I really wish I were in New York right now seeing Bette Midler in HELLO, DOLLY! I saw the original 1964 David Merrick-produced, Gower Champion-directed production three* times when I was a teenager -- once with Ginger Rogers and twice with Pearl Bailey -- and from the truly ecstatic reviews I've read, this version measures up to that legendary staging.
This is the fifth revival of DOLLY! on Broadway, but the first full-scale one. (The others were essentially roadshow tours with Channing and Bailey.) From the sound of it, director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, set and costume designer Santo Locasto and lighting designer Natasha Katz do justice to the brilliant work of Champion and his design team of Oliver Smith and Freddie Wittop. Virtually everyone who worked on HELLO DOLLY! never did anything better in their entire careers. (At one point, Champion himself directed nine flops in a row, before his final hit 42ND STREET, which opened the night he died.)
DOLLY was a huge hit, playing 2,844 performances, the longest run of its time. It won ten Tony Awards out of eleven nominations. (The only loser? Charles Nelson Reilly lost out for Best Supporting Actor to Jack Cassidy in SHE LOVES ME. Honest voters.) It was the biggest Tony haul ever until THE PRODUCERS broke that record with twelve awards in 2001. Carol Channing even beat out Barbra Streisand in FUNNY GIRL for Best Actress in a Musical, which I'm sure figured into Streisand's desire to play the part in the movie, a role that she was manifestly wrong for. Dolly Levi is a middle-aged widow; Streisand was 27 when she made the movie.
I vividly recall many great moments from the show – Dolly's "surprise" entrance (which Zaks apparently still uses), the show-stopping, silent eating scene (which Bette apparently crushes), the dances, the title number on the runway built around the orchestra pit – all set in a perfectly rendered, consistent, magic alternative reality. It's an ideal time for this show which recalls a more innocent, hopeful America – young, adventurous, intrepid, love-struck, slightly wacky – where two clerks from Yonkers can find love and happiness on just one day in New York ("It Only Takes A Moment"), an old miser's heart can melt, and a lonely widow can "rejoin the human race."
DOLLY's score – ostensibly by Jerry Herman – is a good-enough, patchwork affair. Herman was sued and settled out of court (without admission of guilt) with songwriter Mack David (Hal's brother) over similarities between David's 1948 hit "Sunflower" and the musical's famous title song. Two songs – "Elegance" and the "Motherhood March" -- were written by Bob Merrill, leftovers from his "New Girl in Town." Charles Strauss and Lee Adams were also called on to help out. But however it was concocted, the score works and gave Champion plenty to work with. There are at least five major dance numbers. I remember those dances as if I just saw them yesterday. His staging concepts were so crisp and witty, and they were perfectly set by Smith and dressed by Wittop. I remember how he made songs that were just OK on the record – say, "It Takes A Woman" – into ingenious cuckoo-clock creations.
But what makes DOLLY! so good is the underlying Thornton Wilder source. I read someplace – I can't locate it now – that Thornton Wilder said something to the effect that he had been working on "The Matchmaker" for twenty-six years (it started as "The Merchant of Yonkers" in 1942), and it wasn't until HELLO, DOLLY! that the play "worked." What it needed was music. (And the intelligent distillation by librettist Michael Stewart.)
It's a well-calibrated farce with a good soul and a good heart. The moral of the show is baldly and beautifully expressed by Dolly herself as she declares her intention to open up her future husband's tightly sealed, well-stuffed pockets:
"Money – pardon my expression – is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread about encouraging young things to grow."
There couldn't be a better message in this time of plutocracy and wealth inequality.Read More
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