In January of this year, plans were announced to bring the long-running, Broadway hit Hello, Dolly! back to Broadway next spring, with Bette Midler set to star as the determined matchmaker first created by Thornton Wilder and memorialized in music by Jerry Herman.
The role and show, however, are forever linked to (if not downright owned by) Carol Channing, who created the role of Dolly Levi in the 1964 musical adaptation. The unstoppable show business pro, whose instantly recognizable persona and charisma harken back to a Broadway of another era, responded to Playbill.com’s questions about her initial work with Herman on the original production, her love for the role of Dolly and her recent in-person meeting with Midler.
What do you remember about getting the call that you had been cast as Dolly Levi? What was your reaction to the news?
Carol Channing: It wasn’t actually a call. I met with Gower Champion and [producer] Mr. Merrick, who immediately told me to go over to Jerry’s apartment and start working on the music. We worked very late, and the neighbors started to complain about the hour. I wasn’t completely certain that I had been hired until I was given a rehearsal schedule. I think they all assumed I knew.
How would you describe working with Jerry Herman on that very first Dolly?
CC: Ohhhh Jerry! Well, he is the most brilliant man, you know. He is so amazing. You give him any subject and a situation and he'll have a song for you in minutes.
You didn't miss a performance of Hello, Dolly! How did you keep healthy and keep up your energy?
CC: I am very proud of that, you know. I kept thinking that the audience had gone to so much trouble, working their schedules to be there. They had arranged for babysitters and even traveled in from out of town. Oh, how could I not be there for them? I always felt sorry for my standbys, like JoAnne Worley, because they never go to go on. She eventually did the role on tour. Well, anyway. It isn't entirely true that I never missed a performance. I missed a half a show in Kalamazoo. I was so sick with food poisoning that I was throwing up everywhere. I wasn't able to do the second act. Mr. Merrick said, “Well, if you have to miss a show, Kalamazoo is the place to do it!”
You’ve played some great roles before Hello, Dolly! (including Lorelei Lee in Gentleman Prefer Blondes), why do you think Dolly is the most memorable?
CC: Well, I did it over 5,000 times. Yul Brynner did 5,000 performances of The King and I, while I was doing Dolly and asked if I did 5,000 of Hello Dolly! not to say anything, and I said “OK.” Well, he's gone now, so I can say that we went way over 5,000. Patricia Morison is still performing and she is 101. On her birthday last year, I told her to stop setting the bar so high.
What was it like to come back to play Dolly on Broadway 14 years after the original?
CC: I don't know. It was like putting on your most comfortable pair of shoes, they slip right on and fit perfectly. Or dress, a big ole red dress. The faces on stage changed, but Dolly never left me. She was slightly different every night, because the audience was different. That may be why people came back so often to see her.
You also toured extensively. What did you love about the touring aspect of performing?
CC: There are a lot of actors that don’t like touring and will do just about anything to get out of it, but I loved it. I loved the cities, the people and the new experiences it offered.
What was your biggest struggle during your performing days and how did you grapple with it?
CC: I suppose I can say it now, but it was my health. We couldn't let anyone know about it at the time, but I wasn’t all that healthy at times. I was battling cancer and had to have treatment in New York once a week, so Mr. Merrick arranged for me to fly out after the show on Sunday, from wherever we were touring, to see my doctor on Monday and fly back in time for the show on Tuesday. I don't know how he did it, but the press and, more importantly, the audience never found out. I don't know how much the cast knew, but they were wonderful. And, so many of them dealing with their own battles. HIV and AIDS were ravaging our industry at the time, and taking so many of our most talented individuals.
Is there anything you wished you had been able to do in your career (a role you would have liked to play) that you did not?
CC: No. Jerry’s Mame might have been fun, but after seeing Angie in the role, who wants to try and live up to that?
What's your favorite song to sing, even to this day?
CC: I can't say that I have a favorite. I find myself humming songs that my father taught me as a child. So, I suppose they have stayed with me the longest. “Mamma, send me a letter. Papa, send me a stamp.”
It was recently announced that Hello, Dolly! will be coming back to Broadway in 2017, with Bette Midler stepping into the role you created. She recently came to visit you in Palm Springs. Had you met before, or was this the first time?
CC: This was the first time that I had the pleasure of meeting Bette and was very honored that she had asked to meet me.
What was your reaction to Bette's casting?
CC: Inspired. I have never been privileged to see her perform, but her reputation precedes her and she is an excellent addition to the list of Jerry’s Girls.
What did Bette ask you about?
CC: Well, we discussed Dolly’s history and the spine of her story. Well, every character in the show, actually. They are all rejoining the human race, and Dolly is their anchor... or cheerleader.
Do you have any advice for Bette about the role?
CC: No. Bette is a professional. She doesn’t need my advice to make Dolly her own. She will be wonderful and the audience will love her for it!