A Tale of Three Dollys
By Peter Filichia —
Dolly Gallagher Levi has certainly kept her promise. For nearly half a century, she’s been telling us that “Dolly’ll never go away again”– and she hasn’t, not since Hello, Dolly! started its pre-Broadway tryout at the Fisher Theater in Detroit in November, 1963.
This week marks the 48th anniversary of Dolly’s saying “Hello!” to Broadway, en route to romping to first place in the long-run musical list: 2,844 performances. But recording-wise, Jerry Herman’s score marked another first. Never before during a musical’s run did Americans have the chance to buy three separate recordings of a musical: the original cast with Carol Channing, the London cast with Mary Martin and a replacement cast with Pearl Bailey.
The first, of course, was the 1964 version that had Channing as matchmaker Dolly Gallagher Levi; two-time Tony winner David Burns as merchant of Yonkers Horace Vandergelder; Charles Nelson Reilly as his harried employee Cornelius Hackl and Eileen Brennan as Irene Molloy, the woman that both men would like to marry.
The album debuted on February 1, 1964 and soon rose to the top of the charts – and not merely the original cast album chart. No, Hello, Dolly! was selling more albums than any other record in the entire country. That was partly due to Louis Armstrong’s rendition of the title song, but not solely. Out of the six New York drama critics, two loved Hello, Dolly! and six positively adored it.
With a hit such as this, could London be far behind? And just as the Broadway edition boasted a star that had once played a Little Girl from Little Rock (Channing’s Lorelei Lee in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), the London edition would too: Mary Martin, once Little Rock native Nellie Forbush in South Pacific, opened the show at the prestigious Drury Lane on Dec. 2, 1965.
The London cast recording was released here in America on Jan. 24, 1966 – not in the flimsy glossy glorified paper sleeve that London albums traditionally sported, but a genuine American edition encased in heavier cardboard. This had seldom happened before.
On both albums, the short overture offers only the title song – but this London version swings a bit more, with the countermelody more prominently exhibited. The second rendition essentially says, “This is now a song that the whole world knows.”
When Martin sings the first line of “I Put My Hand In,” those who only know Channing’s album will be jolted; now a genuinely sweet and mellifluous voice sings. By the time Martin croons about giving a “beau a little boost,” she’s already boosted the song into musical theater heaven. Her ending is pretty triumphant, too.
Loring Smith, the London Vandergelder, speak-sings “It Takes a Woman” with less brio than Burns, but he’s right for the role. When the male chorus members exclaim “F-E-M! I-T-Y!” Smith says the stern “Get outta here!” that Burns didn’t on his album. Is his ire the result of the men’s inability to spell? “Fem! Ity!” isn’t the spelling of the word “femininity” that the chorus had just sung. It’s one of Dolly’s strangest mysteries.
In “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” when Dolly demands that Ermengarde stop sniveling, Beverlee Weir dares to offer a one-note protest that Alice Playten didn’t on the Broadway album. It certainly doesn’t faze Martin, who soon holds the note on “clothes” in Merman-esque fashion.
Although Channing commands, “Ambrose, let me hear that tonic chord,” Martin instead sings, “We haven’t missed the train, thank the Lord.” Actually, that line had already shown up in the published text, suggesting that Herman had had a pentimento. Losing the “tonic chord” line, however, means not hearing Ambrose and his friends sing “Ah-ah-ah!” immediately following.
Martin starts “Motherhood” a cappella. Her “Take off your hat sir” is more chiding, suggesting that no gentleman would dare deny her the courtesy. On the other hand, Martin’s “March! March! March!” is a genial breeze compared to Channing’s abrasive scalping. Martin even swings a little in the “Al-a-mo” section before crying out “O Stonewall Jackson!’ with great gusto.
In “Dancing,” Martin corrects Cornelius with an “Uh-uh!” that gives us the impression that he’s jumped the gun on his lesson. But can we read something into Martin’s singing “For heaven’s sake” as opposed to the original “For gosh sake”? Martin, who was a bit on the prim side, might not have wanted her fans to think that she was saying “For God’s sake.” Two years earlier, when she was rehearsing Jennie, she refused to sing the lyric, “Before I go and meet my maker, I want to use the salt left in the shaker” because she judged it “dirty.” (What’s left of the song “Before I Kiss the World Goodbye” is still the highlight of Jennie.)
At the end of “Before the Parade Passes By,” Martin takes the last note higher than Channing ever could. But this may be the song where we most notice that the London chorus sounds a little remote and not as populated. More than one critic, when reviewing the original Broadway production, took note of the extraordinary chorus that Channing’s company had. For many years, it was considered a standard that many shows only hoped to match.
In the title song, right from the vamp, we hear a few minor orchestral differences. Even Peter Howard’s heavenly dance music sports some extra brass counterpoint. Martin charms throughout, and echoes the waiters’ claim that the ice tinkles and the lights twinkle. The most fun occurs after the sequence where the waiters answer Dolly’s beating out a rhythm on her thighs. Martin’s endearing giggle lets us know how pleased she is that everyone just executed it perfectly. Perhaps their achievement spurs her to sharply vocalize above the music and to again hold a last note for a deliciously inordinate amount of time.
In “So Long, Dearie,” when Martin sings “Don’t try and stop me, please,” you might get the impression that you’re finally hearing the actual notes that Herman wrote. She also has more fun with “It’s a little lumpy, but it rings” and goes nice ‘n’ low on “You dawg!” (twice). And while Channing does have more panache on the final “so long agohhhhhhhhhhhh,” Martin takes advantage of her last chance to show how long she can Mermanize a note: a marvelous eight seconds.
But notice the difference on one line. Although Channing sings, “I’m gonna learn to dance and drink and smoke a cigarette,” Martin instead sings that “I’m gonna learn to hoochy-kooch and smoke a cigarette.” Could it be that soon after the show opened, Herman noticed (or someone told him) that Dolly teaches people to dance in the first act, so why would she say in the second that she plans to learn?
Pearl Bailey sings “hoochy-kooch,” too on the third album. That she’d record the score was initially unexpected. Bailey was merely heading a national tour, but audience reaction at its first stop in Washington, D.C. made producer David Merrick replace Broadway Dolly Betty Grable and her entire company. He brought Bailey and her cast to the St. James for a Nov. 12, 1967 opening – and a recording session shortly thereafter.
For the first time, there’s a genuine overture. It certainly fits the Broadway musical template: put snatches of four songs that will be soon heard before centering on your trump-card brassy up-tempo song (“Put on Your Sunday Clothes”) enhanced by some nice string accompaniment. Then slow it down to lead into your best ballad (“It Only Takes a Moment”) before regaining strength with a march (“Before the Parade Passes By”). Slow it down once more for a waltz (“Dancing”) and conclude with the title song.
However, the version of “Hello, Dolly!” heard here is swinging and jazzy – all the better to say, “You know this one, don’t you?” But the tempo soon returns to the one used in the second act, en route to a concluding flourish.
Bailey puts her distinctive stamp on “I Put My Hand In.” Although the actual lyric involves “luncheon parties, poker games and love,” Bailey insouciantly and knowingly purrs, “And there’s love.” She also offers a little lagniappe of dialogue before “Motherhood” when she says, “I mean what do you stand for if you don’t stand for the laws of this great land? I know what I stand for!” Like Martin, she hits the notes on “arch” and “march” better than Channing, but some may prefer the more amusing Channing approach.
Cab Calloway’s name was put below the title, but he was the only one of the three Vandergelders who got billing on the album cover in the same-sized type as the star. Not bad for a role that offers a performer only one solo and the chance to sing a mere six lines at show’s end. His “It Takes a Woman” isn’t as crusty as the first two, but it provides nice listening. When the chorus sings, he punctuates the melody with some funky vocalizing.
In “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Bailey adds real wistfulness to “Strut down the street and have your picture took.” But one thing that Martin and Bailey don’t do that Channing does is come in too early in the middle of the song. Listen carefully and you’ll hear Channing say “Er!” a few measures before she’s supposed to sing, “Ermengarde, stop sniveling.”
Just like Martin, Bailey opts to thank the Lord instead of requesting a tonic chord. In “Dancing,” when she instructs Cornelius to “Take the someone whose arms you’re in” she lets the man see that she knows Irene is already someone special to him. Bailey also appropriates “And everyone stand aside!” – a line that used to be Barnaby’s. When she tells of “the tango seething,” she does it with such style that the trumpeters just have to add a little riff.
“Everybody out in the street! C’mon, kids! Out in the streets!” Bailey demands, which reminds us how director-choreographer Gower Champion had the show nicely segue from an interior to an exterior. What makes this “Dancing” the best of the three is that it offers much more dance music enhanced by some fancy trumpet-playing.
Bailey, like Martin, goes up high at the end of “Before the Parade Passes By” – but only after starting plaintively and building effectively. Soon after, we get high during her rendition of the title song: the way Bailey sings, “I feel this room swaying” makes you believe that it’s doing just that. She improvises some “hellos!” to the waiters while they sing the same to her. And Bailey, after she’s asked Stanley if he’s lost some weight, adds, “I think you did, Stanley.” Yes, Streisand does this in the film, but Pearlie Mae got there first.
The best moment occurs when she crows, “Look at the old girl now, fellas!” Bailey seems to be saying, “Finally! After four Broadway flops, I’m finally in a smash hit!”
And a smash hit this musical was – as are all three recordings with their full orchestras and nary a synthesizer. Better still, the “Deluxe Collector’s Edition” offers two additional songs from a fourth Dolly: Ethel Merman, who became the final Broadway Mrs. Levi on March 28, 1970. She does “Love, Look in My Window” and “World, Take Me Back” that Herman had originally written for her in 1963 when he hoped she’d open the show. It’s only fitting that she eventually assumed the role: Merman’s birthday was Jan. 16 – which also happened to be Dolly’s opening date.
Many of Jerry Herman’s Playbill bios in the ‘80s mentioned that “there is never an evening when somewhere in the world the music and lyrics of Mr. Herman are not being sung by a lady in a red headdress descending a staircase.” That’s probably still true. But just in case it isn’t, you can at least make it aurally happen by hearing Carol Channing, Mary Martin or Pearl Bailey do Hello, Dolly!
Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at www.kritzerland.com;. His books on musicals are available at Amazon.com.