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A Special Birthday and Remembering the Years Through Hello Dolly!

by John Aquino on 06/10/19

I turned 70 yesterday, and I thank all my relatives and friends on Facebook and LinkedIn who were kind enough to send birthday greetings. My wife took me on a three-day birthday trip to downtown Washington (just 13 miles from our home but we stayed at a hotel for two nights), where, among other excursions, we saw Hello Dolly! at the Kennedy Center starring Betty Buckley. In addition to the usual thoughts special birthdays bring, this also caused me to view the years gone back through a bookends of the original production of Dolly! that my Mom took me to see in its pre-Broadway tryout at the National Theater in Washington, D.C., with this production and to wonder the degree to which memory clouds and enhances things.

I am not familiar with any songs specifically about turning 70, except a portion of one sung by Fagin in Oliver! :

What happens when I'm 70?
Must come a time--70!
When you're old and it's cold,
And who cares if you live or you die?
The one consolation's the MONEY you may have put by!

Thank God, I'm not cold and I have a lovely and thoughtful wife. I wish the MONEY had been better over the years and that bosses had been more appreciative of my efforts that made them rich, but, ca va. I'm retired from day-to-day journalism, still write, and practice law when I'm needed. I'm reasonably healthy and still active. I read the obituaries every day--not checking to see if I'm in them or out of any schadenfreude but because friends are getting to the age where they pass on and I have learned that if they do I hear about it in the normal course of things. Life is good, with God's blessings.

In watching Hello, Dolly! on stage for the first time in 55 years, I tried to assess the differences in the productions and me. When my Mom and I saw it at the National Theater, the show had left its first performances in Detroit and terrible reviews. The director and choreographer Gower Champion had spent so much time on the big production numbers like "Put on your Sunday Clothes," "Hello Dolly!" and "Dancing" that the rest of the show (about a matchmaker in Yonkers, New York in 1885 who contrives to have a rich half-a-millionaire, who has asked her to find a wife for him, marry her instead) came across as sketchy and cold. Champion, the librettist Michael Stewart, and composer and lyricist Jerry Herman cut and added some songs. But when my Mom and I saw it, the first act finale was still a number for the rich Horace Vandergelder played by David Burns, his barber, and the chorus called "A Penny in My Pocket." It was an indifferent song and ended the first act with a focus on the thick-headed Horace and not on the star Dolly., played by Carol Channing. By the end of its D.C. run, "A Penny in My Pocket" had been cut and replaced by Dolly's declaration of independence, "Before the Parade Passes By." Another new song, "Elegance," was added, that was, depending on who is telling the story, a song written by Bob Merrill that had been dropped from his musical, A New Girl in Town, or. Herman's version of Merrill's song. Herman was later hit by a copyright infringement suit claiming that the song "Hello Dolly!" had the same opening of as Mack David's 1948 "Sunflower" (The suit was settled out of court for a reported $250,000). While Dolly! was a big hit, I remember reading that Charles Nelson Reilly, who was unexpectedly effective as Cornelius Hackell, said that it was an unpleasant show to be in because everyone was only interested in money.

I was actually disappointed that another musical that I'd preferred that my Mom and I also saw--Meredith Wilson's Here's Love!, based on the 1946 film A Miracle on 34th Street--ran only 10 months while Hello Dolly! ran seven years, won 11 out of 12 Tony awards, including for best musical, score, and best musical actress, and was made into a major motion picture in 1969 starring Barbra Streisand. Thee 2018 Broadway revival starring Bette Midler won a Tony Award for best revival and Midler; the Dolly! we saw was the touring company of that revival.

Seeing this new version, I wondered how much of my reaction was colored by the effect of 54 years on my memory, the fact that when my Mom and I saw it in 1964 the show was new; and also that what we saw in 1964 was headed to Broadway while the Kennedy Center show was coming from Broadway and going on tour. I remember Gower Champion's direction as being full of energy: the song "Dancing" began with Dolly actually teaching the two inept clerks Cornelius and Barnaby to dance and ended with the dancing pouring into the street and causing passers-by the join in;  the number"I Stand For" had Dolly, Irene Molloy, and Minnie Fay singing nonsense lyrics ("I stand for motherhood, America and a hot lunch for orphans") while trying to hide the two men from Horace in Malloy's hat shop in intricately plotted movements in and out of closets and under tables; and "Elegance" was so exuberantly performed it stopped the show. For this production, I noticed that the conductor's tempo for the overture was surprisingly listless. For "Dancing," the two men started dancing right away and the number appeared played for laughs, as was "I Stand For,"with Barnaby hiding in plain view by putting on hats; the title song "Hello Dolly" had the waiters primarily dancing by kicking in place while holding trays and Buckley as Dolly just walking around and tilting her hands back and forth; and "Elegance" had little choreography and appeared to be an on-the-apron number designed to disguise a scenery change, which it might have been originally, but as performed in 1964, came across as much more. 

I didn't see "Before the Parade Passes By" in the original production, but here Dolly sang it all the way through in front of the curtain and then the curtain rose to reveal the marchers at the 14th parade moving in one place in slow motion; when the motion sped up, the cast mostly walked around the stage in a circle. Similarly, for Dolly's 11 o'clock number "So Long, Dearie," she started it in the courtroom singing it to Horace but then moved to the apron of the stage, the curtain fell, and she sang it to us in front of the curtain. It has to be stated that, when Carol Channing originated the role of Dolly, she was 43. Betty Buckley has had a glorious Broadway career, has won two Tony awards, but is 71 and hasn't been in a Broadway show for 20 years. It also needs to be said that as a touring production the show seemed to rely on backdrops and made the Kennedy Center Opera House look somehow small.

The show even restored "A Penny in Your Pocket" but as the opening of the second act and sung by Horace in front of the curtain (again!), detached from the show and its action. It may have been added for the cache of  a "new song" and to please David Hyde Pierce, who played Horace in the 2018 Broadway production, in that Horace has only one-and-a-half songs--"It Takes a Woman" and he joins with Dolly at the end in a reprise of "Hello Dolly."

And so, on points, the original production seems to have been better. But it was new then. The "Before the Parade Passes By" number wasn't competing with the memory of the 1969 movie in which Streisand led a parade of a thousand marchers down 14th Street. And the rest of the audience when we saw the Kennedy Center production LOVED It. They laughed in all the right places and showered Betty Buckley with thunderous applause after every number. The Washington Post review was a rave.

Perhaps that's what comes with age. Memory can cloud what happened, and it can also be accurate. New seems fresher than old. My wife had never seen it, and she loved it too--although she agreed the tempo could have been a little sprightlier. And I'm glad I saw it, if only because I saw it with her.

Copyright 2019 by John T. Aquino

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