Seven weeks after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated"Hello, Dolly!" opened on Broadway and gave America something to sing and cheer about.
The historic musical comedy triumph is something Broadway old-timers still rhapsodize about. The production, dazzlingly directed and choreographed by Gower Champion, won Tony Awards, including one for its star, Carol Channing. The show ran from January 1964 through December, 1970,— a record at the time — for 2,844 performances. Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey (leading a celebrated all-black cast), Phyllis Diller and Ethel Merman followed in Dolly role.
Though it has been an Internet chat-room sport to speculate about who would star in a Broadway revival — the third one in 1996 starred a 75-year-old Channing in the role — there are no plans yet for a New York production.
Goodspeed Opera House is bringing back everyone's favorite matchmaker, Dolly Gallagher Levi and her efforts to marry half-a-millionaire Horace Vandergelder at turn-of-last-century Yonkers. (The musical was "suggested" by Thornton Wilder's 1955 comedy "The Matchmaker" that starred Ruth Gordon, later made into the 1958 film starring Shirley Booth.)
For the Goodspeed production, which is now in previews and opens Wednesday at the East Haddam theater, Klea Blackhurst plays "Dolly, a damn exasperating woman," which was one of the titles considered — and wisely dropped — for the musical.
Blackhurst is a stage and concert performer with many credits, but she is best known for her tribute show to Ethel Merman, "Everything The Traffic Will Allow."
It's fitting casting because Merman had a special connection to the original production.
Composer Jerry Herman says his "absolute favorite" Dolly was Merman, whom he originally envisioned when he wrote the music for the show. Merman turned the initial offer down from producer David Merrick saying she was tired of living in dressing rooms after a long career on stage. But the legendary Broadway star, after repeated offers, finally said yes — especially when she knew she would be the final Dolly of the original Broadway run. She was said to have replied when asked to do the show years into the run: "Now that you got your previews out of the way, I'll come do it."
"There were so many wonderful ladies who brought their own personality and power to the role," said Herman, 82, in a phone interview from his Miami Beach home. Though he wasn't involved in the casting, he said that surprisingly Phyllis Diller "did a bang-up job — but not overly comedic — as Dolly. She was very real, very lovable and really quite something."
Herman knows Blackhurst from a number of Herman tributes over the years. "She's a lovely lady, with an innate sense of humor who has a powerhouse voice."
Many stars played Dolly over the years, including a touring Mary Martin (who was also turned down the Broadway role after Merman), Dorothy Lamour, Eve Arden, Ann Sothern, Alice Faye and Yvonne De Carlo. A 1969 film version of the musical starred Barbra Streisand.
What is needed to make a great Dolly?
"Someone who knows how to takes over a stage," says Herman, "and I think we have that with Klea."
Her Own Dolly
"I'm a terrible Merman impersonator," says Blackhurst during a break from rehearsals last month. Her Merman shows are tributes to the star and the songs she introduced on Broadway. "But I am a natural belter and she was whom I wanted to be when I grew up, that style of performer.
Though Blackhurst is well aware of Merman's inspiration connection to the show, she says "it's just going to be me on stage. Merman is just something like a layer of who I am and how I see theater. Dolly is a great character and all I can really do is bring to the role the culmination of who I am."
Blackhurst says that she will not be singing "Love, Look in My Window" and "World Take Me Back," the two songs Herman wrote for Merman.
"Unless you were Ethel Merman at that moment in history, they really don't belong [in the show] and they don't add anything. The show doesn't need improving."
The production, directed by Daniel Goldstein, has several high-profile actors in featured roles. Tony Sheldon, who received a Tony Award nomination for his starring role in the 2011 Broadway musical "Priscilla, Queen of the Desert," (after it played Australia, London and Toronto) plays Vandergelder. Ashley Brown, who starred in the title role in the musical "Mary Poppins" on Broadway, plays the widow, Irene Molloy.
Sheldon, who two years ago relocated to New York from his native Australia where he had a long career on stage and in film, comes from a well-known show business family. His mother is musical star Toni Lamond; his aunt is Helen Reddy; his father is Frank Sheldon, who was the first Fosse dancer in Australia, performing "Steam Heat" in "The Pajama Game." His grandparents were vaudevillian and radio stars. "I began as a child performer," he says. "So it was the family business for me."
A theater historian as well, Sheldon remembers seeing Carole Cook starring in "Hello, Dolly!
in Australia, "She was the second Dolly in the world because the production was done before even the U.S. tour began. And my mother played Ernestina and understudied Dolly in a production of the show in California that starred Yvonne De Carlo — so the show was in the family already. My mother is thrilled now that I'm doing it."
After playing transsexual drag performer Bernadette in Priscilla, is there a part of him that is tempted to try on Dolly's famed red dress?
"No,no,no, not at all," he laughs. "I already did my diva role and I never look back." Sheldon says he might slip on the wig one more time for a production of "Priscilla" in three years at Paris' Folies Bergère where he would perform the role in French.
But Ashley Brown jokes that she is working her way up to the title role. She appeared as a dancer in a high school production of the show in Gulf Breeze, Fla, and later played Ermengarde in a production in Cincinnati. With the Goodspeed show as Mrs. Molloy she gets to sing one of Herman's loveliest numbers, "Ribbons Down My Back."
"I love this musical and to be a part of this production is amazing," she says. "The numbers keep topping each other. It starts with 'Put on Your Sunday Clothes,' then there's 'Dancing', 'Before the Parade Passes By' and the title number — and the audience is going to go insane with the 'Waiters' Gallop.' Most other shows would build to 'Sunday Clothes'."
Adds Sheldon: "The show is so solidly constructed and when you add fantastic performances it just lifts it to the stratosphere."
Jerry Herman still vividly remembers opening night on Jan. 16, 1964.
"It was one of those magic times. The opening night party was at Delmonico's where [producer] David Merrick was having the party. The New York Times review came in and my sweet, wonderful and talented collaborator [book writer] Michael Stewart ran across the ballroom floor saying, 'Jerry, Jerry, Jerry, we're rich!' I'll never forget it."
As for a Broadway revival — and the first without either the original star Carol Channing or Pearl Bailey, Herman says he lives in hope. "I would toss my hat in the air if Bette Midler ever decided to do it," he says.
HELLO, DOLLY!, now in previews, opens Wednesday, July 17 and continues through Sept. 14 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam. Performances are Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30 p.m.; Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. (and matinees at 2 p.m. starting Aug. 1); Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m. (and on Sept,. 14 at 2 and 6:30 p.m.) and Sundays at 2 p.m. (and evenings at 6:30 p.m. through July 28). Tickets are $29 to $77 at the box office and $32.50 to $81.50 on line (including fees). Information: 860-873-8668 and www.goodspeed.org.
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