She's still glowing, she's still crowing, she's still going strong.
"She" is Carol Channing or Dolly Gallagher Levi, depending on your point of view. To many people, they are one and the same. Channing first starred in "Hello, Dolly!" in 1964, and it seems as if she's been playing the indefatigable matchmaker ever since. She made her return to Broadway (resuming its international tour Jan. 28) in a much-acclaimed 30th anniversary production that began touring the country over a year ago and will eventually travel to China.
From the original opening night on January 16, 1964, through various other productions including a 1978 Broadway revival, Channing has played Dolly more than 4,500 times without ever having missed a performance. She is so strongly identified with the character that most people are uncertain where Channing leaves off and Dolly begins.
"I don't know either," Channing admits. "But I do know that I worked very hard in the beginning to become Dolly. I was madly in love with the character, but I had never played anyone like her before."
Dressed in a chic white pants suit and sporting large, dark sunglasses over those impossibly wide eyes, Channing was spending a day off in San Francisco doing a series of interviews. The consummate professional, she answers every question with Dolly-like enthusiasm, as if she hasn't heard each one a million times before. Her affection for the show, for the character, is genuine, as well it should be. Her portrayal of Dolly earned her a Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical (beating out, among others, the future screen Dolly, Barbra Streisand), and it certainly contributed to her 1995 Tony for Lifetime Achievement. "Hello, Dolly!," with a score by Jerry Herman and a book by Michael Stewart, is based on Thornton Wilder's "The Matchmaker" (1955), which was a rewrite of his play "The Merchant of Yonkers" (1938), which supposedly was inspired by a 19th-century Viennese play. 3There was no Dolly in the Austrian play,2 says Channing. "Thornton Wilder created her. I had the privilege of getting to know him, and one day I realized, ‘Dolly is Thornton Wilder.' He had written himself into the character, and he was totally unaware of it."
In the play and the musical, the widowed Dolly has been hired to find a wife for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder and decides to go after him herself. As she pursues him, she changes the lives of everyone around her.
The driving force behind "Hello, Dolly!" was Gower Champion, whose stylish direction and inspired choreography turned a good musical into a great one. "I think Gower is a bloody genius," says Channing, who often refers to the late director in the present tense. "He conceived the show as an intimate musical, but during rehearsals it got bigger and bigger. He'd say, ‘I don't know the level of a show until I get it to sing and dance.' So he1d watch, and he began to add things, and before you knew it, we had the proportions of 'Hello, Dolly!'"
But when the show tried out in Detroit, the reviews were very negative. "We had too many subplots," Channing recalls, "and we gradually eliminated them. The first act ended with a song for Horace called 'Penny in My Pocket.' It was wonderful, but it wasn't what the show was about." The song was eventually replaced with the rousing, life-affirming "Before the Parade Passes By." The show became more and more focused on Dolly's determination to let go of her dead husband and rejoin the human race, and 'Hello, Dolly!' went on to win ten Tony Awards -- a record that still stands.
The current production of "Hello, Dolly!" is directed and choreographed by Lee Roy Reams, who played Cornelius in the 1978 revival and was one of the stars of Champion's last show, "42nd Street."
"Gower was my mentor," says Reams, "and I approached the show with the idea that I have his blueprint, but there have to be adjustments. Gower was very creative, and if he were with us, he would have changed things. I've seen the life of choreography go out because of keepers of the flame who insist on preserving everything exactly as it was. Times change, styles change, and you1re dealing with different artists."
Reams has retained so much of Champion's work that even someone intimately acquainted with the show would be hard-pressed to notice the differences. But he has added details and subtleties that often prove to be quite powerful, that emphasize the book or the lyrics or the romance in a new way.
In "Before the Parade Passes By," he asked Channing to eliminate some walking steps that she used to do, stand still and just sing the song. "I didn't want anything to interfere with what she was saying," Reams explains. "Once that1s established, we get into the movement. The number stopped the show when we opened the production in Denver, and Carol said, ‘That never happened before. Why do you think it happened now?' I think it's because people really listened to what she was saying."
Many critics have commented that Channing's performance has ripened, grown funnier, more poignant. But she disagrees: "The only thing that's different is that now I am free to do a forward bump in 'So Long, Dearie.' That was not allowed in 1964. It was considered to be bad taste. So Dolly is more open now. She's sexier. But aside from that, Dolly hasn't changed. It1s the audience that's changed. People see things a little differently today."
Channing is now a most remarkable 74, and her energy and enthusiasm appear to be unflagging. "This is the happiest year of my life," she says. "Isn't that something? It's strange, so late in life, to have your happiest year. But this is the best Dolly! company I've ever worked with. And doing this show is soul-fulfilling."
-- By Sheryl Flatow