Sunday, January 31, 2016

Birthday Girl: Wow Wow Wow

You'll forgive me if I seem to have Hello, Dolly! on my mind, but today I really do have justification: the first and foremost of the Dollies, Miss Carol Channing, is 95 today.

I have no doubt that, even at that great age, there is more than a shred of her that's just a tad furious that she's not headlining the edition of her stalwart show that will be gracing the Great White Way next season, even as I know that she was so endlessly graceful with all the other Dollies (save one, but that's anothing story and she had great justification) that she'll be rooting for Miss Midler all the way.

Here we catch the first national touring company in a rather improvised version of the Harmonia Gardens, for this is no ordinary theatre - it's the East Room of the White House. Channing was a Johnson fan, and vice versa, and so the cast ran down from Chicago to entertain. What we're hearing, with one small exception, is the original Broadway cast recording, and it's a measure of the professionalism of all involved that the wizard who posted this to the YouTubes was able to so close synch the sound and movement.

Even here, on a cramped stage and in fuzzy black and white, the title number packs a genuine theatrical punch. When you disassemble it, Hello, Dolly! as staged by Gower Champion and embodied by Carol and her waiters is almost embarrassingly simple, a slow build comprised of slowly modulating keys of the insinuating tune, to which Champion has drawn on some of the most basic kinds of dance to create... well, this: a number that reliably stops the show, draws the audience to its feet, and leaves all involved basking in the singular kind of magic that comes with the ideal matching of talent and material.

I've been reading an excellent book of Broadway interviews, Nothing Like a Dame, by Eddie Shapiro.  It's a series of thoughtful, insight-filled conversations with stars from Channing herself up to today's leading ladies on the order of Kristin Chenoweth and Adele Dazeem.  A theme through many of the more recent performers' sessions is the contrast between the shows of today and the Golden Age, or rather the shift they see in audiences' expectations. The kind of rock-solid professionalism, the sheer theatrical charisma, of ladies like Channing (and Merman, Martin, and their coevals), which provided a pure kind of magic specific to the stage, has given way to machine-built shows featuring (often dangerously) acrobatic corps dancing, melismatically reached American Idol-style money notes, and the ability to slot any moderately known name into a leading role if it will sell a few tickets.

Champion didn't need any of that - no fireworks, no lasers, no falling chandelier (although, to be fair, Dolly! does have a moving train and, of course, its legendary staircase). He gave his chorus the most basic of blueprint - kick, turn, strut, nothing that a community-theatre company couldn't undertake, really - but with those simplest of ingredients, and with the help of a unique star, he created the same kind of wonder that a Cordon Bleu chef can with a good chicken, an onion, and some cream.

And fortunately, thanks to some little stroke of archiving good fortune, we can celebrate the lady's 95th by sitting next to Lyndon and Lady Bird and take it all in. Look at the old girl now, fellas...

If you, too, are feeling a little Dolly-headed, I can highly recommend a wonderful web trove: Call on Dolly celebrates, as it announces, "the Legacy of Jerry Herman's Hello, Dolly!" It's a real treasury, and on every visit I feel as if I learn something - today, for example, that among the Dollies hither and yon has been none other than Miss Marilyn Maye. I know she's a great favorite with more than a few Café regulars, but I didn't know that she'd even taken the train in from Yonkers. She did the show in Kansas City and Galveston, Texas, and I'm guessing she was, in this as in virtually everything she does, pretty terrific.


  1. Who among that coterie of the great and the good would ever have conceived that Miss Channing would (most likely) have outlived them all? Jx

  2. I often waited on her and her guests in the mid eighties in a fancy and trendy San Francisco restaurant. She always brought her own food but paid for all her guests. It was always a pleasure.

  3. You're quite right. It is simple, basic staging and does create pure magic. I think the aprons and spats make the sum look so much greater than the individual steps of Rudy, Manny, Danny, Stanley and the rest of the Harmonia Gardens staff.

    Did you ever encounter the "old broad now" during your time as amanuensis for the great person? I would imagine their various artistic circles must have collided at times.

    I met her outside a Broadway house almost 20 years ago. I believe it was the Ethel Barrymore and a performance of Cy Coleman's uneven "The Life." She was as unusual and charming and, well, Carol as I could have hoped.

    1. Sadly never to sit and bask - just at galas and once, at Sardi's, right near her caricature. She was enormously loved by her peers.

  4. If Bette gets sick I'm sure Carol will be happy to step in.