Hollywood to Broadway – Hello, Dolly!

Your old pal The MN Movie Man took some time away from dark movie theaters in May for a long overdue visit to The Big Apple and caught up with what Broadway has to offer. Theaters in NYC and London’s West End are continually being filled with stage adaptations of movie properties and out of the 10 shows I saw, half of them either began as a film or are revivals of shows that generated a movie version of their own. In this short series, I’ll go through these five musicals from the Great White Way and see how they compare to their Silver Screen counterparts.

The Original Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on January 16, 1964
The Movie: Hello, Dolly!, (1969)
The Broadway Show: Hello, Dolly!, opened on April 20, 2017

 

When Hello, Dolly! first ambled into town it had built in elegance.  Produced by legendary theater impresario David Merrick, directed by famed choreographer Gower Champion, and starring Broadway favorite Carol Channing, the musical was traditional as they come and played like gangbusters winning 10 Tony Awards and remaining on the Great White Way for a record setting run.  Well known for its stunt-casting after Channing left, famous Dollys included stars like Ethel Merman, Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, and Phyllis Diller, not to mention an ingenious staging of an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Hello, Dolly! also had a healthy life on the road with Channing touring as Dolly for years (decades, really), occasionally stopping back in NYC for limited engagements.   Strangely, the first exposure I had to the show wasn’t from a Carol Channing tour but Sally Struthers who performed the role in a local community theater production.

Four years into the Broadway run, 20th Century Fox released a film version of Hello, Dolly! and poor Carol Channing once again got the short end of the Broadway-to-Hollywood stick.  Channing was famously passed over for Marilyn Monroe when Gentlemen Prefer Blondes made the silver screen leap and this time around none other than Barbra Streisand got her part.  This might have been some sweet revenge for Streisand who lost the Tony Award for Funny Girl to Channing in Hello, Dolly! – it’s well known that Channing and Streisand used to lunch regularly when both were treading the boards but Streisand stopped talking to Channing soon after she was bested by Carol.

Actually, maybe Channing had the last laugh since the film version of Hello, Dolly! was a fairly enormous flop when it opened…almost ruining 20th Century Fox in the process.  Miraculously, it was nominated for 7 Oscars (including Best Picture!) and won three but the film hasn’t aged well over the years.  However opulent the production and costume design were, if the musical itself was by the numbers oatmeal the film is dry melba toast.  It’s worth watching for the complete disdain co-star Walter Matthau has for his leading lady…even when he’s supposed to be falling in love with her.

Endlessly produced by theaters big and small across the world, Hello Dolly! still hadn’t had a Channing-less revival on Broadway until it was announced the Bette Midler had agreed to return to NYC in her first musical in over four decades.  Naturally, the theater community erupted with delight and the show’s advance soared to a record-setting $40 million dollars.  In fact, the show is so sold out that Midler isn’t even doing any press for it.  There’s no need…no one can get a ticket without paying a huge chunk of cash or waiting in line for a limited amount of standing room seats given out each morning.

That’s how I lucked out at seeing the show on my recent trip to The Big Apple. Getting in line with my friend around 4:30 in the morning, we weren’t even the first in line but had no trouble getting a ticket when the box office opened at 10:00am.  Already having opened to glowing reviews, I knew this would be a memorable experience and it truly was.  It’s hard to express the pure joy this production elicits…it’s just something you pretty much have to see for yourself.  Midler was in fabulous form, nailing the comedy and nuance of the role and doing a darn good job singing Jerry Herman’s score along the way.  While she’s a bona fide superstar and everyone there was there to see her, she never upstaged her co-stars…all of whom are the cherry-picked best of the best.  From David Hyde Piece’s droll but sincere Horace to Kate Baldwin’s gorgeous Irene, the voices are beautiful and the ensemble is sharp and crisp.  Special mention must be made for Beanie Feldstein  (Jonah Hill’s younger sister) who makes for a hysterical Minnie Fay.

With Midler scheduled to remain in the show for a year, ticket demand may free up as newer shows populate the landscape but be prepared for this to remain a tough ticket for some time.  The production itself is designed to run after Midler leaves…it just needs a star of her caliber to bring in the audiences.  With uber-producer Scott Rudin running things, expect some stunt casting to rival original producer David Merrick’s in the A-list department.

Movie Review ~ 20 Feet From Stardom

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea who these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Stars: Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Judith Hill, Tata Vega, Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger, Sting, Bruce Springsteen, Bette Midler, Chris Botti

Director: Mogan Neville

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 91 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8.5/10)

Review: The most I can ever ask from a film is that it moves me.  Now sometimes a movie will move me to the nearest exit and pronto when the lights come up but then there are the movies that you don’t want to end so you stay firmly planted in your seat until the final credits roll, the lights come up, and the usher kindly asks you to leave so he pick up all the junk left on the floor (note…take your garbage with you!!!).  20 Feet from Stardom is a film that captures your attention and doesn’t let go for a joyous 91 minutes.

In 2002 there was a documentary called Standing in the Shadows of Motown and it told the story of the legendary Funk Brothers, musicians that backed up countless numbers of Motown artists.  20 Feet from Stardom finds itself with a similar theme but instead looks at those using a totally different kind of instrument…their voice.  Backup singers don’t always get their due but filmmaker Morgan Neville shines a light on them and produces a truly magical experience that gave me all sorts of goosebumps.

Neville has an abundance of riches when it comes to famous faces that go on camera to endorse the various background vocalists they have worked with over the years but he uses people like Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, and Sting sparingly in favor of giving more time to a handful of powerhouse talents.

Though Darlene Love may be the most known out of the group thanks to her yearly holiday appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman and playing Danny Glover’s wife in the Lethal Weapon films, there’s a nice balance between her story of coming up through the ranks and other, lesser known, names.  You may not be familiar with Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, or Tata Vega but after hearing some of the famous songs they sang back-up on you’ll always have a face to put with a spine-tingling vocal.

While the archival footage is fun, it was the present day material shot for the film that leaves a lasting impression.  Showing that time hasn’t changed the power in their timbre, Neville lets the ladies tell their own stories…the triumphs and set-backs, the struggles and the successes.

It’s an audience-pleasing, good for you kind of movie-going experience that I would hope everyone gets a chance to take in.  In a summer where the action movies are loud and the acting sometimes louder, it was so refreshing to see a film with a big heart to match some powerful soul.

The Silver Bullet ~ Twenty Feet from Stardom

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Synopsis: Backup singers live in a world that lies just beyond the spotlight. Their voices bring harmony to the biggest bands in popular music, but we’ve had no idea these singers are or what lives they lead, until now.

Release Date:  June 14, 2013

Thoughts: When was the last time you really stopped to listen to the background singers on a piece of music?  Artists often contribute to their own backing vocals but more often than not those featured on the track are simply relegated to the linear notes (and with most music being digitized these well-sung, unsung heroes may never really be recognized).  The new documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom moves the spotlight from the lead singer to those a little further back that provide harmony and unity to the popular songs of yesterday and today and it looks to be a crowd-pleasing winner.  Filled with celebrity interviews and a look at a few notable backing vocalists, I’m very much looking forward to this June release.

Why Haven’t You Seen This Movie? ~ Stella

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The Facts:

Synopsis: Stella is determined, courageous, vulgar, unfashionable…and all her daughter has. Through the trials of teenagehood, to the problems of adulthood, Stella will do anything for Jenny…ending in an selfless, unforgettable sacrifice.

Stars: Bette Midler, John Goodman, Trini Alvarado, Stephen Collins, Marsha Mason

Director: John Erman

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 109 minutes

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review:  Between the success of Beaches and the head-scratching failure of Scenes from a Mall, Midler showed up on the big screen in this second remake of Stella Dallas.  Fifty three years after the last adaptation, Midler took on the role that was played memorably by Barbara Stanywck in a melodramatic but quite effective three-hanky weeper.  Though critics were generally kind to Midler and the film itself, audiences didn’t respond like they had with Beaches and the movie was seen as a flop.  That’s too bad because though quite manipulative and schmaltzy, it features one of Midler’s most underrated performances.

Brusque barmaid Stella (Midler) has a brief romance with a young doctor (Collins) and when she finds herself pregnant (or “stubbing her toe” as she recalls her mother would have said) she decides to do it alone…knowing that the doctor doesn’t really want to marry her and be saddled with a child just as his career is taking off. 

The child, Jenny, grows up in modest accommodations until her successful dad benignly enters her life again…giving Jenny the experience of growing up in two different worlds and income levels. The older Jenny (Alvarado who is pleasant but doesn’t resemble either Midler or Collins) goes through the typical teenage embarrassment from her mother and it isn’t long until mother and daughter have to face certain realities about the life they have created together. 

What elevates this film from its humble origins is Midler’s fiercely committed portrayal of a take no crap kinda lady that doesn’t let the outside world in easily.  All she knows is her daughter and her identity is all about how to provide for her and keep her happy.  Parents sacrifice for their children all the time and if there is one lesson you can take from Stella, it’s that though it can seem that your parents don’t have your best interest at heart they are all simply doing the best they can with what they have.

Midler gets nice support from Collins as a character that could easily have been marked as the villain but is too honest for his intentions to come off as anything but sincere.  Better still is Mason as Jenny’s potential stepmom…she follows the lead set by Collins and makes her character easy-going and likable.  The only actor that still doesn’t quite fit here is Goodman as Stella’s longtime friend, an alcoholic that always seems to turn up at the wrong time.  Goodman was riding the Roseanne high at the time and couldn’t totally shake his TV character when tackling something this tricky.  He’s either too big or too small…no medium ground exists with Goodman (see recent efforts in Argo and Flight). 

Director Erman contributes some pedestrian direction with what could easily be turned into a stage play when you consider how much of it takes place inside Stella and Jenny’s duplex accommodations.  The screenplay by Robert Getchell hits the appropriate notes of drama and cinematographer Billy Williams doesn’t let the camera get in Midler’s way insomuch that it follows her lead.   

Though I go back to Stella once every few years, it’s a movie with an impact that hasn’t changed much over time.  I think I’ve grown to appreciate my family more since seeing it in its first release in February of 1990 – I’ll never forget leaving the theater and my grandmother almost being killed by a light that fell from the movie theater ceiling at the old Southdale theater in Edina.  The ending still creates a happy-sad emotion in the viewer and it’s a harmless blip on the Midler radar screen…but it’s worth investigating further.