The success of Hello, Dolly! is one for the record books. Jerry Herman‘s second Broadway musical – and his first for infamous producer David Merrick – suffered a tortuous out of town experience. Originally, the show had the rather unmusical title of Dolly! A Damned Exasperating Woman. That was tossed out the window when Merrick heard Louis Armstrong’s iconic cover of the song “Hello, Dolly.” Reviews in Detroit and Washington, D.C. were disappointing, Merrick threatened firings and closings and tried to bring in other writers. However, director Gower Champion was able to bring it together for the opening night in New York. Dolly opened to unanimous raves and settled in for a 7 year run at the St. James Theatre. The musical held the record for most Tony wins (10) for almost 40 years, until The Producers came in and snatched up 12. Carol Channing hadn’t had a Broadway smash since Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, which opened in 1949.
It almost wasn’t to be. Herman and librettist Michael Stewart adapted Thornton Wilder‘s The Matchmaker (already a hit play with Ruth Gordon and a film with Shirley Booth) with Ethel Merman in mind. However, following Gypsy she was no longer interested in originating any musical comedy roles and passed on the project (though she later closed the show). Channing was given the gift of a lifetime. She played the show for two years in New York and basically traveled the world with the show for the next thirty years. Her first Broadway return came in 1978, opposite Eddie Bracken. Then following an appearance in the famous red dress at Jerry Herman’s Broadway at the Hollywood Bowl, interest was renewed in yet another tour of Dolly. Channing took it out on the road and brought it back to Broadway in what was her final appearance in the role. Between the original production and her final tour, she clocked in over 5,000 performances.
Like we saw with Angela Lansbury and “Mame” a couple weeks ago, the company sings and dances a paean to the leading lady. The number even builds similarly, with parallels in the way the dance break and two pullbacks are situated in the vocal score. It was a showstopper; Mrs. Levi promised return in the stirring act one finale “Before the Parade Passes By” and here in the middle of the second act delivers it, promenading down the stairs of the Harmonia Gardens in that famous red dress.
What follows is a clip of the 73 year old Channing from her farewell tour. However, to see a clip of Channing in her prime, you can click through here to see video footage of the original cast appearance at the Johnson White House in 1965. The video is black and white and silent, dubbed over with the original cast album but it’s extraordinary to see. Channing also recorded a specialty cover for the 1964 Presidential election with new lyrics called “Hello, Lyndon!”
There has never been a production of Hello, Dolly! on Broadway that hasn’t used Champion’s original staging. Like Mame, I think it’s time for a brand new Dolly with a brand new everything.