Resurrecting a theatrical warhorse

After a rocky try-out period in Detroit and Washington, no one was prepared for the rave reviews and the lines-around-the-block business that “Hello, Dolly!” received when it opened at the St. James Theatre in New York in January of 1964. The show won a record 10 Tony Awards and became the longest running musical in Broadway history until it was surpassed by “Fiddler on the Roof.” Carol Channing’s performance even eclipsed her memorable turn as Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.” She would play Dolly Levi more than 5,000 times, winning a Tony over a formidable new star on Broadway -- Barbra Streisand, who would exact a sort of unintentional revenge five years later when she was cast over Channing as Dolly in an expensive and ill-fated movie adaptation.

If moviegoers were less than enraptured by the Hollywood Dolly, theater audiences still welcomed her back where she belonged. Ladies of a certain age, including Ethel Merman (for whom the show was written), Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, and Phyllis Diller kept theaters packed for decades. Mary Martin starred in the London production and even took the show on a tour of  military bases in Vietnam.

Bette Midler brought her own saucy style to the part in a current Broadway revival that has attracted as much attention and admiration as the original did 50 years ago.

I always thought the musical itself, which was based on a minor-key Thornton WIlder comedy called “The Matchmaker,” was slightly compromised by its own exalted reputation. “My Fair Lady” it isn’t. There are some fine, melodic (remember them) Jerry Herman songs, but the real appeal of the show is solely dependent on the talent of the leading lady. I saw Channing play the role twice in New York. Ms. Midler’s soaring vocal interpretation of Dolly is much closer to a brassy Mermanesque version than it is to Ms. Channing’s endearingly gravelly renderings.

Bette Midler is introducing new generations of theatergoers to a show that has become an American classic and that is terrific, but I doubt if even the Divine Miss M could dim my memory of that night many, many years ago when Ms. Channing stood at the top of that red-carpeted staircase at the Harmonia Gardens Restaurant and began her slow descent towards all of those welcoming arms below.

The New Broadway Cast recording is available on a Masterworks CD. The Original Cast recording was released by RCA. Both are available at the Northshire.