Coeur D’Aline Summer Theater ‘s Artistic Director Roger Welch on Hello, Dolly!

Roger Welch

Roger Welch is the artistic director of the Coeur D’Aline Summer Theater in Coeur D’Aline, Idaho. For over ten years. Established in 1967, Coeur d'Alene Summer Theatre (CST) is Idaho's oldest performing arts organization, becoming a non-profit corporation in 1984, CST specializes in production of full-scale Broadway musicals during a 12-week, 36-performance season during the months of June, July, and August. CST performs in The Schuler Auditorium Performing Arts Center in the campus of North Idaho College by the shore of Lake Coeur d'Alene in scenic Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. 
It is a pretty unique organization. It is kind of in the middle of nowhere. It’s not far from Spokane, Washington. 
It is a gorgeous little town that has a thriving arts scene. They were named one of the top ten summer theaters in the country by USA Today. They are very proud of what they can accomplish with their budget. They have amazing designers. Roger’s number one goal is to make this a great place to work for artists. His second goal is to bring diversity and theater to this community so that it will become a nationally recognized theater. One of his goals each season is to present a show that shows racial diversity. They will include Ragtime or a show in which he can cast across the board. 
Their production of Hello, Dolly was a racially diverse cast. There were two African American actors and one Asian actor cast. Roger does that on purpose. He thinks it is important that these young actors are given a chance. He doesn’t think about race however. Talent is talent as far as he is concerned. Certainly in the ensemble he is very open minded. Entire conversations can be had on color blind casting. Coeur D’Aline is a Republican town but his audiences tend to be very open minded. He does want his audiences to know that there are more stories to be told out there other than Oklahoma!  Roger achieves that. Coeur D’Aline Summer Theater has become Roger’s life work.      
Roger's introduction to Hello, Dolly!
In the ten years in which Roger has been artistic director, he has directed two productions of Hello, Dolly, BOTH starring Ellen Travolta as the irrepressible Dolly Levi. Roger’s first introduction to Hello, Dolly was through the film starring Barbra Streisand. 
He loves the film. He thinks Michael Kidd’s choreography is fantastic. He thinks it is some of the best film choreography ever. Barbra Streisand’s vocals were spectacular. It has been said that she was too young to play Dolly. That didn’t bother Roger at the time. Seeing her in Dolly for the first time, he had nothing to compare it to. 
As time has moved on, newer audiences have the same take on the film. He would agree that the role is more interesting when played by an older actress. He does feel that it worked for Barbra and having those vocals was totally worth it.
 Roger is first and foremost an actor and that is what initially brought him to the Coeur D’Aline Summer Theater.
 In 1986, he was hired as an actor. He did several seasons and in between would work in other places as an actor. He appeared as part of the Florida Shakespeare Festival, Seattle Theater, and a couple of tours. 
 In 1994, he was offered at Coeur D’Aline Summer Theater the position of artistic director. He has been

One of the many productions Coeur D'Aline's audiences have enjoyed

there ever since. He was only planning on being there a couple of years. The theater has a trajectory that has kind of evolved.
  It has brought the right people together a the right time and it has become a very successful organization.

Although it is a summer stock theater, they also do a Christmas show. They do other special projects here and there. Coeur D’Aline is a resort town.
 A lot of people come there for the summer and this theater has become a part of that.
 Hello, Dolly was the first show that Roger ever choreographed. He actually started out as a choreographer which led to him becoming a director.
He ended up playing Cornelius in that production. That was his first job as choreographer/actor.
Roger was artistic director at Coeur D’Aline for six years before he did Hello, Dolly the first time there.

Enter Ellen Travolta. She and her husband, Jack Bannon, had become residents at Coeur D’Aline and audience favorites at the theater.
Ellen and Jack have become their resident stars. Roger was constantly on the lookout for projects that would showcase them. Ellen starred in Gypsy and Mame. Dolly was a natural fit on so many levels. Ellen has served on the board. She has been in charge of fundraising for the theater and special events.
She brought her brother in to do a special event that raised a lot of money for the theater. This is not your typical summer stock theater. This theater is more like a regional theater that just operates in the summer.  They have a twenty piece orchestra with a huge proscenium stage and eleven hundred seats. It is a pretty amazing operation.
As mentioned earlier, they have done two productions of Dolly…both starring Ellen Travolta. The first was in 2000. It was done again this past summer. There was a newfound poignancy in Ellen’s performance twelve years later.
Her monologue asking Ephraim to let her go was so beautiful. Roger gets teary eyed thinking about it. It was so much deeper than he remembered it from the first time she did it. The production values were also so much bigger because the theater has grown over the past twelve years. 
They are very fortunate that they are so close to Spokane Washington.  They are able to grab a lot of their summer players looking for work. They have some of the best actors around. A lot of theaters have been downsizing. Some are now using tracks instead of LIVE musicians. Roger has always been committed to use live great musical because most of their focus is on musicals.
Ellen Travolta is a good singer and a great actress. Hello, Dolly is really great for her because she has a style about her that is so engaging. She hits all the right notes but her charisma and her playfulness is intoxicating. Audiences just love to watch her. She is so much fun to watch. 
In her playfulness with the audience in those moments where the fourth wall is broken, there is always a “wink, wink, nudge nudge” but she never went to the sense of distraction. It was always in the moment.
Roger absolutely loved this recent production of Dolly. He thought the choreography was fantastic, the sets were beautiful, they had a train that came on stage. This connection of Ellen’s husband, Jack Bannon, brought a very natural chemistry to the show. 
To have the whole community know that they are together brought an added special beautiful connection.
Prior to doing Dolly the first time, Roger took Ellen to see a production in Portland. 
Ellen felt before this that Hello, Dolly was not a good vehicle for her. Roger felt otherwise and told her not to make up her mind until they saw it. After the show, she said, “Yes! I can do that.”
Other Dollys that Roger has seen over the years include the original, Carol Channing. “She was hilarious.” Roger absolutely loved her. Knowing the piece as he does, Roger sees the character more of a matchmaker and less of a yenta. Carol didn’t play that at all and yet became the most famous Dolly. When Ellen did it, she added more of that style to her portrayal. 
She was more specific to the character. She captured that matchmaker side in the cadence of her voice. What Carol did was amazingly unique and so entertaining. He can’t put his finger on it. She is such a unique individual and that’s what makes stars happen, their uniqueness. For a May 1989 Playbill, Al Hirschfeld was asked to identify his favorite creation:"...since I am asked to pin a gold star on one performer out of this remarkable diadem, I have chosen Carol Channing because she looks exactly like Carol Channing."
Roger fell in love with Dolly when he played Cornelius. He remembers singing “Out there…” and the spotlight hitting him and thinking “this is cool.” The music of the show is so amazing. That love solidified the first time he directed it. Roger considers the scene leading into Dancing through the end of Act One is a perfect piece of theater. 
It is absolutely flawless. That is Roger’s favorite part of the show and he could watch it over and over again. Sometimes he would just step into the theater each night to watch. It always moved him. He realized watching it that this is a perfect show.
There are some people who have been subscribers at Coeur D’Aline for forty years and have been to every show they’ve ever done. They have also grown a lot in their audience numbers so there are a lot of new audiences as well. With Dolly, there was also an added element of people who were there just to see Ellen.
Ellen is one of the most amazing women that Roger has ever met. She is so interesting and interested in everything. She has more energy than he will ever have according to him. She eats life. She makes every moment special. Picking up a piece of fruit is a party for her. He cannot say enough about her. He loves her. She has the spirit of his mother and his best friend all rolled into one. What she brings to Dolly specifically is what the character is. Dolly makes magic wherever she goes. 
She makes something simple into something spectacular. This production of Dolly was very much a lot of Ellen.  
As a director, Roger feels his job is to, first of all, hire good people and let them do their job. That is Roger’s motto. That’s ninety percent of it. It is also his responsibility to create a safe environment so that they can do their best work.  When they can’t find it, it’s his duty to help them find it. He does what he can to make them most successful. It is also up to him to hold true to the author’s vision, and then to give it his own touches. His nickname is “Bitsy” because he loves doing bits. 
Madeline Kahn as Dolly
Madeline Kahn said to Lee Roy Reams when he was directing her, “I don’t do bits!” The eating scene was a joy for Roger. Not only did Ellen bring what she brought to it, but Roger would give her some great bits of business. He also gives the “Jesus” speech on opening night.
As a director, Roger absolutely gives pep talks to his cast.
The show was not altered for Ellen in any way whatsoever. Roger didn’t change a word. He didn’t need to. He also is not supposed to! He just allowed her to be herself. As stated, she has a great East coast energy that plays so well with that dialogue. 
It was very close to home for her. She is from Englewood, New Jersey.
Roger already knew it was a great Dolly the last time they did it. Ellen has never asked to do any roles. The seasons are put together by Roger and he goes back to the board with their suggestions. The suggestions are put before a vote. The board was ecstatic with the suggestion of Ellen Travolta in Hello, Dolly. Anytime Ellen does a show, their numbers do very well.
She either does one show or nothing each season. As of this writing, she is not scheduled to do anything next season. She approached Roger and said, “I think I want to do Dolly again.” Roger said, “Done. Let’s do it.”  
Andrew Ware Lewis
Ellen’s husband, Jack Bannon, who played Horace Vandergelder, is one of the most amazing actors Roger has ever worked with. Roger has had the good fortune to appear on stage with him a couple of times. They did two productions of Tuesdays with Morrie. He is also one of Roger’s dearest friends. He is a mentor.  He is a champion and one of the sweetest men Roger knows. Again, he cannot say enough about him. He is a great guy.
Their Cornelius was Andrew Ware Lewis. Andrew was cast because of his sweetness and a great innocence that he has about him. 
Roger just knew right away that he would be a perfect Cornelius.      
The costume designer was Jessica Ray and she did a spectacular job. She was definitely influenced by Freddy Wittop’s original design. They still hold such an iconic look so naturally the red Dolly gown is called for with the red feathered head dress. She designed for Ellen’s body in her look for Dolly. There were no corsets! Everything was created specifically for Ellen. Roger desired to create an entire pastel look for Sunday Clothes but it was beyond their budget, so Jessica did what she could within her means and it very pretty. Everything with this production was pretty straight forward. The waiters were what audiences were expecting. Roger stuck with people desire to see.
Ellen Travolta as Dolly
Roger absolutely thinks about Before the Passes By a lot. He has a great life and an awesome job. He has a lot of freedom to go and perform still. He is still in New York a lot. He often thinks about “maybe I should do this or that” and he doesn’t follow through. He always thinks about the message of   Before the Passes By. He wants to go and taste Saturday’s high life. He wants a goal again, a drive again, he wants to feel his heart coming alive again. These are such great lyrics and this is a life lesson. It is about stepping out of one’s comfort zone and doing something about something that one has always thought about.
Roger thinks that the title song specifically has contributed to the lasting endurance of Hello, Dolly! 
It is a true show stopper. It is constructed perfectly. It builds perfectly. It elicits sustained applause at the end. It receives standing ovations most of the time. Some people may think of Dolly as a gold-digger, but not only is she saving herself, she is saving Horace…and she is saving Irene. She is saving them all. Audiences walk away with a sense of hope. That is the influence Hello, Dolly has had on audiences worldwide for 49 years. Sometimes they may not even realize it, but it is there subconsciously.
Roger has never had a bad experience with Dolly beyond bad tech days.
When it comes to Jerry Herman, Roger thinks he is one of the best writers in the history of the theater, especially with songs like Mame and Hello, Dolly!  Those songs are known all over the world. Roger wishes that he had written more. Mame is one of Roger’s favorite shows. The kind of music that is coming out of theater now cannot compare with this. It has changed. Shows like Next to Normal are important but there aren’t good old fashioned show tunes that the audience can exit humming.
Roger's life partner Mark Cotter, John Travolta, Roger
Closing night of Hello, Dolly at the Coeur D’Aline became a family affair. Ellen’s brother, John and his wife, Kelly, were in attendance. He loved the show. He didn’t get a chance to see it the last time Ellen did it and he was off the wall in his excitement. Afterward, they all went to this hotel in Spokane and had a party. John spoke and said the show really moved him and thanked Roger for giving Ellen this opportunity. He said it was such a gift to see his sister do something like this. He told Roger that he was cast as Barnaby and rehearsed it. Unfortunately, the show never happened. The theater went under but, fortunately for John, he went into Over Here starring The Andrews Sisters on Broadway.
As stated above, Roger Welch thinks Hello, Dolly is one of the perfect musicals. It is flawless in its construction. It also has great music. Dancing to the end of Act One is his favorite chunk of musical theater.

Thank you Roger Welch for the gifts you have given to the world and continue to give!

With grateful XOXOXs ,

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