Today is Carol Channing's 86th birthday, and by all accounts she is still -- you should pardon the expression -- "going strong."
Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Miss Channing in performance at the Gravity Lounge in Charlottesville. Well, to tell the truth, it wasn't Carol Channing herself, but rather a most remarkable facsimile in the form of a tribute by illusionist Richard Skipper.
I had an opportunity to interview Skipper after the show, and I will no doubt write about both the show and the interview before the week is out.
Seeing his loving tribute to Carol Channing, however, gives me my own opportunity to reminisce.
My romance with musical theatre dates to a night in January 1967, when I was just 7 years old, and my parents took me to see Carol Channing starring in the first national tour of Hello, Dolly! at the old Palace Theatre in Milwaukee. It was my initial experience with live theatre, and I was hooked for life.
Eleven years later, another national tour of Dolly! came through town, with Miss Channing co-starring with Eddie Bracken. Thinking it might be my last opportunity to see her in the show, I bought tickets in the nosebleed section of the Milwaukee Performing Arts Center and took my parents and a friend to the show.
My next chance to see Carol Channing live came in 1986, when she and Mary Martin brought Legends! on tour to Washington's National Theatre. "Legends" was an appropriate term to use to describe the play's stars, but the book was no better then than it is now, in the current production featuring Joan Collins and Linda Evans.
To my surprise and delight, a revival of Hello, Dolly! began in 1994, wending its way to Washington (this time at the Kennedy Center) by September 1995. It was this production that propelled me to become a theatre critic. In fact, the very first review I wrote for the Metro Herald was about that production of Hello, Dolly! (I had been writing political commentary for the newspaper for about three years at that point; I explained to the editor, P.J. Robinson, that I wanted to "spread my wings" as a writer. I also wanted an outlet for my theatre jones.)
My most recent chance to see Carol Channing in person was about two years ago, when she appeared in a panel discussion at the Kennedy Center (as part of its 1940s festival) along with Debbie Reynolds and Kitty Carlisle Hart. Moderated by Dick Cavett, the three ladies shared their memories of that tumultuous decade and also had a few choice words to say about the present. (Commenting on Judy Garland's famous abuse of drugs in her days at MGM, Miss Channing added that this explains Liza Minnelli's latter-day problems because, she said, in her inimitable way, "Liza is a crack baby!") It was a unique and unforgettable occasion: How often does one get to hear dish about Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, after all?
For the record, here is what I wrote immediately after seeing Hello, Dolly! that day more than 11 years ago, the review that launched, if not a career, then simply a wonderful avocation:
Forget ethanol. If the government can figure out how to clone Carol Channing, we'll never have to worry about relying on foreign sources of energy again.Looking Swell![Hello, Dolly! Kennedy Center Opera House, through October 8, 1995; Tuesday through Friday at 8:00 p.m.; Saturday at 2:00 and 8:00 p.m.; Sunday at 2:00 and 7:00 p.m.; running time, 2:45; ticket prices, $40 and up.]
How does Carol Channing react to the sustained applause and cheers that greet her when she makes her entrance in Hello, Dolly!? She beams. She positively beams. And why not? After nearly 32 years of trodding the boards as Dolly Levi, Channing still raises the level of energy in an auditorium to nuclear-reactor levels. The warmth she generates gets reflected back from each and every person in the audience.
The character of Dolly Gallagher Levi has a distinguished history, as does the play itself. Based upon two plays by Pulitzer-prize winner Thornton Wilder, The Merchant of Yonkers (1938) and The Matchmaker (1955), Hello, Dolly! brings to life downtown and suburban New York in the 1880s. To do this, many of the great ladies of the American theatre have trod the boards as Dolly Levi, an independent woman who uses her wiles to marry Horace Vandergelder, "the well-known half-a-millionaire."
Ruth Gordon created the role on Broadway, spelled by Shirley Booth in the 1957 film version (which also included Arlington native Shirley MacLaine, Anthony Perkins, and Robert Morse). Within a year of Hello, Dolly!'s Broadway debut, a second Broadway company opened, headed by Washington's own Pearl Bailey and the great Cab Calloway; the cast also featured a young Morgan Freeman. The musical role of Dolly was designed for Ethel Merman, who was the last in a long line of Broadway Dollies when the show closed in 1972 -- a line that included Dorothy Lamour, Ginger Rogers, Eve Arden, Phyllis Diller, Betty Grable, and Mary Martin. Then, of course, there was the 1969 film version, with the horribly miscast Barbra Streisand.
Despite the claims of all these great actresses, the part of Dolly Levi belongs to only one -- the true original, Carol Channing, who by the end of this run at the Kennedy Center will have performed the role almost 4,500 times in 32 years, without missing a single performance. Who has the worse job -- Carol Channing's understudy or the second-string shortstop for the Baltimore Orioles?
At 74, Miss Channing is still going strong. Her comic skills are undiminished with age. And those skills are not limited to this one character. Ten years ago at the National Theatre, she held her own with Mary Martin in Legends, as a bitchy, aging theatre diva reuniting with an old rival. Yet Dolly Levi is an American legend all her own.
This revival features vibrantly colorful costumes, a reconstruction of the original sets designed by Oliver Smith, and the most tuneful score ever created by composer/lyricist Jerry Herman. Herman writes better music for a male chorus than anyone on Broadway or Tin Pan Alley in this century, and the harmonies he creates for the men and also for the mixed chorus are simple, direct, and pure. (Compare the title songs in Hello, Dolly! and in Mame -- the same qualities shine through in both numbers.)
Director Lee Roy Reams (who had played Cornelius in the 1977 revival) has recreated much of Gower Champion's original, farcical staging. The cast is strong, although Jay Garner's Vandergelder often seems more buffoonish than pompous -- something David Burns, Paul Ford, and Walter Matthau avoided in earlier turns at the role. Florence Lacey, repeating her 1977 role as Irene Molloy, has a sweet voice with just a touch of an Irish brogue. Michael DeVries as Cornelius has a strong tenor voice that stands out in his second-act ballad, "It Only Takes a Moment," and Cory English's Barnaby Tucker is athletically elfin.
For those inclined to say, "I was there when ...," watch for Julian Brightman, a gentleman in the chorus who answers to the name "Stanley" in the big title number. He obviously has been paying attention to Miss Channing, showing amazing comedic abilities, terrific timing, and a wide smile that lasts for days. Brightman is someone to watch. He'll definitely be going places.
Speaking of that big title number, the anticipation of Dolly's entrance down the staircase at the Harmonia Gardens quite literally sends shivers down one's spine. There is no better song in theatre written for male chorus and female star than "Hello, Dolly!" (There are reports that the song was recorded more than 100 times in the year after it was released. The single by Louis Armstrong bumped the Beatles off the charts in 1964, and Lyndon Johnson adapted it as his campaign song that year!) Seldom in musical theatre does one see an audience jump to its feet in the middle of a show -- yet that is what the Opera House audience did on opening night. The wide eyes of the chorus boys showed how much they appreciated the genuine warmth -- and the fact that such warmth is so rare among audiences these days.
Let's admit that Hello, Dolly! is a light-hearted romp, a second-rate French farce. But isn't that a good reason to go to the theatre? It may not be a deeply philosophical, but the play does contain some good epigrams. For instance: "Money, you should pardon the expression, is like manure. It doesn't do any good unless you spread it around and encourage little things to grow." Hello, Dolly! celebrates life. Rush to the Kennedy Center to join the celebration -- before the parade passes by.
(To assure that nobody is confused, the photo above is of Richard Skipper channeling Miss Channing, not the one-and-only herself. I took it last night at Gravity Lounge.)