Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Musings on Hello, Dolly!

(John Dominis / Time and Life Pictures/Getty Images)
Based on The Matchmaker by Thornton Wilder, Hello Dolly tells the story of Dolly Gallagher Levi, a matchmaker who has been hired to arrange a marriage for the widowed half-millionaire Horace Vandergelder. Dolly, however, has other plans. She has herself been recently widowed and come to the conclusion that Horace and his fortune will make her the perfect mate. So when she arrives in Yonkers, she immediately begins to plant seeds of doubt in Vandergelder's mind about Irene Molloy, the pretty young widow she has picked out for him.
By the time Hello, Dolly! closed on December 27th, 1970, it had become one of the longest running musicals in Broadway history, totaling 2,844 performances, thanks to the host of stars-Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Bibi Osterwald, Pearl Bailey (with an African-American cast...Pearl's standby was Thelma Carpenter), Phyllis Diller, and Ethel Merman-while these women who succeeded Channing were lighting up Broadway, Channing was performing in an extensive and lucrative road tour.

Gerry Goodstein
Still glowing, but with Irish brio: Tovah Feldshuh playing Dolly Gallagher Levi in the Paper Mill Playhouse production of "Hello, Dolly!"
When Tovah Feldshuh did it at The Papermill Playhouse, a production I saw, by the way, Charles Isherwood wrote in The New York Times, "  The feathered hats and headdresses look familiar; the sweeping skirts and corseted bodices too. Business cards still flutter like confetti from that tapestry bag, and her big entrance still involves a beaded gown and a goddess like descent of a near-legendary staircase. But when the meddling matchmaker opens her mouth in the Paper Mill Playhouse's new production of "Hello, Dolly!" here, out leaps a leprechaun."
All of the success of Hello, Dolly! happened after one of Detroit's leading critics referred to the show as a "blue baby". Though the show was cancelled on the night of November 22nd, 1963 due to the assassination of President Kennedy, Gower still used that night to rehearse the company and make changes. Channing once said, "If anyone cried, they would get a tissue, wipe the tears-and then return to work."

Charles Nelson Reilly, who was playing Cornelius Hackl, had worked with Jerry Herman previously in the off-Broadway run of Parade also starring Dody Goodman. However, Jerry saw a real leading man in the part of Cornelius, with a voice that sounded more like John Raitt.
Gower's approach was to go for a "cartoonish" look. That's why Freddy Wittop's costumes were so brightly colored, and why they had two girls as the front and back of horses in horse costumes. It was a cartoon come to life.
Before the show moved to Washington, there was talk of restoring a song previously cut from the Harmonia Gardens sequence, in which an entertainer sang, "The Man In The Moon( Is A Lady)"to replace the still-not-working"Come And Be My Butterfly
  Songs about butterflies were all the rage in the 1890s, the time when "Hello, Dolly!" takes place. To satirize this, "Come and Be My Butterfly" was written for the stage show at the Harmonia Gardens. The song didn't work (perhaps the reference was too obscure for most theatergoers?), so the livelier Polka Contest was substituted after the show opened on Broadway. The script for "Hello, Dolly!" published in the Best Plays of 1963-1964 includes "Come And Be My Butterfly;" the official play script substitutes "The Polka Contest".

(Turnabout is fair play; a song written for Mame herself-"Love is Only Love" -wound up in the film of "Hello, Dolly!"
As for those Harmonia Gardens waitors who celebrate Mrs. Levi, Jerry Herman named them Harry, Louis, and Manny, respectfully (and respectfully) for his father and two uncles. 
It all worked out by opening night. 
It's a rare show that opens to raves and is still fine-tuned. 
The show was still a little lumpy but it rang. In "So Long, Dearie", Dolly sings to Horace, "I'm going to learn to dance and drink and smoke a cigarette"-but earlier in the show,we see her teaching others to dance. When Pearl Bailey took over the role in 1967, she changed the lyrics to " I'm gonna learn to hootchie-kootch."  
The cast album would be the traditional Broadway musical's true last hurrah on disc. In their youth, baby boomers had to save their pennies to buy 45 singles at eighty-nine cents each; now they could easily afford $3.98 for mono albums and $4.98 for stereo ones.
Ginger Rogers
Dolly sold out until summer 1965, when Ginger Rogers succeeded Channing. When Pearl Bailey and Cab Callaway headed an all African-American company, rave reviews resulted, and business was back to capacity. 
David Merrick mounted this black company simply as a new tour, but after the tumultuous reaction in its initial stop in Washington, he decided to fire Grable and company and bring the black cast to New York. 
 Dolly was the first-ever musical to still be running on Broadway after its movie version, directed by Gene Kelly, came and went. 
In the original script, Irene Molloy does not know that Cornelius is not a rich man-and one would have to be stupid not to see through the nervousness at going to a much too expensive restaurant.
The movie improved upon that conceit. 
Ethel Merman was in place for the closing.

Dolly wasn't remotely through. In some circles, the show has become a cliche', that's what happens to super hits.
Eventually a plaque was installed outside the theatre: "David Merrick's production of Hello, Dolly! celebrated its 2,178th performance on September 9th, 1970 at the St. James Theatre and became the longest running Broadway musical in history." 
Dolly endures. 
Wall-E director Andrew Stanton knew Put On Your Sunday Clothes because he'd played Barnaby in his high school production. (These facts are from Broadway Musicals: The Biggest Hit and The Biggest Flop of The Season 1959-2009 by Peter Filicia)
Read Jack Dyville's memories of Hello, Dolly!
And Ron Young

The following was sent to me from David Hartman:


Gower Champion Memorial Service /Winter Garden Theater

August 28, 1980

Remarks:  David Hartman

                      I’m David Hartman. I’m here because Gower Champion gave me my first job on Broadway as Rudolph, the German headwaiter, in the original cast of “Hello, Dolly.”
                   Some memories for those of you here among the “Hello, Dolly,” alumni. Gower gave many of us “that first chance.” He had no assurance that we’d come through…took the chance anyway. He touched all of us, whether we were on stage or in the audience. And a few of us lucky ones were fortunate enough to have shared his “exploring,” his “trial and error” process of choreographing…like the excitement of finding the exact moment to flip our hands out in a classic “Gower” hand-flip move. 
He always had that little glint in his eye as he worked… “do me something, anything…yeah yeah yeah, keep THAT.” The results were all HIS, really, but he made you feel like YOU had actually created something.
                   Fall 1963. The Mark Hellinger Theater. 52d Street just off Broadway, was “dark.” “My Fair Lady” had made that theater hallowed ground. That’s where we rehearsed “Hello, Dolly…” on the stage, in the lobby, the lower lobby and the basement under the stage.
                   For the first two weeks…fourteen days…from 10 AM until 6…Gower created and rehearsed only two numbers. Half of our total rehearsal time…only two numbers. Great scheduling. Fourteen days…twenty men, and one woman, two numbers. Then, on October 20, 1963, Sunday afternoon…in the dreary, dark chill…in khakis and tights and leg warmers and tennis shoes... with folding chairs and adhesive tape and Peter Howard playing that crumby upright piano, Gower said, “Let’s try it. 
Both numbers. “Waiters” and “Dolly.” As Walter Kerr wrote later in the New York Herald Tribune, “Mr. Champion’s dancers began exploding through the floor, out of their minds once, again. And, when peace was restored, the curtains parted and down the long stairway, red on red, came Carol Channing.” When Peter played the final chord, with singer’s and dancer’s voices bouncing off the walls of the Mark Hellinger, we hit “that pose…” with arms outstretched all facing Carol. In the absolute hush and stillness on that dank Sunday afternoon, Gower walked ever so slowly out of the dark recesses of the back orchestra seats to the front of the ramp built around the pit for these two numbers. He hesitated for what seemed an eternity, then, simply and quietly, made one of the “Broadway Musical” understatements of all time. “I think we’ve got something.”
He did have “something,” and, he gave it to all of us. He showed us how to love it. He gave each of us on stage a few moments of a lifetime…the moments that kids (and older folks, too) dream about… moments so electric, you could hardly stand it. He said, more than once, “the dance steps aren’t that great. Choreography either. Go out and give it 108% or we’re all ‘FINISHED!’” He made you feel downright creative when deep down you knew you were really just up there jumping around having the most fun of your life.  And the audience…they’d smile…then laugh…then SCREAM because they couldn’t keep it in. They’d leave the St. James, head down 44th Street, inching along, embarrassedly wanting to try, well, maybe, just one of those little “Gower” steps…humming all the way…”Hellohhhh, Dolly.” They’d been “had…” by the Gower magic.
                   For all of us, on stage and out front, thanks Gower, for the joy you’ve given us. Marge mentioned that you’re a perfectionist. 
As all you Dolly alumni remember…”Gower, we know that one of these days you’re finally FIX BUTTERFLIES!”
Also from David:
One other fun a former ball player I took the lead in creating a softball team to represent Dolly in the Central Park Broadway Show League. David Merrrick, finally, agreed to buy bats, balls. shirts and hats, but cautioned me, "if you, or any one of my dancers or singers get hurt, you're fired!" In one of the first games, stretching for a throw at first base, I strained my hamstring. As I heard it pop, I thought to myself, "well, that's the end of my Dolly experience." That night on stage it was painful moving, but I made it through that and the next performances without David learning that I was hurt. 
David never knew how close he came to firing Rudolph, the German headwaiter.

And I just received this.
Hello Richard,  My name is Robert Lydiard, and I was in no less than 7 companies of "Dolly" always playing "Barnaby" opposite such GRAND Dames as:  Carol Channing - 1977 Natl. Tour & 1978 Broadway return (Co-starring the late Eddie Bracken) ; Annie Russell working for the late, great Vincent Sardi in his L.I. Dinner Theatre; Vivian Blaine (star of the original "Guys n' Dolls" on Broadway); Broadway veteran-Betty O'Neill; and Marion Marlowe raven-haired favorite on the Arthur Godfrey Show.  There were others, but these were the names worth 'dropping' !  I Loved them all and often thought how lucky, to have had the great good fortune to have been cast in their productions. Many life-long friendships were born both on Broadway and on those tours.  Among them:  Eddie Bracken (my on-the-road "Papa"); Lee Roy Reams - still on top and still going strong; Annie Russell - ever present welcomed attendee at the SAG-AFTRA Film Society; and Vivian Blaine and Marion Marlowe, who proved that a 'gentle touch' would also yield - Results ! 

Thank you, to ALL artists, for the gifts you have given and continue to give to the world.

Your devoted fan,

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Tomorrow's blog will be..Robert Hocknell's Memories of Hello, Dolly!

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Richard Skipper,                            

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