When You Switch Up on a (Broadway) Star

New York Times
When You Switch Up on a (Broadway) Star

JESSE GREEN The problem with successful musicals is how to keep them that way. Often the difference between a borderline hit and a smash depends more on the second cast, and the third, than the first. As critics, we get to see a parade of alternates and replacements in major roles; right now the biggest example on Broadway is Donna Murphy’s opening earlier this week as the Tuesday-evening alternate for Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!But we have also been keeping an eye on how new casts are affecting a war horse like “Kinky Boots” and, on a smaller scale, the long-running Off Broadway production of “Sweeney Todd.”


Bette Midler, the star of “Hello, Dolly!”CreditAngela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Leaving aside the creative implications for a moment, there can be profound financial ones. Sara Bareilles, who wrote the songs for “Waitress,”recently sent that show’s sales through the roof when she stepped into the lead role for 10 weeks. Now, Brendon Urie of the band Panic! at the Disco is filling “Kinky Boots,” in its fifth year, to more than 100 percent capacity. But Ms. Murphy has been selling at less than half the gross potential that Ms. Midler usually does, even though Ms. Murphy, I think we both feel, is terrific. Not that we and the rest of the world didn’t adore Ms. Midler in the part. But Ms. Murphy so immediately makes it her own, and has such a different take on it, that you are not left wanting what you cannot have.


Donna Murphy, the Tuesday-evening alternate for Bette Midler in “Hello, Dolly!”CreditAndrew Toth/FilmMagic, via Getty Image

BEN BRANTLEY I agree with that, Jesse, although I think Ms. Murphy has a more intellectual — as opposed to instinctive — grasp of the part than Ms. Midler does. I bow to no one in my admiration for Ms. Murphy’s command of her craft, but when the part isn’t a natural fit, you can see the mechanisms of the craft at work, and the conscious actor’s choices. That said, she did indeed give me fresh insights into the character of that little old matchmaker Dolly Levi. And the crowd, I have to say, was almost as volubly ecstatic as it was when I saw the show with Ms. Midler. (My ears, my ears!)

GREEN The show, which has seen many different Dollys sashay down its stairs over the years, is designed to do that, of course. But Ms. Murphy doesn’t immediately head there. Slyly, she begins by underplaying the grand lady affectations; she’s a Dolly who might really have lived on the Lower East Side, who still has an accent and a coarse, hoydenish swagger. She reminds me a bit of Ruth Gordon, known these days mostly for the movie “Harold and Maude” but who originated the role of Dolly in Thornton Wilder’s “The Matchmaker,” on which the musical is based. Ms. Murphy, like Ms. Gordon, is a pistol, not a dame.

BRANTLEY Ruth Gordon’s name is the first thing I wrote in my notes when Ms. Murphy started talking. Ms. Murphy is, famously, a meticulous researcher as an actress. (Remember how completely she captured the tough-but-soft gals of the mid-20th century in “Wonderful Town,” and her inspired re-creation of Kay Thompson routines in “Anyone Can Whistle” for Encores?) And here she becomes vintage New York incarnate, right down to the old vaudeville shtick (more calculatingly used than with Ms. Midler) that is such an essential part of Dolly.

But the moment when she truly won my heart was when she stepped to the front of the stage for “Before the Parade Passes By,” where the widowed Dolly explains her desire to continue living life fully. And her voice brimmed with a real passion for the chance to, yes, even love again. Then of course, she is no mean slouch as a singer either and brings a very different set of vocal chops to the part.

GREEN The role seems as if it should be easy to sing but it isn’t; it lies awkwardly in the voices of most women old enough to play it. Luckily, it isn’t supposed to be pretty, as Carol Channing proved. It works best when it sounds fun and gutsy, the way Ms. Midler performs it, or warm and emotional, the way Ms. Murphy does. The rest of the cast takes care of the pretty, especially Kate Baldwin and Gavin Creel, who sing beautifully, maybe even better now than when the show opened in April. How do you feel the production is holding up?

BRANTLEY Well, you certainly can’t say it feels tired, can you? “Dolly” is surely the peppiest show on Broadway, world capital of pep, and the performers seem to be even more energized by the audience’s response than the first time I saw it. I would love for the supporting cast to narrow the Mack Sennett broadness just a bit (though I think David Hyde Pierce is a marvel as Dolly’s curmudgeonly romantic prey). And there are times when my eyes feel scorched by the designer Santo Loquasto’s aggressive pastels.

GREEN I’ll grant you it’s garish, but I think that’s built into the show’s DNA. Who wants to see a John Doyle “Dolly”? Without the pummeling too-muchness, it could never overwhelm you the way this production does: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” inexplicably reduces hardened critics to tears. “Dolly” has to live at the extremes of its style, and maybe just a touch past them. That is why it is so key that its producers, like the producers of “Dear Evan Hansen,” get the chemistry right going forward. Shows are astonishingly organic, both growing and decaying; changing any single component can change everything.


Brendon Urie, of the band Panic! at the Disco, in “Kinky Boots.”CreditMatthew Murphy

BRANTLEY I just revisited “Kinky Boots,” which must be well into its fourth (or is it fifth?) cast, since it opened in 2013. And the audience at the Saturday matinee I caught was almost as explosively enthusiastic as the one for “Dolly.” (Do you know a good ear doctor, by the way?) Part of that thundering response was fan frenzy for Mr. Urie. He has taken on the part of Charlie Price, the beleaguered shoe factory heir sorely in need of life lessons, and baby, he was born to mug. You might have gathered as much if you’ve watched his Panic! videos. Here he does a lot of eye-widening and double takes that wouldn’t be inappropriate to the role of the callow clerk Cornelius, (Mr. Creel’s role), in “Dolly.” And his voice glides suavely through arrangements of Cyndi Lauper’s gleaming power ballads that show off his arresting upper register.

But I was equally impressed by the newcomer J. Harrison Ghee, whose program bio is sparse. (His credits include “Tokyo Disney Resort, Norwegian Cruise Line.”) But as Lola, the drag queen who teaches Charlie how to be a man, he plies a plush satin voice that suggests Dionne Warwick as a contralto. He also towers and sashays most impressively in heels and spangles, and the crowd treated him as if he were a Bette in the making. Inspirational uplift, songs that bore into your skull, bright colors and an adulation-demanding diva — those are the basic elements that have kept “Kinky Boots” a public favorite. Not so different from the 50-years-older “Dolly,” eh?

GREEN That sounds like a case in which the new leads are basically maintaining the brand. Ms. Murphy is doing something different: exploring the brand’s frontiers. In another recent recasting, new leads have remade the show altogether. I’m talking about the “Sweeney Todd” that’s been playing since February in a functioning pie shop at the Barrow Street Theater.


Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello in “Sweeney Todd” at the Barrow Street Theater.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

The actors playing Sweeney and Mrs. Lovett, brought over with the production from London’s Tooting Arts Club, were fine but both you and Ifound them screamy. British performers tend to do that in musical theater — act on top of the notes instead of through them. In April, the Broadway stalwarts Norm Lewis and Carolee Carmello took over, and what a difference they make. With his flexible, creamy baritone Mr. Lewis can achieve full freak-out volume without shouting or losing the melodies, which are written gorgeously (by Stephen Sondheim) for a reason. The result is both more upsetting and more beautiful, especially in that tiny pie shop, where the unmiked voices, heard against a three-piece band instead of a huge orchestra, are the real luxury. And Ms. Carmello, aside from giving a hilariously detailed portrait of amorality, has the high belt the part really needs if the singer is going to avoid awkward register shifts in the middle of laugh lines. What a surprise, vocal ability turns out to be make-or-break in musicals.

Which reminds me: Ms. Carmello may not have the brand-name allure of Ms. Midler but would be a great Dolly if Ms. Murphy herself wants an alternate.

BRANTLEY Or why not Mr. Ghee, if you really want to explore frontiers?

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