Well, Hello, Dollys!

New York Times
Well, Hello, Dollys!
By MARCH 22, 2017

Carol Channing, who created the title role in the 1964 smash hit musical “Hello, Dolly!,” has been called many things: “a walking alarm clock,” “a moon-mad hillbilly,” “an Al Hirschfeld caricature in the flesh,” with “a vocal range from deep foghorn to squeaky hinge.”

But one thing she has never been called is a type.

“Everyone is unique,” said Carole Cook, who in originating the Australian production in 1965 became just the second woman to play Dolly Gallagher Levi. “But some are uniquer than others.”

So what happened when the irreplaceable Ms. Channing said, “So long Dearie” to the role?

She was replaced. Again and again and again.


Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!” CreditJulieta Cervantes

Thanks to the wily producer David Merrick, “Hello, Dolly!” mastered the art of star recasting, running a then-record seven years thanks to the arrival of Ethel Merman, Ann Miller and other notables to the title role, along with one pathbreaking top-to-bottom replacement of the entire company.

For a variety of reasons, “Hello, Dolly!” survived and even flourished with a wide array of Dollys. But nobody since Ms. Channing, in a mid-1990s revival, has descended the Harmonia Gardens steps on Broadway — until now, with Bette Midler headlining a highly anticipated production scheduled to open April 20 at the Shubert Theater.

(Even now, though, the idea of a one-size-fits-all Dolly doesn’t pertain; the distinctly un-Midlerian Donna Murphy will play the meddlesome matchmaker from Yonkers one night a week starting in June.)

Here’s a look at how Ms. Channing — who would eventually surpass Yul Brynner’s track record in “The King and I” by logging more than 5,000 performances in New York and on the road — put her indelible stamp on one of the most famous roles in musical theater history, while also leaving the door open for so many other interpretations.


David Merrick, the musical’s original producer, outside the St. James Theater in 1970.CreditNeal Boenzi/The New York Times

In the Beginning

When the composer Jerry Herman set out to adapt Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker” as a musical, he intended it for Ethel Merman. She decided not to do it. So did Mary Martin. (Both would take on the role later in the run.) Nanette Fabray was considered. Nancy Walker auditioned for the part. Ruth Gordon, who had played Dolly in “The Matchmaker” on Broadway in 1955, took singing lessons in preparation, but the musical’s director, Gower Champion, never asked her to audition.

During this time, David Merrick saw Ms. Channing’s nightclub act in Minneapolis and mentioned the idea of a “Matchmaker” musical to her. Later, according to the Merrick biographer Howard Kissel, he invited her to his office and cautioned, “I don’t want that silly grin with all those teeth that go back to your ears.”

It took a wee-hours-of-the-morning lobbying session from Ms. Channing in the summer of 1963 to convince Champion that she could handle the role. The next day, they sold Merrick on it.

David Hartman, the longtime “Good Morning, America” host, had a singular viewpoint on what followed. He worked as a stage manager during Act I of the original production and then donned a maître d’ outfit to act alongside Ms. Channing — as well as several subsequent Dollys — in the second act.

“Carol wasn’t a Jewish yenta, of course, and they rewrote and rewrote and rewrote to tailor it to her,” Mr. Hartman said. “Our reviews weren’t strong when we opened in Detroit, and so Gower broke the script into eight large chunks and began rewriting it. Throughout that process, Carol was finding out who that character was.”

But once she got a grip on the part, Ms. Channing wasn’t about to relinquish it. Of those 5,000-plus performances, she missed only half of one of them, owing to a bout of food poisoning in Kalamazoo, Mich.

Jo Anne Worley, who was Ms. Channing’s standby during the original production, remembers once vocalizing before a performance in the hallway. Ms. Channing walked past her and said, “Jo Anne, don’t worry about it, dear.”


Four Dollys in 1971: From left, Martha Raye, Carole Cook, Ann Miller and Phyllis Diller.CreditFrank Edwards/Fotos International, via Getty Images

The Showman

Laurence Maslon, a historian of musical theater and a professor at New York University, maintains that Merrick’s approach to “Dolly” grew out of a marketing ploy he had noticed when his shows left Broadway for the provinces.

“He was probably very influenced by touring productions, where finding stars really mattered,” Mr. Maslon said.

By the end of its Broadway run, Merrick had inserted everyone from Ginger Rogers to Phyllis Diller to Betty Grable to Martha Raye into “Hello, Dolly!” Merman and Martin each got a crack at the part they had originally turned down. Bette Davis and even Jack Benny — who would have starred in drag opposite George Burns — both considered joining them.

“Some shows are more performer oriented than actor oriented,” Mr. Maslon said, “and Jerry Herman’s shows were a perfect example.”

Sondra Lee, an original “Dolly” cast member who performed alongside several of the above leading ladies, believes that one quality is essential.

“The musical’s version of Dolly requires an exceptional version of ‘monstreuse,’” she said. “They’re not really a person. They’re an essence, a presence, a thing, with a kind of truth of their own.

“I mean, go back to Ruth Gordon. These more acceptable Hollywood stars can work, too, but it’s not the same.”


Pearl Bailey, who led an all-black cast in the musical.CreditJohn Dominis/The LIFE Picture Collection, via Getty Images

A Publicity Coup

The apotheosis of Merrick’s casting gambits came in 1967, when he replaced the entire Broadway cast with an all-black company led by Pearl Bailey. Merrick had put together this troupe — which included Cab Calloway, Clifton Davis and a young Morgan Freeman — as one of its several touring companies, and when the Broadway box office began to flag three years into the run, he imported that company from Washington.

The New York Times theater critic Clive Barnes attended the show and called it “a Broadway triumph for the history books … Bailey took the whole musical in her hands and swung it around her neck as easily as if it were a feather boa.”

Jack Viertel, the artistic director of City Center’s Encores! series and the author of “The Secret Life of the American Musical,” remembers being more excited as a jazz-loving teenager at seeing Bailey than Ms. Channing. And even by Merrick’s splashy standards, he said, the cast swap was big news.

“Not only was it a marketing stroke of genius, but it was a huge deal artistically,” Mr. Viertel said. While all-black casts were not uncommon in shows with black themes, he added, “it was genuinely shocking to see a black cast in a quote-unquote ‘white musical.’”


Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film version.Credit20th Century Fox/Getty Images

Miscast? Or Just Right?

The initial production closed soon after surpassing “My Fair Lady” as the longest-running show in Broadway history at the time. By that point, another big name had made Dolly her own: the film version featured a 27-year-old Barbra Streisand as the middle-age widow.

A more radical choice came later.

Since Jack Benny passed up the role — it probably didn’t help that he wanted to do it for just one week — it wasn’t until 2015 that a man played Dolly in a sanctioned American production. That person, Lee Roy Reams, had performed with Ms. Channing in one Broadway “Dolly” revival and directed her in another before descending those steps himself.

“It’s like putting on a dress: You adjust it to the woman wearing it,” Mr. Reams said. “I directed Madeline Kahn, who was wonderfully comic but came at the material from a place of realism, whereas Jo Anne Worley used more slapstick and had bits she liked to do.”

In each case, Mr. Viertel said, the most successful Dollys “manage to be both in the role and on top of the role.”

Then there’s the material itself: Mr. Herman’s timeless score, of course, and librettist Michael Stewart’s marvelous distillation of the Wilder play. Carole Cook made a similar point, if more tersely, in an interview with Richard Skipper, whose 20-year career as a Carol Channing impersonator spawned the comprehensive website callondolly.com.

“Carole once told me that the role is so foolproof that an orangutan could do it,” Mr. Skipper said.

The Last Word Goes To …

And what about Ms. Channing herself, who at 96 is officially passing the torch and the red gown on to a new Broadway Dolly?

Reached by email, she said: “I was too busy taking Dolly on the road to be concerned with choices made by whoever was playing her on Broadway. If they were smart, and all of them were, they were creating their own version and not worried about mimicking my interpretation.”

Of the replacement Dollys, including the ones who were offered the part before she was, Ms. Channing said: “There were so many, and they all had such strong personalities, Well, you have to with a role like Dolly Levi.

“Anyway, I don’t think they gave a thought about how I had performed the role.”

If that’s true, they were — and are — in the distinct minority.

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