Four-time Tony award nominee Tovah Feldshuh, starring as Dolly Gallagher Levi, the title role in the musical “Hello Dolly,” through Sunday, July 23, at the Paper Mill Playhouse, announced recently that she will be enhancing her performance with a slight Irish brogue. It will be a nice touch, one that certainly validates the character’s maiden/middle name even if it means that there is no reason to expect even a trace of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir in Tovah’s performance. Feldshuh, an actor of considerable dramatic versatility, played Meir to great acclaim (which included a Tony nomination) on Broadway in “Golda’s Balcony.”
But Feldshuh also comes well prepared to play everyone’s favorite matchmaker (no reflection on Yenta of “Fiddler on the Roof,” that other matchmaker who set up shop on Broadway in 1964, the same year as “Dolly”). Her gift for music and comedy have long been lauded notably with additional Tony nominations for her performances on Broadway in “Lend Me a Tenor” (1989), “Sarava” (1979), and the title role in “Yentl” (1975).
Paper Mill Playhouse audiences will undoubtedly be pleased that Dolly is back where she belongs. Can it really be 35 years ago that a favorite Paper Mill star, Betsy Palmer, was their last Dolly? Palmer never quite achieved diva-dom on Broadway. She replaced Lauren Bacall in the long-run hit “Cactus Flower,” starring Bacall, and later was the last of six replacements of the leading role of Doris in another long-run hit, “Same Time Next Year.” But she was hugely popular in her years at the Paper Mill Playhouse, and in 1971 delighted Paper Mill audiences with her all-American Dolly.
It isn’t likely that popular African-American band-singer/actress and Broadway star Pearl Bailey (“House of Flowers,” “Arms and the Girl,” “Bless You All,” “St. Louis Woman”) bothered with any Irish-izing when she undertook the role with great success during the Broadway run, long after the musical’s original Dolly, Carol Channing, finally decided to take some time off. The inclination of many of the stars who have sashayed down the grand staircase of the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant over the years has been toward emphasizing (misguidedly perhaps) the role’s approximation of a typical Jewish matchmaker. This was particularly so in 2002, when famed Jewish stage and screen star Molly Picon played the role at the North Shore Music Theater in Beverly, MA. And who could have been more Jewish than the formidable songstress Barbara Streisand in the 1969 film version (again misguidedly).
What is it about Dolly, the meddlesome widow of Ephram Levi, that has continued to attract leading ladies of a certain age? Unless you are a Dolly addict, you might wonder what makes the character such a perfect fit for so many different personalities. Channing, who played the role on Broadway from January 16, 1964, until August 8, 1966, and Bailey, who captivated a whole new audience when she played it from November 12, 1967, to mid-December, 1969, were hardly similar types. During Bailey’s run the extraordinarily beautiful and petite Thelma Carpenter played Dolly at Wednesday matinees. Carpenter, who appeared on Broadway in “Ankles Aweigh” (1955); “Shuffle Along” (revival in 1952); “Inside USA” (1949); and “Memphis Bound” (1945), went on for Bailey over 100 times.
Dolly was also proved a refreshing and revitalizing showcase for fabled and still able film stars and dancers and comediennes. The Broadway run featured in succession: As of August 9, 1966, Fred Astaire’s best dancing partner Ginger Rodgers, appeared, followed by big band singer/big mouth comedienne of radio, stage, and screen, Martha Raye, from February 27, 1967. (Raye returned only once more to Broadway in 1972 as a replacement for Patsy Kelly in “No No Nanette.”) Twentieth Century Fox musical film star Betty Grable, known for her “million dollar legs,” may or may not have tried to show them off from June 12, 1967, until she was replaced by hilarious TV/nightclub standup comedienne Phyllis Diller on December 26, 1969.
After Diller it was time for the legendary Ethel Merman to belt out Herman’s tunes, including two he wrote especially for her. Actually, Merman was Herman’s first choice to play Dolly. Her gig began on March 28, 1970, and she harnessed the miserly Horace Vandergelder for the last time on December 27, 1970. After Bailey returned with the first revival on November 6, 1975, for approximately seven weeks, Channing made a successful return in the role on March 5, 1978 (no specific closing date available). She returned again, presumably for the last time, and ate those dumplings from October 19, 1995, to January 28, 1996.
Like Merman, Channing was famous for not missing a performance, so there isn’t much likelihood of your having seen her standby, Jo Anne Worley, during this 1964 to 1965 stint. However, Worley’s comic talents were seen by millions on Merv Griffin’s TV show in 1966 and later on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In. Worley’s most prominent New York stage appearances were in “The Mad Show” (1966), an Off-Broadway musical based on Mad Magazine, and in the short-lived Broadway revue “Billy Barnes People” (seven performances at the Royale Theater in 1961). For trivia fans: Channing’s first Broadway assignment was as understudy to star Eve Arden in the hit musical-comedy “Let’s Face It” (1941). So are we surprised that the glib, wise-cracking film and TV star Arden (“Our Miss Brooks” and “The Mothers-in-Law”) would play Dolly later in her career in a successful road tour?
You may have been lucky enough to catch Bibi Osterwald as a replacement Dolly during the week of November 6, 1967. Osterwald previously stood by for Channing in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” (1949 to 1951) and also appeared with her in “The Vamp” (1955). Osterwald did get to play the role 122 times over the course of the entire Broadway run, but only played it once when Rodgers was the star. Osterwald is best known as Sophie Steinberg in the 1972-’73 TV series “Bridget Loves Bernie.”
Even if you never had the treat of seeing any of the Dollys on Broadway, the lady is likely to have come to a city near you over the past 40 years via a big city tour, at a professional regional theater, a community theater, or in a school. Not everyone who played Dolly was a superstar, but many had the diva quality that the role demands.
Here are some Dollys you may have seen:
• Dorothy Lamour, filmdom’s famed sarong-clad songstress, headlined a road company near the end of the 1960s.
• Victoria Clark, the current award-winning star of “The Light in the Piazza,” played Dolly at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera in 2004.
• Michelle Lee starred in a three-city tour in 2005, under the direction of Lee Roy Reams, who played Cornelius in the show’s 1978 revival and directed the 1995 revival.
• As for the legendary musical theater star Mary Martin, she not only played Dolly in London’s West End but also in Japan and Vietnam.
A listing of all the major stars and minor comets who have found Dolly the perfect vehicle has to be incomplete. You can be sure that there are some great performers who have not been given their due in this recap of Hello Dolly’s history. However, there remains another formidable list of Dollys who do not have to be escorted down the runway by a bevy of handsome waiters to the strains of Jerry Herman’s title song.
Before the Jerry Herman-Michael Steward musical adaptation, there were the plays that were its inspiration. These featured a bevy of dazzling Dolly’s who didn’t have to sing a note. The history/genesis of the musical “Hello Dolly” is well-documented but indulge me a few adornments. Although theatrical scholarship has authoritatively established that the story’s roots and its characters extend all the way back to ancient Rome and, in particular, a fragment from a farce by Plautus called “The Pot of Gold,” which presumably inspired Moliere’s “The Miser.”
Many dramatists have used elements from these plays, but the plot’s essentials were first used as the basis for British playwright John Oxenford’s one-act 1835 farce “A Day Well Spent.” This was a revised and enhanced version of “Einen Jux Will er Sich Machen” (He Intends To Have a Fling) by Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy (regarded in his homeland as “the king of farce”). It was this version that provided the inspiration for American playwright Thornton Wilder’s “The Merchant of Yonkers.” As staged by famed German director Max Reinhardt, Wilder’s play opened on Broadway at the Guild Theater in December, 1938. Despite its having a first-class cast headed by Jane Cowl, one of Broadway’s most popular leading ladies, and featuring a young Tom Ewell as Cornelius Hackle, it was a dismal failure and lasted only 39 performances.
On the advice of the renowned director Tyrone Guthrie, Wilder did a complete overhaul, which resulted in “The Matchmaker” with the role of Dolly Levi tailored to suit the idiosyncratic star Ruth Gordon. The play, directed by Guthrie, opened to good reviews on August 12, 1955, and played a total of 486 performances. Of course, the list of notable actresses who have headlined “The Matchmaker,” both at home and abroad, is virtually endless and invites a game of one degree of separation. My own memory recalls a gentler and uniquely endearing Dolly as portrayed by Elizabeth Franz (Tony award-winner for “Death of a Salesman”) in a McCarter Theater production in 1994.
A 1958 film version starring the incomparable Shirley Booth, plus Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Perkins, and Paul Ford was, unfortunately, not a success. The age-old plot about a widow who finds mates for those seeking them for a price also fits a 1911 silent film unsurprisingly called “The Matchmaker” and starring the then popular Florence Lawrence.
The story of a widow who connives and contrives to bring romance to several couples and herself in a big city restaurant also served producer-playwright Charles Hoyt for his hit musical extravaganza called “A Trip to Chinatown,” which starred the former popular operetta soubrette cum vaudeville headliner Trixie Friganza, produced in the 1890’s.
While the Musical Theater Research Project confirms the 1891 date it also states that it was Anna Boyd who originally played the widow. One answer may be that the show, which played 657 performances on Broadway (almost two years), was such a hit that several road companies toured the country, while a second New York production was brought in to play simultaneously with the original. Hopefully, some knowledgeable reader can solve this mystery?
One thing’s certain, “A Trip to Chinatown” toured for years, establishing the show’s ongoing attraction for all those future Dollys — with or without an Irish brogue. To conclude with a “Hello Dolly” lyric that best sums up all these Dollys:
My step has a spring and a drive
I’m suddenly young and alive You wonderful world,
Take me back again!
“Hello Dolly,” through Sunday, July 23, the Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn. 973-376-4343 or www.papermill.org.