The other day, I mentioned that Bette Midler just returned to Broadway in a revival of Hello, Dolly! and posted a couple brief videos of the curtain call on opening night. I thought it might be nice to revisit the original show. And in a pretty special way. More on that in a moment, but first a little background to put it all in perspective. Bear with me, I think it's worth it.
The original show, which starred Carol Channing, and featured David Burns as Horace Vandergelder ("the well-known half-a-millionaire") opened in 1964, won the Tony Award for Best Musical and ran for seven years, closing after 2,844 performances -- which at the time was a record, making it the longest-running show in Broadway history. It was directed and choreographed by Gower Champion.
The musical has a classic, joyful score by Jerry Herman, with a book by Michael Stewart -- but its history goes back far longer than 1964. In fact, it has pretty solid source material, based on a stageplay by acclaimed writer Thornton Wilder, called The Matchmaker.. If you're interested in seeing how the musical and play compared, The Matchmaker was made into a movie that starred Shirley Booth and had the wonderful Paul Ford as Horace Vandergelder, about as perfect an actor for the part. (Interestingly, in supporting roles, the young apprentice Cornelius Hackl -- portrayed by the outlandish comic actor Charles Nelson Reilly in the stage musical version -- was played by about as opposite an actor as one could imagine: Anthony Perkins! And his buddy Barnaby Tucker was played by Robert Morse, who re-created his role from Wilder's Broadway play.) By the way, the original Dolly on Broadway in the play was Ruth Gordon. And in a fascinating historical note, the original Horace Vandergelder in the play on Broadway was performed by Loring Smith...who a decade later played the character in the original London production of the musical version, Hello, Dolly!, opposite Mary Martin.
But the show's history goes back even farther than The Matchmaker -- because Thornton Wilder's work is itself based on an Austrian play, Einen Jux will er sich machen,written back in 1842. And even that is based on a one-act English play written in 1835, A Day Well Spent. And that's not even the end of its history, because the story is well-regarded enough that in 1981, no less than Tom Stoppard adapted the Austrian play into his own version, called On the Razzle. (I recall seeing a PBS version around that time that they did of it.) So, as you can see, it's a story that has traveled well for a very long time, under some impressive auspices.
Carol Channing famously toured with the show four times -- in 1965, 1977, 1981 and then 1994 (30 years after the original production!) -- taking it back to Broadway in '77 and '94. In all, she played the role for over 5,000 performances. And famously never missed a single one, only having to be replaced once halfway through for food poisoning. I saw the original tour when the show came to Chicago at the Shubert Theater, and Carol Channing was in that tour, as well. Three years later, I saw the show again on Broadway (still in its original run) with the all-Black cast starring Pearl Bailey and Cab Calloway.
All of which brings us to this.
There are a few good videos of sequences from the Carol Channing revivals, a few songs here and there, mostly from the 1994 tour when recording was more prominent. But the other day I can across something pretty special. "Pretty special" being an understatement for theater historians. It's the entire performance of the show from that 1977 tour! And being 1977, Carol Channing -- while not at her peak -- is still in terrific performing shape at age 57, unlike the 1994 version when she was still solid and a pleasure to see in the role, though well past her prime at 73. What's so notable here is that despite her singing being a bit wobbly at times, though vibrant, is how wonderful she is in the substantial non-singing parts, very funny and quite dramatic. And what's clear, too, is that she knows spot-on where every single joke is and every detail of how to play that character, which she had already done for so long, probably a few thousands performances by that point (...and then for years after). So, this is a wonderful and historic document to have. And best of all, the recording is pretty good -- in fact, I get the sense that it may have been done by the theater company itself, not just because of the quality but also there are camera cuts -- and it is thoroughly watchable.
I don't know who plays Horace Vandergelder here. Eddie Bracken played the role when the tour reached Broadway, but it's not him in this production. The only other actor who I think I recognize is, I believe, Lee Roy Reams who plays Cornelius Hackl here.
By the way, what caught my eye about this video when browsing through YouTube was a pure accident -- all I saw was it say "Melbourne" in the description. I didn't even know that Carol Channing was in it, but thought it would be interesting to see how the show was performed in Australia. It turned out not to be that at all, but this 1977 tour with Carol Channing in Melbourne, Florida! Needless-to-say, I'm awfully glad I checked it out.
While I recommend watching the whole thing -- this is a significant part of theater history and a joy -- I understand that most people won't want to spend the time for that, even over several start-and-stop viewings. So, I've marked down several of the song highlights which you can jump to, along with adding a few notes.
I Put My Hand In – 8:30 (keep watching after the song, for her touching monologue, which leads into a reprise,)
It Takes a Woman – 17:30
Put On Your Sunday Clothes – 30:30
Ribbons Down My Back -- 40:30
Motherhood -- 52:30
Before the Parade Passes By – 1:08:30 (this starts before the song, to include her important speech)
Elegance – 1:19:00
Waiter’s Gavotte – 1:31:00 (this is the exuberant dance that builds to and helps set up the title song)
Hello, Dolly – 1:33:50 – (What's important to know about the number, and one reason why it works so well in the show, is that they made the interesting and wise decision to withhold Dolly's appearance in the second act until here, a full 16 minutes in. So, including the intermission, the audience hasn't seen the star for over a half-hour, and so there is that sense of anticipation that they manufactured. It's a treat to see the full 9-1/2 minute production with the audience audience reaction. This is how you stage a show-stopping number.)
Dinner scene – 1:44:00 (No singing, but it's the famous 6-minute scene between Dolly and Horace)
So Long, Dearie – 2:04:45
Finale sequence – 2:12:30 (including Carol Channing's curtain speech)
One of the famous "injustices" in Hollywood history was when Carol Channing was not hired to recreate one of Broadway's most renown performances for the movie version of Hello, Dolly!, and it was lost forever.
So, overture. And then...curtain up!
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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