Richard Skipper Celebrates: Hello, Dolly!

| January 29, 2017

Richard Skipper Celebrates

Hello, Dolly!

The Triad, NYC, January 16, 2017

Reviewed by Rob Lester for Cabaret Scenes

Color photos by Maryann Lopinto

Carol Channing

Carol Channing

“…You’re still glowing, you’re still crowing, you’re still going strong.” That’s what we say/sing to Dolly, besides “Hello!” as we anticipate her Broadway return… and we turn back to the rich history of Hello, Dolly! That exclamation point is well earned. The glories and stories of the past Hello, Dolly! productions were the agenda for an evening that found Dolly! alumni recollecting, revealing and reveling in facts and memories and singing the score.

“Glowing”?: Host Richard Skipper was even more aglow than usual in his tribute on the 53rd anniversary of the exact night the musical first opened on Broadway.

“Crowing”?: The producers are crowing about the huge box office advance ticket sales for the revival bringing Bette Midler in that title role.

The Matchmaker

The Matchmaker

“Going Strong”: Clearly, the irrepressible Matchmaker character is still going strong. This is the latest in the series titled Richard Skipper Celebrates. Our masterful master of ceremonies, performer and bon vivant, knows mountains about this musical comedy, starting with his longtime devotion to its original star, the truly unique Carol Channing. He spent much of his career doing shows in character and in gowns and wig AS the living legend leading lady.

The festivities included the audience singing “Happy Birthday” to her as she turns 96(!) on the last day of January and Skipper wouldn’t skip noting that and sending her a video of all us in the house at The Triad on West 72 Street chiming in with that musical wish. The night, January 16, also happened to be the birth date of the Broadway legend for whom the musical’s role was intended—Ethel Merman—who turned down that part, BUT eventually took it on a few years later before that parade passed by. And she was the Dolly du jour when the show broke the record to be the longest-running show on the Great White Way (a distinction now held by that show about the guy in the white mask haunting the opera house). In the meanwhile, post-Channing, there was quite the who’s who of inheritors of the role on Broadway—Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, Pearl Bailey, Martha Raye, Phyllis Diller, Thelma Carpenter …. And, beyond Broadway, folks saw productions with everyone from Dorothy Lamour to Danny LaRue in drag. During the night, we saw stills and brief footage of Channing and many of them cavorting and descending the famous staircase of the set representing the elegant Harmonia Gardens restaurant to be serenaded with the title song. We saw bits of Mary Martin’s Dolly in London and, notably, Vietnam. A clause in the contract for the movie rights sale stipulated the film couldn’t be released while the live production was still holding forth in New York. It finally closed just after Christmas in 1970 and then the world could enjoy the lavish film version directed by Gene Kelly, with Barbra Streisand as “Dolly, a damned exasperating woman” (quoting a comment from the script, which was at one point was to be the stage musical’s title).

David Merrick & Carol Channing

David Merrick & Carol Channing

Richard Skipper, who knows Dolly! data backwards, forwards, sideways, upside down, inside out, as well as an insider’s information, shared tidbits galore, gently excising some from the memories of his guests with Dolly!-decorated resumes. In the front row was veteran press agent Josh Ellis, who was asked to describe the office of David Merrick, the legendary and prominent producer of this and many other productions. “It was all red,” said Ellis succinctly. “Is that all you have to say?” asked our master of ceremonies, knowing he was speaking to a man who knew stories aplenty, some more than hinting at a reputation that earned Merrick the sober sobriquet “The Abominable Showman.” “Yes!” came the firm, if playfully diplomatic reply. And this night’s own showman retorted, “That’s a good press agent!” Red was Merrick’s favorite color and his interior design demonstrated that; also being the color of the leading lady’s famous dress-up dress in the musical’s title number as she dramatically descends steps carpeted in the same hue, red was requested as a color to be worn by performers and attendees on this red-letter day.

At his bubbly best, Mr. Skipper entertained the crowd with the score’s opening number, “I Put My Hand In.” In the kind of clever audience interaction one too rarely sees, he took his cue from Dolly’s calling, putting one man’s arm around his seatmate, followed a waitress taking drink orders down the center aisle—as if to fix her up with someone else in the crowd, and would have set others a-dancing with Gower Champion’s original choreography if the venue, balcony and all, had not been so filled to the gills.

(L-R) Richard Skipper, Sondra Lee, Lee Roy Rwams

(L-R) Richard Skipper, Sondra Lee, Lee Roy Reams

The first guest to be called up on stage from the audience for a chatty (occasionally mildly catty) interview was a veteran of the original production: Sondra Lee, who had created the role of Minnie Fay, the assistant in the Manhattan hat shop run by Irene Molloy, who is the widow being courted by Horace Vandergelder, the half-a-millionaire from Yonkers, New York. Since matchmaker Dolly has her sights set on him herself, she resourcefully sets milliner Molloy off on a date with Vandergelder’s own clerk, the eager but nervous Cornelius. And the plot thickens. Sondra Lee, also forever remembered as Princess Tiger Lily in stage and TV productions of Peter Pan with the aforementioned Mary Martin, shared some memories pried lovingly by Skipper. She dished about initial tension with Eileen Brennan, cast as Mrs. Molloy, who bristled when her dressing room “exclusively assigned” to her was also “exclusively assigned” to Sondra. With a little less resistance than President Trump has found with his Mexico wall-building idea, a barrier was installed for a you-stay-on-your-side-and-I’ll-stay-on-mine. It was just a curtain that they later agreed to remove because, as Miss Lee recalled with a chuckle, “Eileen found out that the air conditioner was on my side.” And as the seasons would change, it might be noted that the heater was on Brennan’s turf. Curtain up!! And they became friends.

Jerry Herman & Carol Channing

Jerry Herman & Carol Channing

Minnie Fay is set up with Vandergelder’s younger clerk, Barnaby. But the original Minnie remember a not-so-mini-revolving door of Barnabys, a role that seemed to be recast every week in the early rehearsals. And she talked about changes to the material in that preparation period and the out-of-town tryouts. Sondra Lee remembered how other songwriters were called in to try to add something to Jerry Herman’s score.

Songs came and went, and as sassy Sondra said of the famously volatile producer, “There was one song that David Merrick hated and wanted out of the show.  It was… “Hello, Dolly.’” He was clearly in the minority and cooler heads prevailed, the decision to keep it in cemented by Louis Armstrong having an unexpected smash hit with a single recording of that title song before their New York opening. That opening night Miss Lee insists she can’t really remember very clearly, and the ever-helpful, informed Richard suggested that was understandable with all the tension and focus on performing and all that was zooming around everyone.  Albeit a very different kind of styling than would be presented in the musical itself, the record paved the way. And it famously skyrocketed to the top of the pop charts at the time the top spot (and more) became the seemingly sole territory for a group that was making its own musical history: The Beatles.  

Although she didn’t sing, she was played onto the stage with the strains of the number from the score that is done by the quartet of courting clerks and milliners: “Elegance.”

Speaking of the pre-Broadway tour, Richard reminded us that it was late November 1963 and the time when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, shocking a nation and sending it spinning. Sondra Lee remembered the cast huddled over a radio, hearing the developments, numb, fearful, wondering what to do. Being away from home and families didn’t help. She recalled, “I called my friend James Baldwin, the author. I asked him what to do. He said, ‘Buy some groceries. Go home. Stay there. Think of your play.” Everything came to a standstill. But, eventually, “the show must go on.” And it did—perhaps a much-needed escapist musical with life-affirming messages.

Lee Roy Reams

Lee Roy Reams

Essential to a first-hand accounting of the days of the Dollys is Lee Roy Reams, happily on hand to add to the flurry of factoids with Skipper as a fellow walking Wikipedia. Of course, he talked about both co-starring with Channing as Vandergelder’s clerk Cornelius Hackl in the revival and later directing the show with her and others in the lead.  He’s also even played the title role himself!  You read that right. Going back, he shared that the star called him on the phone “and said, ‘Lee Roy? This is Carol. Carol Channing?’—Like I didn’t know who it was” and rolled his eyes.  She went on to say who was directing: “Now he doesn’t know you, but you’ve got the part.” Obviously, Channing was planning. He was full of tales in detail, from the time Carol performed against doctor’s orders with special shoes, soon discarded. Applause was her medicine. When an audience member asked how Carol felt after seemingly making the role her property and then finding out she’d not been offered the film version and it was to be played by the much younger and quite different superstar Streisand, Reams remarked that Channing had coyly but cutely played “dumb” when asked how she felt: “There was a MOVIE?” As her pal is wont to do so well, he quoted her in her distinctive voice.

Barbra Streisand & Carol Channing

Barbra Streisand & Carol Channing


Beth Fowler & Lee Roy Reams

Beth Fowler & Lee Roy Reams

The tryout days of pressure led to the under-the-gun composition of “Before the Parade Passes By,” which many would think of being such an essential part of the show—the musical expression of Dolly’s desire to give up her days of solitude and marry again and jump back into life after mourning her husband’s death.  This became capper to the first act (another song with the same title was first written by a famous writing team hired by a determined Merrick, but ultimately Herman’s version was used). But before “Before…,” the first act finale was a song that was a solo for Vandergelder, “A Penny in My Pocket.” It’s a delightful story-song about how he became a rich man. While audiences’ apathy made the charm moment anticlimactic because they wanted to be rooting for Dolly at that point, happily the song is not lost to history. When prompted, Herman had found it in his files and it has been recorded and performed over the years (on Michael Feinstein’s all-Herman CD, for instance). Lee Roy Reams performed it with gusto, as he has in the past, making a strong case for its being kept on the musical radar. (Maybe if it had been placed earlier in the show it would have worked better, and certainly allows the character to be something other than the Curmudgeon of the Century.  I hate to see a good number go into the dustbin.)

Beth Fowler

Beth Fowler

Years gone by were irrelevant as the ever-vibrant Mr. Reams roared into two of the songs Cornelius begins in the show: the rollickingly vibrant “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and the love ballad “It Only Takes a Moment.” Well, that’s about how he fell in love instantly with Irene and out from the audience came a former Irene. It was Broadway veteran Beth Fowler, joining in gorgeously and gracefully. It was quite a “Moment.” And in a moment, she was plied for more tidbits and treasured memories. She told how the now much-missed cabaret and theater star, the late Julie Wilson, was supposed to open the play Australia company, but her husband told her that would be the end of their life as man and wife, and the end of her being with their children. Poor Julie, in a much-troubled marriage soon to end, stayed behind. Miss Fowler explained that Julie did eventually get to play Dolly briefly, but her usual co-star was none other than the petite Yiddish Theater star Molly Picon.

Many Dollys were discussed: Bibi Osterwald, who was the gallant standby ever at the ready and ever at liberty, who finally got to go on, and did some actually assigned performances near the end. Phyllis Diller was noted as bringing a very solid lead performance, but some audiences who came thinking she’d incorporate her uniquely wacky usual shtick as part of the character somehow were disappointed that the Diller Dolly was dynamic as an actress with competent singing, not doing her standout stand-up comedy persona. Harvey Evans, who’d often played Barnaby with various Dollys, was in the audience. House lights, please! The theater veteran, an ever-cheery presence, chimed in with his perspective. He emphasized the success of Eve Arden as a superb Dolly with “that sharp comic timing,” getting many laughs. “She wasn’t that good at first because they didn’t give her much rehearsal time, but….” He also told how protective and kind she was with the company, especially when there was an offstage horrible accident involving some younger members.  Seated on the aisle before and after his crucial participation, Reams was a casual but spot-on “consultant” and fact-checker.

Rita McKenzie

Rita McKenzie

Kept on ice for several years during the original Broadway run were two numbers written as solos for Dolly when it was being written specifically with Ethel Merman in mind, with that big trumpet of a voice making showstoppers as easily as Vandergelder turned a penny into a million. When the extremely different Channing was cast, the songs were filed away. But when she finally agreed to be the final Broadway Dolly, the songs were added to the score. Nothing was cut. Rita McKenzie, who has specialized in Merman material, came to town to sing one of them, “World, Take Me Back,” and—without impersonating the one-of-a-kind bold and brazen Ethel—channeled her brio and delivered a knock-your-socks-off-and-maybe-your-shoes-too performance. It’s a great song that some of us have long prized (originally a 45-rpm single record of the two numbers written for the superstar) and McKenzie was magnificent in a full-out rendition that also was touching and riveting.

Marilyn Maye

Marilyn Maye

But, wait, there’s more! Coming down the center aisle—just when you felt like you’d had a full and fabulous banquet—sparkling in red (of course) was the indefatigable Marilyn Maye for the icing on the cabaret cake in the dessert section of this feast of fun and facts. She spoke about playing Dolly in huge amphitheaters with fountains of water as a backdrop in the summers. (“It was quite humid backstage,” she offered.) After breaking the attendance record, she decided to make a record. But she liked the score as a score, not just the songs assigned to her character of Dolly. So she went ahead and sang ‘em all, getting not only Jerry Herman’s blessing, but his happy agreement to supply the liner notes. And what a swell and special recording it is indeed!  Of course, we wanted her to do a couple of numbers live on stage. She did. And not only did she do a dramatic and life-embracing version of “Before the Parade Passes By” that brought our “high” even higher, but she set it up by doing the monologue that precedes the song in the show—the moving plea Dolly Levi addresses to her husband, seeking his approval to marry again and “rejoin the human race.” A Marilyn Maye emotion-and-pow tears-and-smiles-inducing/goosebump-producing triumph is hard to follow, even for Marilyn Maye. But she made her set a double whammy and got a little hammy (appropriately) with the vaudeville-like turn from the score, the cheeky and sarcastic teasing fake farewell to Vandergelder: “So Long, Dearie.”

(L-R) Harvey Evans, Lee Roy Reams, Richard Skipper, Rita McKenzie

(L-R) Harvey Evans, Lee Roy Reams, Richard Skipper, Rita McKenzie

However, we weren’t quite ready to say “so long.” We were in the presence of living history and loving the history. We felt it. And doesn’t cabaret always have an encore. Not that this was a cabaret show per se. Were we being greedy? Richard Skipper had been a more than generous host with the long show and history lesson with his guests. One felt like bursting into song to commemorate the event, seeking appropriate rhymes. We’d ended with the always original Miss Maye, and started with “Miss Fay” as in Minnie Fay the role-creator Sondra Lee. And we got both Lee and Lee Roy. What joy! We held our breath as he dueted with Beth. Miss McKenzie has sent us into a frenzy. It was all handled deftly by the ever-chipper Skipper. Oh, we can’t leave without everybody chiming in on the title song. So, everybody did. The audience, too….glowing, crowing, going strong, the overflowing throng knowing the song for a long, long time.  

Marilyn Maye, Richard Skipper, Lee Roy Reams

Marilyn Maye, Richard Skipper, Lee Roy Reams

The ongoing series Richard Skipper Celebrates is indeed itself something to celebrate. The ever-ebullient singing host—who knows that variety (shows) makes for the spice of life—brings his spicy comments and entertainment galore to any stage he bounces onto. With talented musical guests to gush with (and over), expect a ‘sweet, comic Valentine’ of a show in February as the cheery one cheers the day of hearts and flowers and what’s sure to be his own happy birthday filled with contagious joy.

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Category: Cabaret Reviews, New York City, New York City Cabaret Reviews, Regional

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