this mystery?
One thing's certain, A Trip to Chinatown toured for years, establishing the show's ongoing attraction for all those future Dollys — with or without Jewish accents or an Irish brogue.
To conclude, here's a Hello, Dolly lyric that best sums up all these Dollys:
My step has a spring and a drive
I'm suddenly young and alive
You wonderful world,
Take me back again!
Editor's Note: For a sneak peek at who's playing all the roles in the current production, we're including the production notes (see box at right) and a list of the songs and who sings them below.
Search CurtainUp in the box below
Book: Michael Stewart Music and Lyrics: and Jerry Herman
Directed by Jerry Zaks
Choreography: Warren Carlyle
Bette Midler (Dolly Gallagher Levi)/ David Hyde Pierce (Horace Vandergelder), Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker), Will Burton (Ambrose Kemper), Melanie Moore (Ermengarde), Jennifer Simard (Ernestina), plus an ensemble of twenty-seven. Cast: Bette Midler (Dolly Levy), David Hyde Pierce (Horace Vandergelder), Gavin Creel (Cornelius Hackl), Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy), Taylor Trensch (Barnaby Tucker), Will Burton (Ambrose Kemper), Melanie Moore (Ermengarde), Jennifer Simard (Ernestina), Donna Murphy (Dolly alternate as of 6/23, an Linda Muggleston Doll understudy when not playing Mrs. Rose ), plus an ensemble of twenty-seven.
Scenic Design by Santo Loquasto
;Costume Design by Santo Loquasto
Lighting Design by Natasha Katz
Sound Design by Scott Lehrer
Hair and Wig Design by Campbell Young Associates
Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Associates
Stage Manager: William Joseph Barnes Running Time: 2 1/2 hours with 1 intermission
Shubert Theater 225 West 44th Street 212/239-6200
From 3/15/17; opening 4/20/17; closing 1/18/14.