Friday, August 30, 2013

Jeffrey B. Moss: Revisiting Dolly



Sally Struthers and Company (Alhambra Theater's production of Hello Dolly!
Emmy Award-winning actress Sally Struthers will star in a 50th anniversary tour of the Tony Award-winning Jerry Herman musical Hello, Dolly!,which will launch at the Edward Nash Theatre in Somerville, NJ, in October. This will be the first time the show has toured the country since Carol Channing last took her “to the provinces” in 1996, also her last tour. This is not the first time that Struthers has played Dolly. She has made the part her own in various regional theaters over the past ten years. Jeffrey B. Moss is also no stranger to Dolly. He directed Mimi Hines and Phil Ford in a production that toured the country before taking it to Asia.
Jeffrey and I sat down a few months ago to discuss Dolly. I wanted to wait till a closer time to write in order to bring more attention to the production I, for one, am anxious to see.
Jeffrey’s aunt Laurette Moss was Ethel Merman’s first manager. She used to regale him with stories about
Hello, Ethel Merman!
her. This was before Merman was famous, so Jeffrey grew up on these show business stories.
The first Broadway show that Jeffrey Moss saw was Ethel Merman in Happy Hunting. His Aunt Laurette took him.  Later on, Jeffrey would also see Merman in Dolly!
Jeffrey’s foray into the theater was as a scenic designer. He also designed Dolly, early on in his career, in the round. He also did a couple of productions, as a designer in stock. His first directing job on Dolly was Mimi Hine’s National and Asian tours.
When Jeffrey first did the scenic design for Dolly in the round, the director was Richard Barstow. The producer was Lee Guber. Richard was the director of the Ringling Brothers Circus. He used to work for Lee Guber in the summer. Richard was a little “crazy”. He told Jeffrey that he wanted all of these “cake platforms” for the production. Jeffrey had no idea what he was talking about. Cake Platforms are what elephants stand on in the circus! Although Jeffrey tried, he could not make it work. Richard was eventually replaced. He had a nervous breakdown in the pre production. Neal Kenyon, who directed Dames at Sea, was brought in and together, he and Jeffrey, salvaged the production.
Years later, Jeffrey got the rights to produce a tour of Dolly! He was looking for a star and Mimi Hines happened to be a friend. He had seen her years later in Funny Girl.
Mimi played Funny Girl longer than any other actress.


Hines replaced Streisand and toured the show. She was a legend to Jeffrey and he thought that was a great idea. She had two major elements needed for Streisand, she was a great comedienne and a great singer. It was a love affair and a wonderful experience. This tour played all over the country before embarking for an Asian tour. In the States, the tour consisted of split weeks, one nights, and a few full weeks. The tour went from October till May.
Prior to Dolly, Jeffrey had produced 30 Broadway shows in Asia of all kinds. That include Broadway, rock and roll concerts, and even classical concerts. The Asian bookers came to see Mimi in Dolly, liked her, and they moved forward on this.
Of course, with Mimi came Mimi’s husband and frequent co-star, Phil Ford. That was exactly as Jeffrey desired it. They both were at their prime at the time of this production. There was very little negotiation, as far as money was concerned. They both desired to do it.
Mimi was a STAR. When she appeared on stage, audiences could not keep their eyes off of her. In an era of knowing what Mary Martin and Carol Channing, for example, was like on stage, Jeffrey KNEW a star when he saw one. He had seen various actresses play Dolly; some were stars, some were not. Mimi had a magnetic quality about her. Looking at the overall production, Jeffrey feels it is primarily Cornelius’ story, in a way. He is taking on this adventure and Dolly, in a way, is following him. She is the magnet. When the production team began to form Dolly, as we now know it, the focus began to lean towards Dolly. It is, of course, The Matchmaker.
Jeffrey has never done a production of The Matchmaker. When Jeffrey was in college at Penn State, there was a tour that the Phoenix Theater did of The Matchmaker. Jeffrey distinctly remembers saying to a friend of his at the time, “This would make a great musical!” He still has the program for that production. His premonition was right, it became a wonderful musical. It is very different but it is very much the same. The plots are a little different.
Shirley MacLaine and Anthony Perkins in the film version of The Matchmaker

Playing Dolly in Asia, the audiences got laughs that were not always there with not always there with audiences. There were no translation issues. They are people. They get it. It is a well written story with well written comedy. Joe Styne used to tell Jeffrey the story of when they took Fiddler on the Roof to Japan in Japanese. When it opened, Joe Styne was asked how he, a Jew from New York, could write a story about them! Both Hello, Dolly and Fiddler have universal messages.
There have been no other Dollys in the interim since Mimi Hines. 
It has been at least twenty years. All the elements are coming together to make this national tour, the first since Channing did it in ’96, with Sally Struthers succeed on all counts.
Obviously, Jeffrey likes Dolly. As stated earlier, this show has not been on the road since Channing’s last tour. There is a market for it. It’s not like a “commercial” production in which Jeffrey decides that he likes something and therefore decides to find a way to get it produced. The road is about what twenty-five weeks of buyers in various cities put in their theaters. Will they pick THIS title or THAT title?
There is an agent that puts the cities in place.
As of this writing the tour is slated for twenty-two weeks. As with Mimi’s production and Carol’s last tour, there are one-nighters, split weeks, and full weeks. This is the first time that Jeffrey and Sally have worked together. Earlier this year, Jeffrey went to see Nancy Opel as Dolly at The Ford’s  Theater in Washington DC. At that time, Sally was appearing in The Full Monty in DC and he went to see that show as well. He and Sally have a few mutual friends. Charles Strouse, who also has a Dolly connection (check out my interview with him), is a mutual friend. He also wrote the theme for All in the Family and Sally has also played Miss Hannigan in Annie the last time the show was in New York.

The show itself always hits the mark as far as Jeffrey is concerned. It always rings true with an audience. There are things in the words and songs that are very powerful. There are aspects that touch people in terms of their desires. In It Only Takes a Moment, Cornelius says, “There I was cooped up and there were things out there that I didn’t know I desired.” There are little kernels of “Our Town-isms”. As far as the individual Dollys are concerned, have they all communicated to Jeffrey, as an audience member, everything that could be mined from the role? 
There have been Dollys who have not done that.
An actress is a person who reads a script and begins to discover what it is about and puts that on the stage. 
A performer is someone who does what they do all the time. Sally Struthers is an actress.
The first rehearsal is September 16th. Sally has the added advantage of having played the role before in various productions regionally. They have a three week rehearsal before they go out and tech it. Those first few days in the process are very important to Jeffrey, especially with someone who has played the role. Even more importantly when they’ve played the role before to find out what they think of this character, to find out what discoveries they are going to make in this book that Jeffrey has never seen before. He just did My Fair Lady for the third time. In the tea scene in Mrs. Higgins’ house, when Henry comes in running after Eliza, Mrs. Higgins says, “Don’t run after him now, dear. Stay here. You’re a lady now.” Henry says to Eliza in the middle of that scene, ”Yes, I’ve heard that before…” This particular actor playing this scene and saying those lines delivered them in such a way that made Jeffrey realize for the very first time that Henry had been called awkward before and that made Jeffrey realize why he was the way he was. Higgins had never been able to complete a relationship before. It was just one sentence delivered in a way that an actor chose to say those words and what he was thinking. They stopped and talked about it. It began to influence other choices that they were going to make later. It influenced Jeffrey in his staging for I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face, not where he stood. For Jeffrey, it was all about putting the key in the door. He couldn’t. It was too hard. Now he had bravura around him to prevent those arrows that she had seen. That was a whole new discovery. There will be discoveries that Jeffrey and Sally will make together although they both have been involved in previous productions of Dolly. Having seen Sally on stage and being very familiar with her work, Jeffrey is very excited about this partnership. That presence is exciting. Jeffrey doesn’t have to make that happen. 
It is already there for him to harness.
Audiences of my generation know her as Gloria Stivic. Jeffrey has never seen her play Dolly. Sally bears the burden of Gloria. Most people who have had the luxury of owning such an iconic role also share in similar circumstances. That was a long time ago but it is seen on television every day still. The fact is that she is not that person. She can sing and audiences are going to fall in love with her. Audiences already realize that she is a comedienne. TV has the disadvantage of making people believe that that is who they are
as opposed to actors playing a role. The perspective is different from seeing someone play a role one night in the theater. Sally Struthers has a star quality about her that audiences will be happy to see. The aspect of a theatrical performance from her, from audiences who have never experienced her on stage, are in for a pleasant surprise.
There are twenty six members of this company. The music will also be LIVE. 
They are still deciding on the size. Speaking of the music, there are some interesting things in store. You’ll have to see! They are not taking anything away from the orchestrations. They are merely adding to it. Jeffrey is going back to what he believes is the original INTENT of Gower’s on the overall feel of the production. It was an entertainment. “You don’t do So Long, Dearie in “one” without knowing that Gower was going for a music hall feel. 
Riverside Theater in 2011
Jeffrey wants to get back to those feelings. The opening will reflect on that with the “vaudeville” drops.
They will be teching at a college campus theater just outside of New York. It is very user friendly and then they are off and running. This is being produced by Big League. 
Jeffrey is onboard solely as the director and does not have the itinerary in his head! This Dolly is allowing Jeffrey to also revisit some of the scenic elements. It opens in October and plays through April 2014 coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the show opening on Broadway.
Jeffrey would like to see a Broadway revival. He easily sees Sally in that position. A dream Dolly is also Bette Midler. He even imagines a wonderful jewel box production.
Jeffrey acknowledges that Gower was a genius in terms of the entire vision he had with this show. The pieces all come together. The choreographer for this production is Bob Richard. Jeffrey says that Gower’s influence cannot be denied. The Waiter’s Gallop cannot be denied nor certain visions within the Dolly number. Should there be women in the Dolly number? Jeffrey thinks not. The essence is that Dolly is singing to these guys. It’s not by accident that it is Manny, Harry, Louie, etc. 
“Clara” is not one of the waitresses in the number. Could they be chefs running in from the kitchen or running in from the back? Absolutely! The structure of certain things, Jeffrey believes, need to be in place. Does he believe the It Takes a Woman number should be done EXACTLY the way Gower did it? No, although that was a lot of fun. It should definitely be just men, however.
It is unfolding the way it is unfolding now. When they get to rehearsal, they don’t necessarily know how it will unfold at this point. He knows what the show is going to look like. He envisions a maypole of ribbons for Ribbons Down My Back leading into Dancing. It’s just a new idea having nothing to do with Gower
Champion.
The only missteps that Jeffrey has seen as far as Dolly is concerned over the years are in miscasting. Once again, one has to look back at the intent of the show. Why did the original collaborators come together on Dolly and what compelled them to move forward? Why was Charles Nelson Reilly cast as Cornelius. Why was Eileen Brennan cast as Mrs. Molloy? Were they Michael Stewart’s friends? Maybe. How much of the characters were built around them? What is the secret of Mrs. Molloy? “When a dull soprano or someone who doesn’t get it is cast in that role or some earthy dame who just wants to play the role, you’re in real trouble.” In It Only Takes a Moment, Cornelius Hackl goes from a thirty three year old boy to a thirty three year old man. 
This is a guy who hasn’t quite figured himself out yet at the top of the show nor has he found his confidence. What people forget about Charles Nelson Reilly is that there was innocence about him. The audience desired to take care of him. He was everyman and audiences wanted to follow him. He wants Mrs. Molloy. He wants to be in love. It all comes out in that wonderful speech at the end. If it is not cast with those elements in place, the show is in real trouble. If Minnie Fay is cast as just a “Minnie Mouse” with a funny squeaky voice and the casting doesn’t get who she is with all of her opinions, she’s a goner. One girl, who had played the role before, came in to audition and Jeffrey thought no way, she was obnoxious.
Jeffrey admits that he has made mistakes in casting and has lived to regret it! He could not wait for the closing!!

Sally Struthers is going to hit it out of the park every night! Jeffrey and Sally both will arrive at the first rehearsal already knowing what the show is about. All of the agendas and past histories of both will come together to make something really exciting.
Hello, Dolly speaks for itself. “You sit back and say ‘these boys knew how to write a show’” 
It is not over written. In the rehearsal process just listening to actors saying the lines sans costumes, it comes through loud and clear how solid this material is. The arc from the moment Dolly says to Cornelius, “Put your hand on her waist and stand…” straight through to the curtain falling at the end of Act One is a perfect piece of theater.
All of the emotions of the entire show are captured right there. There is a reason why each character is placed where they are on stage. The show asks all the right questions. When those questions are answered honestly and truthfully, you have a hit show no matter what the show looks like. Desire to set the entire show in a railroad station? IF it is honest, it WILL succeed!
For more info, please visit Big League Website

Thank you Jeffrey B. Moss for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!
Can't wait to see this production!


 With grateful XOXOXs ,

 

Please check out our PSA for Carol Channing to receive a 2013 Kennedy Center Honor 


Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
If any of you reading this have appeared in any production of Dolly, I'm interested in speaking with YOU!




If you have anything to add or share, please contact me at Richard@RichardSkipper.com.



NO COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT INTENDED.  FOR ENTERTAINMENT PURPOSES ONLY!





When it comes to the history of Jerry Herman’s brilliant production, beyond the 5000+ performances of my own, even I turn to Richard Skipper when I have questions about the remarkable ladies who followed me in the role that the world fell in love with over 50 years ago.”-Carol Channing

              
My next blog will be...Samantha Rehr: Hello, Dolly through the eyes of a fifteen year old High School Dolly!


Thank you, to all the mentioned in this blog!


  


TILL TOMORROW...HERE'S TO AN ARTS FILLED DAY
Richard Skipper, Richard@RichardSkipper.com                            
 

This Blog is dedicated to ALL THE DOLLYS and ANYONE who has EVER had a connection with ANY of them on ANY Level!





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