DIgging into the archives, we unearth the original articles printed in the Playbills of yesteryear.
In 1995, Carol Channing reprised her Tony-winning title role in Hello, Dolly! for the third time on Broadway. (She won in 1964 for leading the original production). Channing told Playbill, in the below interview from September of that year, that it was the happiest year of her life and the best Dolly! company she’d ever worked with.
Now that Dolly! is back on Broadway, and has earned ten Tony nominations—as did the original production, Playbill looks back on Channing and her director/choreographer, Lee Roy Reams, as they discuss what changed for the 1995 mounting and what was still going strong.
She’s still glowing, she’s still crowing, she’s still going strong! “She” is Carol Channing or Dolly Gallagher Levi, depending on your point of view. To many people, they are one and the same. Channing first starred in Hello, Dolly! in 1964, and it seems as if she’s been playing the indefatigable matchmaker ever since. Next month (at the Neil Simon Theatre) she returns to Broadway in a much acclaimed 30th anniversary production that began touring the country over a year ago and will eventually travel to China.
From the original opening night on January 16, 1964, through various other productions including a revival, Channing has played Dolly more than 4,000 times without ever having missed a performance. She is so strongly identified with the character that most people are uncertain where Channing leaves off and Dolly begins.
“I don’t know either,” Channing admits. “But I do know that I worked very hard in the beginning to become Dolly. I was madly in love with the character, but I had never played anyone like her before.”
Dressed in a chic, white pantsuit and sporting large, dark sunglasses over those impossibly wide eyes, Channing is spending a day off in San Francisco doing a series of interviews. The consummate professional, she answers every question with a Dolly-like enthusiasm, as if she hasn’t heard each one a million times before. Her affection for the show, for the character, is genuine, as well it should be. Her portrayal of Dolly earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (beating out, among others, the future screen Dolly, Barbra Streisand), and it certainly contributed to her 1995 Tony for Lifetime Achievement.
Hello, Dolly!, with a score by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, is based on Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (1955), which was a rewrite of his play The Merchant of Yonkers (1938), which was inspired by a 19th-century Viennese play. “There was no Dolly in the Austrian play,” says Channing, “Thornton Wilder created her. I had the privilege of getting to know him, and one day I realized, ‘Dolly is Thornton Wilder.’ He had written himself into the character, and he was totally unaware of it.”
The driving force behind Hello, Dolly! was Gower Champion, whose stylish direction and inspired choreography turned a good musical into a great one. “I think Gower is a bloody genius,” says Channing, who often refers to the late director in the present tense. “He conceived the show as an intimate musical, but during rehearsals it got bigger and bigger. He’d say, ‘I don’t know the level of a show until I get it to sing and dance.’ So he’d watch, and he began to add things and before you knew it, we had the proportions of Hello, Dolly!.”
But when the show tried out in Detroit, the reviews were very negative. “We had too many subplots,” Channing recalls, “and we gradually eliminated them. The first act ended with a song for Horace called ‘Penny in My Pocket.’ It was wonderful, but it wasn’t what the show was about.” The song was eventually replaced with the rousing, life-affirming “Before the Parade Passes By.” The show became more and more focused on Dolly’s determination to let go of her dead husband and rejoin the human race, and Hello, Dolly! went on to win ten Tony Awards—a record that still stands.*
The current production of Hello, Dolly! is directed and choreographed by Lee Roy Reams, who played Cornelius in the 1978 revival and was one of the stars of Champion’s last show, 42nd Street. “Gower was my mentor,” says Reams, “and I approached the show with the idea that I have his blueprint, but there have to be adjustments. Gower was very creative, and if he were with us, he would have changed things. I’ve seen the life of choreography go out because of keepers of the flame who insist on preserving everything exactly as it was. Times change, styles change, and you’re dealing with different artists.”
Reams has retained so much of Champion’s work that even someone intimately acquainted with the show would be hard-pressed to notice the differences. But he has added details and subtleties that often prove to be quite powerful, that emphasize the book or the lyrics or the romance in a new way.
In “Before the Parade Passes By,” he asked Channing to eliminate some walking steps that she used to do, stand still and just sing the song. “I didn’t want anything to interfere with what she was saying,” Reams explains. “Once that’s established, we get into the movement. The number stopped the show when we opened the production in Denver, and Carol said, ‘That never happened before. Why do you think it happened now?’ I think it’s because people really listened to what she was saying.”
Many critics have commented that Channing’s performance has ripened, grown funnier, more poignant. But she disagrees: “The only thing that’s different is that now I am free to do a forward bump in ‘So Long Dearlie.’ That was not allowed in 1964. It was considered bad taste. So Dolly is more open now. She’s sexier. But aside from that, Dolly hasn’t changed. It’s the audience that’s changed. People see things a little different today.”
Channing is now a most remarkable 74, and her energy and enthusiasm appear to be unflagging. “This is the happiest year of my life,” she says. “Isn’t that something? It’s strange, so late in life, to have your happiest year. But this is the best Dolly! company I’ve ever worked with. And doing this show is soul-fulfilling.”
*At the time of the original publication of this article in 1995, this held true. Since then, The Producers broke that record when it won 12 Tony Awards in 2001.