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.
I have a special affection for HELLO, DOLLY! That's pretty obvious: why else would I have seen it three times? As I said, I never saw the original cast (with Carol Channing, Charles Nelson Reilly, Eileen Brennan, David Burns, etc.) but caught up when Ginger Rogers took over. She was good, and the show was a perfectly tuned machine anyway, courtesy of Gower Champion. But when "the Abominable Showman" David Merrick resuscitated the box office in 1967 with an "all-black" cast – courageous at the same time that it was exploitative – and the results were astonishing. The cast – Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, Clifton Davis, Emily Yancy, and young Morgan Freeman – took the show to another level of energy and enchantment. Pearl Bailey had the right larger-than-life persona for Dolly. Cab Calloway was wickedly funny. The whole cast got up for a great opportunity: to "re-open" a show that was already a hit.
But the other reason I love this show is that it represents a special memory for me. I liked the Pearl Bailey production so much that I took my parents for their wedding anniversary to the Actors' Fund benefit performance of DOLLY! – and so that I could see Pearlie Mae & Co. one more time. I've only been to two Actors' Fund benefits, but they are among the most magical, enthusiastic performances I've ever seen. People love to impress their peers – and if it's for their own charity....
So I treated my parents and the three of us went on Sunday night – March 31, 1968 – to the St. James Theatre to see this great show. Why do I know the exact date? Because when we were driving home to Long Island, we heard on the radio – to our collective amazement – that President Johnson had announced that he was not going to run for re-election. An important date in American history, as it turned out, leading to the election of Nixon.
And a couple of months after that, I was to move out of my parents' house, the home I grew up in, never to live there again.
I'm glad to see that this Bette-fueled revival will restore HELLO, DOLLY!'s reputation. The terrible, clunky movie from 1969 directed by Gene Kelly, miscast with Barbra Streisand, put this genuine classic in the shade for decades. This new production should kick life into the old girl again.
Bette Midler's Opening Night Curtain Call
Pearl Bailey in HELLO, DOLLY! at the Tony Awards – starts at 0:48
*It wasn't uncommon for me to see a show I liked more than once. Ticket prices were cheaper in the 1960s, especially standing room. I saw CABARET with Joel Grey four times, MAN OF LA MANCHA (twice with Richard Kiley and once with Jose Ferrer, taking my mother who loved Ferrer when he played Iago opposite Paul Robeson's Othello), ROSENKRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD three times, Pinter's THE HOMECOMING twice, Brian Friel's PHILADELPHIA, HERE I COME! twice, Gwen Verdon in SWEET CHARITY twice, and quite a few others. ANYTHING to get off Long Island and escape the stifling boredom of suburbia!