I don’t usually write about theater in this column.
But when a Broadway show is as much fun as the new revival of Hello, Dolly!, I reach beyond my love for movies to celebrate a wondrous evening of live performance.
Yes, this is the same Hello, Dolly! that opened on Broadway in 1964 and was made into a movie in 1969 starring Barbra Streisand. Now, Dolly is back on Broadway for the first time since Carol Channing starred in one more revival in the 1990s. This time, the divine Bette Midler reinvents the role to deliver the performance of her career. Everything we love about Bette comes to life in a portrayal that is brave, funny and moving. This Dolly brings the wisdom of age to one day of farce in New York City in the 1890s. And, because of the great Bette, New York City in 2017 is a happier place to be.
From its opening moments, the show astounds. The Shubert Theater on 44th Street magically transforms into a show palace of a bygone era. The new overture (the original production bypassed this tradition) reminds us how we love the rich score with much more than a catchy title tune. And the opening number — filled to the brim with singing and dancing New Yorkers — introduces Dolly in the best of ways. From her first lines of dialogue and lyric, Midler glows as a woman who learns what it means to live hand to mouth, and from the heart.
The plot of Hello, Dolly! is incidental. Taken from Thornton Wilder’s play, The Matchmaker, the musical introduces Dolly as a struggling widow in search of financial security. She sees that security in the form of a delightful David Hyde Pierce as Horace Vandergelder, the “well-known, unmarried half-a-millionaire” who eyes another woman. This gives Dolly just one day to do her magic. And, as she tries to navigate her romantic life, she also manages to arrange the lives of others. This plot, as thin as it may sound, introduces one show stopping number after another.
Midler invests the title role with a comic ingenuity, and dramatic authenticity, that make this superficial woman highly vulnerable, a naturally funny lady deeply moving. At a time when a big star might be tempted to rest on her laurels, or rely on memories of past glories, Midler plays the role with the energy of a newcomer, as if appearing on Broadway for the first time. Rarely do we get to experience a performer so in love with the moment and so willing to share that moment with so many. As magical as she is — and she is, clearly, the star — Midler leaves room for others to shine. Of the strong cast, Gavin Creel, so strong in the recent On the Twentieth Century revival, makes the cardboard character of Cornelius into a breathing and feeling man. And he can sing and dance, too.
Ultimately, the show — directed with energetic precision by Jerry Zaks — inspires the kind of audience reaction I remember when I first saw the show in the 1960s. No matter how many times you have experienced this musical, book tickets now to what will be a production of our time. Thank you, Bette Midler, for bringing Dolly back where she belongs. And, you, too.
(Hello, Dolly! plays at the Shubert Theater. For information and tickets, go to www.telecharge.com.)
Hello, Dolly! on film: She gets better with age
by Mark Schumann
The Reel Dad
Of the big movie musicals of the 1960s, Hello, Dolly may be the least understood and the least appreciated. And it stands the test of time better than most.
To understand the film requires taking a look at when it opened. By the time Dolly made it to the screen in 1969, movie audiences had been inundated with big screen song and dance films. In the 1960s, four of the Oscars for Best Picture went to musicals (West Side Story, My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music and Oliver) while four others were nominated, The Music Man, Mary Poppins, Doctor Dolittle and Funny Girl. Theaters were also filled with such big movie musicals as Gypsy, Bye Bye Birdie, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, Thoroughly Modern Millie, The Happiest Millionaire, Camelot, Star, Finian’s Rainbow, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and Sweet Charity.
So, by the time Dolly opened in 1969, movie audiences were exhausted by musicals. Tastes were shifting, too. Easy Rider and Midnight Cowboy looked and sounded new while The Wild Bunch celebrated violence and Alice’s Restaurant saluted the offbeat. When this big, traditional, expensive (budgeted at a then-astronomical $18 million) family-friendly Dolly hit theaters for the holidays, critics scoffed at how old fashioned it seemed. Despite the popularity of Barbra Streisand, the film fell short of turning a profit and, at Oscar time, was honored in technical categories. (Yes, Dolly did get nominated for Best Picture, but Midnight Cowboy captured the prize.)
Looking back, the movie Dolly got a bum rap. Yes, at age 26, Barbra Streisand may seem too young to portray a middle-aged widow. But actress Streisand makes it work. From the opening moments, when she delights with a new song, Just Leave Everything to Me, Streisand commands the screen with her precise inflection and nuance. Yes, her Dolly is younger than the lady portrayed on stage. But she’s alive, fresh, curious and fun. And Streisand consistently conveys an unconventional approach to the role. This is not Streisand repeating her Oscar-winning performance from Funny Girl the year before. This Barbra submerges herself into character to make Dolly an original creation.
But critics didn’t see it that way. Instead, as if looking for errors in each line reading, they carped at Streisand’s choice to vary her approach, playing a Southern belle at one moment, mimicking Mae West at another. But they miss the point. Much as Midler in the new Broadway interpretation, Streisand lets us know who she is and when she makes fun, using her various voices to create a three-dimensional woman who knows what she wants and how to snag what she sees. Streisand beautifully captures this complexity.
As strong as her singing (and Jerry Herman’s score has never sounded better) the actress Streisand is at her best in the dialogue sequences. Study her timing and expression when she first encounters Walter Matthau’s take on Horace Vandergelder. The rhythm is perfect. Look at her quiet moments — just before the Act One finale of Before the Parade Passes By — as the actress ventures beneath the surface to surface a lady’s soul. And celebrate the delicious duet of banter between Streisand and Matthau at the Harmonia Gardens. It’s a study in comic delivery. That Streisand was snubbed for an Oscar nomination seems surprising today given the weak competition. But, the same year, Shirley MacLaine was overlooked for her divine Sweet Charity, another musical that failed at the box office. It was the times.
Visually, Dolly is a sight. They don’t make movies like this anymore. Every frame is beautifully constructed, every moment carefully crafted. And the dances — staged by the dynamic Michael Kidd – simply soar. Screenwriter Ernest Lehman “fills in the blanks” of the stage version to make the story more complete and Gene Kelly’s direction holds the whole thing together.
When my kids were learning movies, the chapter on musicals highlighted Hello, Dolly. Years later they still remember the film as a testament to creativity and craft. Treat yourself to a return visit.