"It takes a woman, all powdered and pink, to joyously clean out the drain in the sink."
- Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman
- Book by Michael Stewart
- Directed and choreographed by Gower Champion
- Produced by David Merrick
- Opened 1/16/64 at the St. James Theatre in New York. Closed 12/27/70 (2,844 performances).
Charles Nelson Reilly
- * = Does not appear on CD
This musical was based on Thornton Wilder's 1955 comedy, The Matchmaker.
The widowed Mrs. Dolly Gallagher Levi is a matchmaker by trade. In 1898, she travels to Yonkers to arrange the second marriage of millionaire Horace Vandergelder (in truth, she intends to marry him herself). Promised by Dolly that he will meet an heiress that afternoon, Horace goes off to New York City for business and to march in the 14th Street Association Parade. He is followed by his two clerks, Cornelius Hackl and Barnaby Tucker, who want to have a little fun. Dolly tries to get Horace's niece Ermengarde to rebel too.
In New York is milliner Irene Molloy, who had initially been promised to Horace (by Dolly). Her shop coincidentally shields Cornelius and Barnaby from Horace when the two hooky-playing clerks duck in there to avoid their boss--who also goes in to pay respects to Irene. Though he doesn't find out who the men are, he knows "men" are in the shop and breaks off all relations with Irene. Dolly smooths things over with Irene and arranges for Cornelius and Barnaby to take Irene and her assistant Minnie Fay to dinner, first teaching the men how to dance so they can go to the Harmonia Gardens, a fancy restaurant (though they first go to the 14th Street Parade that evening). Speaking to her dead husband, Dolly reiterates her desire to marry and joins the parade as it passes by.
As the relationships of Cornelius/Irene and Barnaby/Minnie develop, Dolly returns to the Harmonia Gardens alone and is serenaded by the waiters, who have not seen her since her husband's death. Then she goes to work in earnest on Horace, playing hard to get/disinterested with a vengance. Things get complicated when Horace discovers not only his errant clerks in New York but Ermengarde in the Harmonia Gardens show. He's arrested for causing a disturbance, and Dolly tells him "farewell." Released but now clerkless and nieceless, Horace realizes he'd better not let Dolly get away. She conveniently returns, and he proposes to her.
- I Put My Hand In
- It Takes a Woman
- Put On Your Sunday Clothes
- Ribbons Down My Back
- Before the Parade Passes By
- Hello, Dolly!
- It Only Takes a Moment
- So Long Dearie
Entries in red were winners. Thanks to friendly reader Tommy Peter for pointing out that I left out several Tonys!
- Best Musical
- Best Score
- Best Book
- Best Director
- Best Producer (David Merrick)
- Best Actor (David Burns)
- Best Actress (Carol Channing)
- Best Supporting Actor (Charles Nelson Reilly)
- Best Supporting Actress (Alice Playten)
- Best Choreographer (Gower Champion)
- Best Scenic Design (Oliver Smith)
- Best Conductor and Musical Director (Shepard Coleman)
- Best Costume Designer (Freddy Wittop)
I saw Hello, Dolly! a few years ago when it toured through Denver, with Carol Channing (as usual) in the title role. I tend to see musicals at Saturday matinees where I'm the youngest person in the audience by about 30 years, and I'm pretty familiar with how enthusiastic (or not) this sort of audience can get about musicals. So trust me when I say that the "Hello, Dolly" number was the most amazing showstopper I ever experienced. When Carol came walking out into the audience (via the semicircular runway set up for just that purpose), the house just went insane. We gave her a standing ovation that lasted about five minutes--one of the only times in my life that we gave anyone a standing O in the middle of a production. The reaction in Denver apparently caused Channing to decide to turn this production into a full-scale tour, which was probably too bad for her, as it ended up bombing elsewhere. This anecdote illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses of the Denver musical-theatre public: it's vastly appreciative of musical theatre, but it's also fairly unsophisticated and prone to nostalgia, and tends to glorify productions that don't deserve it. How else can one explain the full house for The Civil War (see "The Worst Musicals I've Ever Seen") and the half-empty one for Parade? (Though to be fair, my audience for Civil War was not terribly impressed.)
But Dolly? Unsophisticated? Well, yeah. Beyond that one glorious, ultimate-musical-theatre Staircase Moment--which, BTW, caused Harold Prince to reject directorial chores because he hated that number--this is a pretty darn silly musical, and fairly unmemorable as well. Did you read the plot summary? A wispier story would be hard to devise. I don't know what the original play was like, but this is a sitcom. It embodies much of the worst of the musical theatre, the stuff that makes the genre so easy to hate: trivial subject, endless contrivances, an overemphasis on marriage as the world's most desirable state of being, and characters bursting into irrelevant songs for no obivous reason. It's been pointed out by numerous writers (including William Goldman) that the staircase moment has nothing to do with anything. It doesn't advance the plot, it doesn't create character; it's there merely to celebrate its diva. And it succeeds so well as a Moment that Jerry Herman would thereafter include something similar in his musicals and be forever identified as a writer-for-divas. But do you remember anything else from the show? Likely not. I sure don't, except as still photos have reminded me.
Another problem with that Moment is that the rest of the songs in the musical have a lot to live up to, and for the most part they don't come close. With one or two exceptions, they're as wispy and trivial as the book. I've listened to this score at least six times, and I still can't remember the melodies of some of the songs. If I hadn't heard Mame before Dolly, I probably would have shunned Herman like I shun Lloyd Webber (but let it be said that I VASTLY prefer Herman to Lloyd Webber).
"Hello, Dolly!" and "Before the Parade Passes By" are the show's best by far--note that Channing is central to them; these are star turns, Jerry Herman's strength. ("Hello, Dolly" won a Grammy for Song of the Year over "A Hard Day's Night"--hmph!) The other numbers in which she appears ("I Put My Hand In," "Motherhood," "Dancing," and "So Long Dearie") are only memorable when she's singing; one's attention wanders whenever someone else comes up to the mike. The rest of the songs are barely more than background music, though "It Takes a Woman" is mildly funny for combining images of fragile, dainty women with the chores that Horace expects them to perform.
The songs are not helped by the performances, which are unusually weak:
- Carol Channing is in the same love-hate class as Ethel Merman: she'll either thrill you or repel you. (Significantly, Merman was the first choice for Dolly and would ultimately take the part as its final star, with two extra songs added for her.) She's what William Goldman terms a "critic's darling," a performer whose extreme popularity with the critics borders on the inexplicable. How else to explain why she took the Tony over Barbra Streisand's luminescent performance in Funny Girl? I can't say that I hate her--she does project a lot of likeability--but it's hard for me to listen to her sing purely for pleasure, memories of the Staircase Moment or not. Let's face it: she sounds like a lower-register, slower-speaking Donald Duck.
- David Burns has only one significant number, "It Takes a Woman," which does nothing to enhance his reputation as one of the musical stage's funniest men. Of course, this part is far more important in its nonsinging moments.
- Eileen Brennan was in the truly thankless role in Dolly: the ingenue. Nobody who goes to a performance of Dolly gives a damn about Irene Molloy or remembers anything about her afterwards. Perhaps contributing to this state is the fact that she gets the least interesting songs to sing: "Ribbons Down My Back," "Motherhood," "Elegance," and "It Only Takes a Moment." Also, Brennan has a nice voice (one that is totally at odds with the hard image she would project later in her career), but she sang her songs rather than acted them, thus making them even less interesting to listen to. Indeed, this musical is an excellent example of how a poor-but-vibrant singer like Channing can completely overpower a good-but-conventional singer like Brennan.
- Charles Nelson Reilly is a pleasant personality and acts his songs very well, but his thin, quavery voice is not suited to competition from Channing in "Dancing," and he's not much of a soloist when it counts (in "It Only Takes a Moment"). His voice also doesn't blend well with that of Jerry Dodge, who shares almost all his songs. Reilly would wisely move away from musicals and into straight acting and directing (and game shows in the 70s).
- Speaking of Dodge, he's a nonentity; most of the time he's singing with someone, and in the few moments that he sings alone, he doesn't do anything even slightly memorable. As Brennan was overshadowed by Channing, so too was Dodge overshadowed by Reilly--and when Charles Nelson Reilly can out-project you, you really should consider a different career.
- So too is Sondra Lee barely distinguishable as a separate presence, though at least she manages to sound like an individual when her voice does surface.
The well-done booklet includes a cast list that includes all the townspeople, waiters, etc; a good plot summary; a lengthy discussion of Hello, Dolly!'s history by Bill Rosenfield; a handful of really nice black-and-white stills; one glorious full-color shot (on the back) of Dolly beginning her descent of the staircase; and an advertisement from the New York Times announcing Channing's participation in Lyndon Johnson's inaugural gala. No libretto--sigh.
I admit it--I've nicknamed this musical "Hello, Dully." For a major-league musical classic, this is a surprisingly weak disc in all its particulars: music, performances, story. Its reputation demands a listen, but I can't recommend it except as part of a comprehensive collection of musicals. However, it's a necessity for Jerry Herman and Carol Channing fans, and if you're interested in Eileen Brennan or Charles Nelson Reilly it might be something to consider. For a good Jerry Herman score, try Mame or Mack & Mabel. But also note that Hello, Dolly! is a much better musical performed than merely heard, so by all means go see it if it shows up in your neighborhood.
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