When librettist Michael Stewart adapted Thornton Wilder‘s The Matchmaker into the 1964 musical Hello, Dolly!, he made one tiny verbal change that’s always struck me as the essence of the American musical. In Wilder’s comedy, Dolly Levi lures the miserly Horace Vandergelder to the Harmonia Gardens by promising to introduce him to a modest girl with an ultra-economical lifestyle named Ernestina Simple, who doesn’t exist and so never appears. In Stewart and songwriter Jerry Herman‘s musical version, however, the young lady materializes as a fat, vulgar, free-spending girl of wild behavior and enormous appetite, named Ernestina Money. The whole history of the link between spoken theater and musicals lies in the change from Simple to Money, from a slim, quiet figure in the audience’s imagination to a hefty, loud, extravagant, and slightly embarrassing reality.
Hefty, loud, and extravagant, Hello, Dolly! seems in many ways the quintessential American musical. Not only does it celebrate affluence through its display of lavish excess — multiple sets, a large chorus in elaborate period costumes, big ensemble dance numbers — but it preaches a gospel of wealth. Money is Dolly‘s subject. Its central conflict is between two versions of capitalism: Horace’s avaricious hoarding and Dolly’s liberal belief that you cause prosperity by spending money.
Like Dolly’s and Horace’s clashing views of money, the musical, with its wealth of possibilities, has spawned conflicting schools of thought. Proponents of the “integrated” musical, as shaped by Rodgers and Hammerstein and on through Sondheim, see it as a unified work of art, aspiring toward the dramatic heights of opera but rendered in the terms of American vernacular and popular music. Yet the cohesive works of these artists evolved from a wide range of more loosely constructed predecessors, from the comic operas of Offenbach to the late-nineteenth-century American extravaganzas that were barely more than variety shows held together by a desultory common theme. The great musicals from the 1910s up through the ’40s — made by artists like Kern and Hammerstein, Rodgers and Hart, the Gershwins, Irving Berlin, and Cole Porter — treated their integration of script and score casually. While songs were written and “spotted” to fit character and situation, as well as the distinctive qualities of the stars for whom the show was being built, room could always be found for a piece of decorative diversion, or a popular vaudeville team’s “specialty.”
Hello, Dolly! inherited this jauntier, loose-limbed tradition, viewed suspiciously by Sondheim worshippers and other true believers in the musical as a serious art form. Its dramatic resolutions can be hasty and arbitrary, their dialogue kept short, funny, and just coherent enough to send everyone home feeling content — as Dolly has done for over half a century. It retains enough of Wilder’s original language to provide tiny flourishes of literary distinction, while the perky tunes and pert lyrics of Herman’s score (a few bits of it abetted by other songwriters’ doctoring during the original’s troubled tryout period) provide a steady stream of bright spots. If Stewart’s book has its slapdash moments, nobody much cares to complain: For decades, satisfied customers have watched Dolly finish her Harmonia Gardens dinner in a courtroom with a trial going on and never blinked at the anomaly. Musical comedy grants a kind of freedom that gives common sense to the lie.
Another asset: Any female star above ingénue age can fit comfortably in Dolly‘s lead role with minimal retailoring. Donna Murphy, who will be replacing Bette Midler on Tuesday nights in the current revival at the Shubert, couldn’t be further from Midler in personality and approach than — well, than Pearl Bailey was from Carol Channing. The prospect intrigues because Murphy is noted for darkly intense, strongly centered performances; Midler, in contrast, is more a stage presence than an actress. Her shtick has largely been to stand outside her role and comment on it, as you might expect of a woman who once sang the title song from Oklahoma! while dancing the hula. For those who love her, she can do no wrong. For the rest of us, she makes an amusing but detached Dolly, with an on-again, off-again vocal delivery that makes her big songs seem to evanesce as they build to the finish. It’s not a matter of eccentricity or vocal mannerism; few Broadway stars have been more mannered in their singing than Channing. The difference seems to lie in some core of belief: Channing, while being herself, was Dolly Levi; Midler is playing, or playing at, the role. Her proficient comic sense, rather than her energy or commitment, is what keeps it going.
This makes it slightly tough for those who have to play scenes with her: You can’t confront someone who’s off in her own world. Still, comic characters of Dolly’s stature tend to have that rampant self-absorption, so in a sense Midler’s persona makes her casting viable. It hasn’t harmed David Hyde Pierce, her Vandergelder, who gives a good and forceful account of the role, in a bewhiskered makeup that suggests Mark Twain. Overall, though, director Jerry Zaks has shown a lax hand in the performance department: Apart from Kate Baldwin, a staunch Irene Molloy, and Taylor Trensch, a brightly jittery Barnaby, the acting veers between the colorless and the overstated.
A similar problem afflicts Warren Carlyle’s choreography. Gower Champion, who staged the original, was a vaudevillean with a knack for quirky, individualizing touches. Carlyle’s first impulse is always balletic, and his best work here, in the “Dancing” number, is an extended, rather abstract ballet sequence; he lacks the Champion sense of fun that created moments like the back-leaning, hip-hitching step in “Elegance.” Still, when all’s said and done, it’s Hello, Dolly! The chorus puts on its Sunday clothes, the waiters gallop, the parade passes by, the star nibbles her leisurely way through her courtroom repast, and audiences go home happy.