James Darrah (Cornelius Hackl with Madeline Kahn and Ambrose Kemper with Carol Channing's 1995 Hello, Dolly company)
James Darrah has the distinction of having appeared with two comic legends in Hello, Dolly! In 1992, James appeared as Cornelius Hackl in Madeline Kahn’s short tour of Dolly under the direction of Lee Roy Reams. Two years later, he would also be directed by Lee Roy, this time with Carol Channing, in her last outing as Dolly Levi. This time around, James played Ambrose Kemper and understudying Cornelius. That tour started in Denver in June 1994 and travel cross country leading to Broadway. Thirty years after winning a Tony Award as Dolly Levi, Carol was still doing eight performances a week and was still getting standing ovations at every show. It would open on October 19, 1995 and play through January 28, 1996 at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre also starring Jay Garner.
Manny Kladitis was producer of that tour and revival.
James negotiated all his contracts directly with Manny. When it came to certain things, of course, James’ agent negotiated certain things. James liked Manny a lot. He was all business. What he liked about was that he was very straight forward to James about how much money was to be had. Ultimately, what everyone is trying to get is more money. James didn’t have the bar set too high. Although he was doing a principal role, there was quite a “lineup at the trough” ahead of him. At the top of the heap was Carol. James had worked in other shows with people’s names above the title. That is the bankroll right there.
|Channing and Darrah, Photo courtesy: James Darrah|
James credits Lee Roy Reams for his being part of this revival.
|Attn: James Darrah|
James had understudied Lee Roy in 42nd Street in 1981. There was a production of 42nd Street that they did in Tokyo for NHK Television/ (Japan Broadcasting Corporation) is Japan's national public broadcasting organization. The plan was to bring it to the states and show it on HBO. Lee Roy was playing Billy Lawlor. It never made it to HBO. Somewhere in the transition, something happened. They had a great time. Lee Roy seems genetically predisposed to always have a good time.
Years pass and James goes in to audition for the Madeline Kahn Dolly. James had not seen Lee Roy in a long time. James gave a great audition but felt he was all wrong for Cornelius. Since felt he was all wrong for the role, he just threw caution to the wind and held nothing back. He didn’t know anything about the production. He had seen Dolly, but really didn’t know the production. Cornelius is a remarkable role.
James would like to revisit Dolly. In a big house, he could still play Cornelius. Because he is older, he would probably relax more. He feels that he did the role justice. The notices were positive. His maturity would allow him to go back and get into the role and be a little bit more definitive in terms of some of the choices he would make.
With Ambrose, as with Cornelius, he would want to go back in and see what he had done and see if he could do more or even come at it from a different approach. In the Channing production, he had a lot of freedom with his characterizations, but within certain parameters. Number one, you have to do service to the author’s text. The author tells you on the page what is there and also if it’s not there, you can’t play it. James was told very often, prior to working with Carol, that she gets very settled in doing what she does on stage. He was told to make up his mind what he was going to do and to do the same thing every night. When you work with someone who does the same thing every night like clockwork, and you do something different, the potential of throwing them is great. That is true when you are dealing with someone who wants to go to work and put in the key and start the engine and put it into drive and not take it out of drive until the show is over.
To begin with, that is the perception James had of Carol and that’s how he embarked upon this show. He created a structure for himself, to find what was going to work and to settle into that the best he could. Also, with Dolly, you are playing a style of comedy where you mine as much of the comedy gold as you possibly can.
When you’re standing next to a master, you identify what your role is James’ role was straight man. Carol was the comic. Thornton Wilder’s writing is permeable in that it sometimes you are sometimes the straight man and sometimes you are the comic. James knew who the spotlight was going to be on and so did Carol and so did Lowe. In terms of settling in, James had spent many years with Ringling Brothers.
He knew that you could work on something where it was going to be physically funny. In comedy, you have to give comedy breathing room to see how funny it is or can be to the audience. Once you found it, it’s ok to settle into it. With Carol, although she settles into what she is doing, she is going to do her thing night after night, she is NOT an actress who puts in the key and puts the car in automatic pilot.
Go and watch Dori Berenstein’s film, Carol Channing: Larger Than Life. There is no doubt that Carol learned from the greats, including George Burns.
He just knew that he had to go in there and make bold choices. He was so nervous at the beginning of the Channing rehearsals.
He had such a good time with Madeline Kahn and Cornelius is such a great role. They had a great time, not that he didn’t with Carol. The Madeline experience was entirely different from Carol Channing AND Broadway.
This company was a family, and as a family you endure the ups and downs of a typical family. Probably one of the most difficult things was losing their conductor before coming to Broadway. Florence Lacey, Irene Molloy’s husband, Tim Stella, was the conductor on the road. Carol and Charles were unhappy with Tim, although the rest of the cast loved him. Jack Everly took over prior to Broadway. James does not know too much about what happened in that department. He did, however, as well as the rest of the company, feel a shift. Personally, James did not feel that it was for the better. Tim knew the show like a parent knows the breathing of their child. To get someone knew in, if you’re going to wave the stick, sure, but it’s apples and oranges, it’s a different animal. James thought it was an awfully bold thing to do and risky.
He was the third contracted player from the left. James’ job, actually, was the first person to play a scene with Carol. He felt that his job was to get out there and set Carol up to start the show and set the tone for the evening. Setting her up well was to be focused and strong and on his game.
There is one particular moment that took place in the hat shop that comes to mind, when she has the line, “Dinner first…garnishee afterwards.”
Carol would do a hand gesture. She was trying to find where the laugh would really hit. Playing comedy is playing comedy. James remembers talking to her about it offstage and casually asking her how it was going. She would say, “Did you see that last night? How did you think it was?”
There was something about the hand gesture. Should it come after “Dinner first…”? The inflection of the voice with the hand gesture after it, she spent hours on. She hit upon what would work and the audience went ballistic. It was the strangest thing but it really does come down to the timing.
Here she was thirty years later still perfecting EVERY nuance of Dolly. When she felt she had found it, she said, “I have to make a note of it.”
She had a full evening to carry. You try and be in the moment of the show and let it go so you can be more organic. Some of that mapping that is important to the comic rhythm of the scene can fly out the window because you’re enjoying yourself a little too much.
James believes that there is a future for Dolly and that future audiences WILL be interested. Hello, Dolly! is an exceptional piece of American Musical Theater.
Tyne Daly could most certainly play Dolly today AND sell tickets. She would rock the house. James also believes that Christine Baranski could play Dolly. It would be a different kind of quality. Tyne is a little more bawdy.
James saw Christine play Mame at Kennedy Center in DC. He thought she did a fine job with that. Dolly takes a tremendous amount of chops in an actress.
In terms of younger actresses, James is not quite sure who could take on the role. He would like to see Queen Latifa play Dolly (ME, TOO!) I’ve been saying that for a long time.
James saw the 1975 Pearl Bailey Billy Daniels revival.
He thought it was terrific. He thought it was a good strong production. James shares a Lee Roy Reams story that I have also heard from various sources. As the story goes, the tour was winding down. One night she came out on stage with a rolling rack with all of her costumes on it. She said to the audience that she was tired and that it was too hot. Therefore, that night, she would not be changing costumes but that she wanted the audience to see what she would have worn and in what scenes!
James absolutely considers Dolly in the top five productions of his career. The seven shows that didn’t make it to Broadway, thirty percent of his involvement in those shows, he would attribute to youth and naiveté. When producers tell you that shows are going to Broadway to get you to sign a contract, oftentimes, its bait and hook.
What puts Dolly above the others is Carol. What an amazing opportunity to do that anniversary production with her, also, the fact that Jerry Herman was around and the fact that they did Gower’s choreography and the fact that they had Oliver Smith’s scenic design (although altered a bit) for more modern theaters now.
Lee Roy, as a director, brings his life experiences to the table. The depth of knowledge that Lee Roy holds in his hand is more than many people working today are going to get in a lifetime. Lee Roy also did Cornelius in the 1977 tour and Broadway revival. He also did Applause with Lauren Bacall. He made his Broadway debut in Sweet Charity in 1966.
He is a gypsy who worked his way up. Reams were nominated for both the Tony and Drama Desk Awards as Best Featured Actor in a Musical for his performance in the original production of 42nd Street in 1980. He played the role of Frank Schultz in the 1989 Paper Mill Playhouse production of Show Boat, which was televised on Great Performances by PBS .
The theater is an apprenticeship based program. In the “old days”, you would go to acting school. Even before acting schools really were a vital part of the economic health of colleges around the world and this country. You would get into acting companies and tour and tour. You would get your experience, get your legs, and learn how to act from the people around you acting. You would stand in the wings and watch the great actors act to see how they dealt with the moment. You would have the opportunities in those companies to sometimes sit down and have dinner with them and talk about their process. That part of show business is being watered down. It’s not being lost; it still exists. It is now being qualified by what James calls “rock and roll theater”, where you hire the kids right out of school.
|From the ORIGINAL company of Dolly|
They have the technique, they have training, they have the skills, but they have no experience.
Real shiny, glossy pieces of material is being produced that you cannot connect with because it has no depth. They are up there for no particular reason than, “They told me to kick this high. They told me to smile more.” For James, turning to Lee Roy as a director, all of his questions were coming from deep inside.
James reached deep inside Lee Roy as an entertainer and as a director. The room was always fun. You always had a feeling that you were contributing. Lee Roy let you try almost anything. He is a very hands on director. He was right there in the midst of it. Bill Bateman, choreographer, would be off doing his job.
|Carol and Charles|
They had about twelve weeks. By that time, James felt like he was just settling in. With the Carol Dolly, James continued to tweak because he wanted to not settle in. He wanted to find something more in it. Touring the country, there were also physical changes you had to make from time to time. For example, the space between the wings and the sets, the depth of the stage, etc. Those things changed from theater to theater. That could also change a little bit of your timing and/or rhythm.
|Three Legends of Comedy: Jack Benny, Channing, George Burns|
They had a ten to fifteen minute discussion about lighting.
When James first found out that he was going to be doing Dolly with the original, Carol Channing, he was thrilled. He was intimidated, not scared. He knew that she was great. Working with Madeline, he thought she was one of the greatest comediennes out there. She was a wonderful actress. Not to get the focus off of Carol here, but James had worked with other celebrities of huge statures and huge reputations for being amazing comediennes, and they were.
He knew that he wasn’t relaxed and he couldn’t put his finger on how that translated into what he wasn’t giving her in the scene. He didn’t sense, “You better get better or you’re out.” He did have the sense that this needed to be coming along a little father because they would be moving on to the next scene. He went home and did some work and he made notes and did a lot of thinking and some acting study, and he realized he had to put up this wall around the Ambrose character. The character is basically saying, “Listen, Mrs. Levi! I’m not going to take any s!@# off of you.” Comedy really generates from conflict. They were having a run through of Act One the next day. James felt it was a real test. James spoke with Lee Roy about it because he was nervous. Lee Roy told him to go further than he thought he should go. It’s always easy to trip and go back. What James was saying seemed very reasonable and very right. Lee Roy told him to turn up all the dials. They did the run through the next day. James blew the roof off of Dolly Levi in that scene.
|Robert Kennedy and Channing 1965|
James ALWAYS saw Carol as a “real person”, but acting opposite her was formidable. All of that “mishigas”, however, was James’ own creation. James was just going to do his job. Carol came up to him at that first preview in Denver and asked him a question that did not have to do with Hello, Dolly! It was the first time she engaged him in a conversation because she was always busy. Carol and James became friends. They had a lot of times in the wings each performance before the show began. He tried to engage her in conversation on anything under the sun except the show business.
She was able to speak to everything.
When it comes to the way that James wants Carol Channing to be remembered, he can’t decide between her work ethic or how smart she is. Carol IS one of the hardest working people that James has ever met. At her age at that time, seventy-four, not just getting up their eight times a week and never missing a performance, but getting up the next morning and doing interviews, and after the show, doing phone interviews, and then flying, and then doing more.
Carol was the real deal.
James’ thoughts on Charles Lowe: Charles and Carol and James would get together for lunch and oftentimes for dinner after the show. Charles and Carol knew the owners of Ringling Brothers’ Circus who James had worked for.
Charles and Carol loved the circus. They would get together and they wanted to hear circus stories. THAT’S what they talked about. They would also talk about books and films. James liked Charles a lot. When Charles got sick and left the tour, James was asked to travel with Carol just to make sure that she was provided for.
|with Ladybird Johnson|
Any of that "stuff” that happened after all that was really out of James’ radar. He had no exposure to it.
What Hello, Dolly means to James goes back to Thornton Wilder’s writing. “Money, if you’ll pardon the expression…is not worth a damn unless it’s spread around encouraging things to grow.”
The quality of someone’s life is created. James knows that to be true. Dolly, for James, is a message to the people that it doesn’t matter who you are or what you are.
You can be a ditch digger who once had a wonderful day. It’s all there in the text. The Dolly experience for James puts the nail in the coffin for that point of view. He has always felt that way personally. It lines up with James’ personal philosophy in Jerry Herman, in Michael Stewart’s writing, in Carol’s performance, in Lee Roy’s direction, and Bill Bateman’s work as choreographer with his energy, and the cast that James still keeps in touch with.
Everybody latched on to that. It didn’t matter who you were or what you were doing. They were all the same under the skin. They were all pulling for the same goal, to be a fabulous human being.
Thank you James Darrah for the gifts you have given to the world and will continue to give!
Check out my site celebrating my forthcoming book on Hello, Dolly!
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