Although Carol Channing will be forever remembered as the original Dolly Gallagher Levi, the 1964 Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! played host to many notable leading ladies after Channing, including Mary Martin, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey, Ginger Rogers, Martha Raye, Betty Grable and Phyllis Diller. With that in mind, if the current Broadway revival kept running beyond this summer, can you imagine who might have ended up playing the role?
A few names come to mind: Queen Latifah, Kristin Chenoweth, Patti LuPone, Patti LaBelle, Christine Ebersole, Faith Prince, Megan Mullally, Christine Baranski, Audra McDonald, Rosie O’Donnell, Bebe Neuwirth, Laurie Metcalf, Stockard Channing, Victoria Clark, Whoopi Goldberg, Andrea Martin, Tovah Feldshuh (who played the role at Paper Mill Playhouse in 2006) and Betty Buckley (who will lead the upcoming national tour).
This lavish, lovingly old-fashioned, euphoric revival (directed by Jerry Zaks, with handsome choreography by Warren Carlyle that pays homage to the hyperkinetic original work of Gower Champion) was the hottest ticket in town (or at least as hot as Hamilton) from its first preview on March 15, 2017 to Bette Midler’s final performance on January 14, 2018. And even following Midler’s exit, the production has continued to perform reasonably well in the weekly grosses with Bernadette Peters in the lead, such that the recent announcement that the revival will close on Aug. 25 (with Midler returning for the last six weeks) came as a surprise.
About a month after she entered the production, Peters had her own opening night, but many critics (including myself) had to wait another few weeks to re-attend because Gavin Creel (who won a Tony for his supporting turn as Cornelius Hackl) sustained a back injury requiring surgery. I finally got to see Peters in the part after Santino Fontana (who took over as Cornelius during Creel’s absence) had warmed into the role.
Unlike many other critics, I was not the biggest fan of Peters’ performance. As much as I admire her inimitable qualities as a singer and actress (and I treasure the video recordings of her in the original productions of Sunday in the Park with George and Into the Woods), Peters struck me as miscast – too fragile and tender to take command of this high-powered musical comedy. Like Midler, Peters also got winded physically and vocally towards the end, barely able to make it through the 11-o-clock number “So Long Dearie.”
Someone else who does not see Peters as an ideal Dolly is none other than songwriter Jerry Herman. In a 2008 interview with Variety, when was asked about the idea of casting Peters as Dolly, Herman demurred, stating, “We were close friends and I obviously love this lady, but I just don’t know.” (Curiously, Herman was all for casting Meryl Streep or Oprah Winfrey as Dolly.)
Peters does have many fine moments, especially her exquisite recitation of the “Ephraim, let me go” monologue leading into “Before the Parade Passes By.” The production as a whole remains in top condition, and Peters is ably supported by Victor Garber (who took over for David Hyde Pierce as the miserly Horace), Kate Baldwin (a staunchly Irish Irene Molloy) and Charlie Stemp (who is making a standout Broadway debut as Barnaby, showing off his dancing prowess and bright energy). Fontana (who recently left the production, tossing the baton back to Creel) was an ideal Cornelius: clean-cut, handsome and sincere.
Personally speaking, my favorite Dolly was not Midler or Peters, but rather Donna Murphy, who was the “alternate” Dolly when Midler played the role, doing one performance a week and all performances during Midler’s vacations. (It is presently unclear whether Murphy will return to the production during Midler’s encore run.) Midler breezed through the role, essentially playing herself and having a great time and basking in the audience’s embrace. Peters’ Dolly is, first and foremost, a tired, vulnerable woman in need of a happy ending. Murphy, on the other hand, fired from all cylinders and never let up, bursting with vitality and comic ingenuity. It was reminiscent of the larger-than-life energy she displayed in Wonderful Town (which I saw three or four times back in the day). Murphy was also in full voice, and her powerhouse singing took the production numbers up by more than just a notch.
Since the production will close, here is my modest proposal: Let’s film it, preserving it for posterity and giving people who could not afford premium orchestra seating the opportunity to take in Midler’s performance and its sumptuous production values. It could be screened in movie theaters, in the style of the popular NT Live series. Or perhaps NBC would be interested in broadcasting it live, as it has done with its original live musical presentations.