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.

Down From the Shelf ~ Carol Channing: Larger than Life

The Facts:

Synopsis: A documentary on Broadway legend Carol Channing.

Stars: Carol Channing and a plethora of stars from stage and screen

Director: Dori Berinstein

Rated: PG

Running Length: 87 mins

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  The phrase “national treasure” is thrown around maybe a bit too much in our present entertainment climate.  Mickey Rooney and Betty White are obvious choices to headline the list but I don’t think anyone would object to 91 year old Carol Channing holding her own right near the top.  Documenting the lives of our most reliable, memorable, and infamous stars from the Golden Age is nothing revolutionary but a new documentary about the life of Carol Channing is one of the more winning peeks behind the stage door. 

By now, Channing has to be one of the most parodied celebrities on par with Cher, Liza, and Judy Garland and it’s true that Channing’s big eyes and unique voice are fairly easy to mimic no matter how many times you’ve seen her.  Throughout the film we see the evolution of Channing from young girl who seemed to have an invisible bond to the stage to the saucer eyed and kooky star that most of us will remember her as. 

What struck me about the film was how Channing hit the ground running with a determination most up and comers would envy.  Director Berinstein lets the facts do the talking as we move through school years to the eventual long running Broadway pro she is famous for being.  That she did it all with making very few enemies is a rare feat considering the entertainment system she was working with.

Without much adversity, though, the film paints the picture that everything was sunshine and roses which most know is not the case.  Her tumultuous marriage to her third husband (who pretty much robbed her blind before kicking the bucket) is only fleetingly touched upon as is her relationship with her son.  From Channing’s own words it’s clear that the mother/son waters were rough and may still but that’s all the information we get on the subject.

Still…the film doesn’t seem to want to have anything to do with negativity but instead focuses on the woman behind Dolly Levi, Lorelei Lee, and her Oscar nominated turn in Thoroughly Modern Millie.  A cavalcade of stars is interviewed and their words/musings are a chorus of lavish love for Channing.  Speaking of love, at the heart of the movie is the relationship between Channing and her fourth husband…who also happens to have been her first boyfriend.  Though separated for years by work, marriages, and war…the story of how they found each other again stirs the heart in the best possible way. 

As far as documentaries go, this is a fairly light affair.  Its short running length belies the monumental career Channing has had.  As Channing goes through her closet and pulls out familiar costumes from her roster of work there is never a sense of regret or sadness at shows/parts/loves gone by.  No, she seems to be thankful all over again that she’s lived the life she has doing what she loves.  That we all should be so lucky (and spry) at her age, right?