To some here -- perhaps to many -- perhaps even to most, this will be overkill of the most numbing kind. If so, most especially if you don't care one whit for musicals, just skip past this, it's not for you, there will be many more postings about other things. So, don't worry. Run for the hills, but no complaining. You've been warned.
To others, I think you'll find it extremely interesting, and even different enough amid its repetition. Me, I've listened to these often and absolutely love the differences. Mainly, I find it a fascinating study of how four performers can take the same piece of work and make it their own.
In this case, it's the song, "Hello, Dolly!"
The other day, I mentioned the movie version and embedded the legendary recording by Louis Armstrong. It got me thinking of the famous stage versions.
There have been, I think, four productions of "Hello, Dolly!" that especially stand out. The original with Carol Channing, the all-Black cast with Pearl Bailey, the London production that starred Mary Martin, and when Ethel Merman took over the role. And here are all four to compare! Each offer something very different, and all -- in their own way -- are truly wonderful. That's why I think that, deeply repetitious as this obviously is, it's also fresh and highly worthwhile.
Carol Channing's version is the classic. The standard by which all are judged. She worked on the song intimately with its creator, Jerry Herman; with the musical's book writer, Michael Stewart; and the show's original director, Gower Champion. She mines every nuance of its intent, both the humor and emotion of returning to the human race, and it's the most heartfelt -- and is an utter joy. I happily got to see the show with Channing on its initial tour, when it came to Chicago. It's a very fond memory.
The version by Pearl Bailey is the most fluid of the four, otherworldly so, like listening to butter. It's done with such ease and charm and fun and pure delight. The happiest version. More than any, you really get the sense that she's really, actually happy to be back there where she belongs and having the time of her life. She also throws in lots of pure PearlBailey-isms "ad libbing" and singing in counter-point throughout, yet it all not only fits in perfectly with the song, remarkably it enhances it. The show was on its last legs when David Merrick had the brilliant idea to put in an entirely new all-Black cast, and also get the legendary Cab Calloway to play Horace Vendergelder. And it's an utter joy. I actually got to see this production on Broadway on my very first trip to New York. It was quite amazing -- I remember Pearl Bailey giving an extended curtain call chat to the audience -- and the whole thing is an equally-fond memory. Carol Channing toured with the show for a long time, and then did so twice again for later generations. Pearl Bailey did this once.
In many ways, the performance by Mary Martin in London is pretty straight-forward. Very warm to listen to, it's the most graceful, with a few sweet "ad libs," but doesn't leap out -- until near the very end. That's when Mary Martin did what many people didn't always realize she did. And that's soar above the heavens with a high coloratura voice. And when she does that here, it is so absolutely glorious, that that extremely short passage alone (mere seconds really) puts this version for me on the level with the others, and is an utter joy. The arrangement is slightly different than the others here. It's a bit more strings and lush, than brass. Having heard my share of cast recordings from both sides of the ocean, I suspect that's more a case of being in London than changing the arrangement for the star.
I'm pretty certain that there's no cast album of the Ethel Merman production. This is her singing the title song live on stage. (Though a video, it's just the audio portion). As such it's not a totally fair comparison. On the one hand, you get the enthusiasm of a live performance. On the other, the recording simply isn't as good. But no matter, we have the recording, and that's what counts. When Ethel Merman took over the role of Dolly, it was a huge deal. Probably the most famous Broadway star in history, the role was tailor-made for her. In fact, she was offered the role first, but she turned it down. (Two songs cut from the show during pre-production were put back in when she joined the show.) Also, when she took over in the musical, it was first and only time in the career she did that, rather than be the original star. All of that making it all the more a huge deal. This is -- it will not shock you to know -- the brassiest of the versions. Blunt, aggressive and strong. Surprisingly, though, I find it the least special interpretation of the four (except for the reality that it's Ethel Merman, which actually is a good reason for it being special. It's sort of hard to top Merman being Merman.). I suspect that, almost more than the others here, seeing her do the song and role on stage far transcended any recording. She was such a larger-than-life presence. So, though it might not interpret the song as much as the others as a recording, it may well have been the most special to see live. But I think there's another reason, too: it's that this isn’t The Best song for Ethel Merman. It’s an amazing song for the character of Dolly, but it’s as much a chorus number. Far better for Merman were probably, “So Long, Dearie,” “Before the Parade Passes By” and “I Put My Hand In.” I suspect she blew the bejeepers out of the theater with those. Make no mistake, though her version of the title song is really terrific. And so vibrant. And historic. And as such, it is an utter joy.
So, which is the best? There's really no judging that, it's all personal taste, and they each bring something special. There are times I prefer to listen to any one of them, for different reasons. Sometimes I just want to listen to Mary Martin soar. Or Ethel Merman belt. But if I had to pick, I'd say my favorite two are Carol Channing and Pearl Bailey. I tend to like to listen to the Pearl Bailey version because it's so joyous. But then when I put on Carol Channing's performance, everything melts away and the sheer artistry and showmanship of it overwhelms me. A classic does that, you know. Just because all others stem from the original, which is SO wonderful, I have to favor it. But that doesn't mean it's always the one I enjoy listening to the most.
Mainly though, I just like and find so interesting how good and different each of these performances are. Doing the same song in the same context with basically the same arrangement.
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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