Sondra Lee received the call from Gower Champion in the summer of 1963 when she was performing in Rome that would change the course of her life. He wanted her to play Minnie Fay in Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman, the musicalization of Thorton Wilder's The Matchmaker...and for the next two years Sondra Lee WAS Minnie Fay.
At one time there was even a song called Dolly Levi: A Damned Exasperating Woman! Songs came and went. But that is the natural course of a musical.
At the start of our interview, Sondra told me up front that I could not trust her for any form of chronology; she only has emotional memories of her time in Dolly. She doesn't think that way. Including her age. She has no sense of her age or anyone else's, for that matter. She feels that her time in Dolly was FOREVER!
In addition to Carol Channing, Sondra did Dolly with Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, and Martha Raye. She adored Bibi Osterwald. She doesn't remember Bibi ever going on for Carol. Carol was NEVER sick. Even if she was, she would go on anyway.
As far as the differences of the Dollys she appeared with, Sondra says they were all remarkable women. They were all different "actors". They all were different Dollys. They all wore the same costume. But beneath the costume was a different person. Both on and off stage.
Speaking of Barnaby, there were so many Barnabys before they settled on Jerry Dodge that it was heartbreaking to see these guys come and go. Before Jerry, there were two other guys during the rehearsal process.
One of them was the younger brother of Christopher Walkin. For some reason, they were either not ready or who knows why. In all the shows that Sondra ever did, she never got involved with the "politics". She was too busy having a good time working very hard. It was the first show for each of the prior Barnabys.
Sondra says that out of the Dollys she appeared with, Martha Raye was the most "available". Sondra went to Vietnam with Martha's Dolly company. Martha was a Green Beret. Sondra said Martha had a heart that showed. For Sondra, Carol was an enigma. She felt the same way about Mary Martin (Sondra did Peter Pan with Martin).
She felt that Gower's approach was unique. Not so much as a director but in his casting choices.
That's how Sondra ended up in Dolly.
You were hired because of your unique physicality or your unique approach as an actor. Sondra and Gower came from two different schools of dance. Sondra came from a much more serious school of dance, Jerome Robbins and the "serious" world of ballet.
What Gower was was a wonderful choreographer.
|Ginger and Gower.|
As she watched Gower's work, she discovered he had a very tactical directorial gift. Very practical. Marge also made enormous contributions to Dolly. She didn't feel that he was a "genius like Robbins" but rather, that he had a very practical way of making numbers work. He wasn't "organic".
She never really had any interactions with Jerry Herman at all. She dealt a lot with Michael Stewart because they were dealing with the text. Since she didn't have that much to sing, she never had to discuss the lyrics with Jerry. Because Charles Strouse and Bob Merrill were around, no one was sure of whose songs were whose (Both have denied writing ANYTHING for Dolly!)
In the early stages of Dolly, there wasn't enough money. The show was in danger of shutting down. Sondra borrowed money from a friend and gave a check for $2,000. And it was "lost" or perhaps "they didn't want someone in the show to have money in the show". She would be a rich lady today!
I asked Sondra what she missed about the Broadway of "then" verses Broadway of "today". Sondra says there is no "today".
The lowest point of her Dolly memories is the night President Kennedy was assassinated. That was one of the most extraordinary personal experiences that still resonates today.
Charles Nelson Reilly, Jerry Dodge, Eileen Brennan, and Sondra were inseparable partly because they were individual show stopping personalities and they were never given "that thing" to do, to stop the show. They really had to depend upon themselves to make their scenes work. They had no payoff. There was never a "button" that any of them ever had. They sort of hung around together at the theatre. Not much socializing when you work in a Broadway show. They were protective of each other...because they felt they had so little to work with. The characters are sort of "cartoony". Sondra did her homework and went to the original source material, The Merchant of Yonkers and The Matchmaker. "You grabbed a sandwich and your pickle and went home". She remembers Jerry Dodge as being an adorable person who had a unique voice and energy. He was fun to play with.
She remembers Charles Karel and David Hartman sharing a dressing room.
Charles Nelson Reilly was a unique individual. He was lots of fun both on and off stage but he stuck to the script.
Eileen was a little inebriated with whatever she was drinking on stage. One night as she was singing Ribbons Down My Back, the hat fell off her head. She didn't even notice! Sondra LOVED working with Eileen...but it was dangerous.
Opening nights at The Fisher in Detroit, The National in DC, and the St. James in NY are all the same for Sondra. She is just a worker. She knew where the laughs were and she knew how to make them work. Gower referred to her and Reilly and Brennan, and Dodge as the Avon Comedy Four. Gower had a friend, Jess Craig, a wonderful playwrite who Gower would seek out advice and feedback from. They were school chums.
In the "old days" there was no structured rehearsal process like there is today. The unions didn't care as much.
Sondra tells me that working with Ginger Rogers was better than working with Betty Grable. She refers to Grable as a "neanderthal". The legs were there but the mind was still in kindergarten. Ginger was a "good egg". She forgot her lines and told the audience. She would say, "I forgot" and then walk to the wings for prompting. Audiences LOVED her!
The last performance Sondra gave was in San Francisco with Ginger Rogers. During the curtain call speech, Rogers announced to the audience that it was Sondra's final performance. The audience gave Sondra a standing ovation and she remembers weeping and weeping. She knew at that moment that her emotional attachment to Hello, Dolly! was gone.
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Tomorrow's blog will be..Ron Young's Memories of Hello, Dolly!
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