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On the 50th Anniversary of Hello, Dolly!

Every now and then, I come across them.

I’m talking about the intense musical theater fans who tell me that they hate Hello, Dolly!

And yes, “hate” is the verb they gleefully use.

Last January, when I did a story on Dolly’s 49th anniversary, I knew I’d do another around Jan. 16, 2014, when the golden anniversary of Jerry Herman’s biggest hit would arrive. So I decided that during 2013, I’d keep track of how many musical theater enthusiasts I’d meet who would dis what was once the longest-running musical in Broadway history.

The final total was eleven – which comes out to almost one a month. There were eight haters in New York and one each in Kansas, Nebraska and Rhode Island.

Despite their geographic differences, every one of these guys all looked the same after they’d put sneers on their lips and snarled “I hate Hello, Dolly!” During the indictment, each of them dramatically rolled his eyes and shook his head mournfully from side-to-side as if to say, “What I’m forced to endure! I can’t take it anymore!”

Eight of them – six in Manhattan as well as the ones in Wichita and Providence – then made their expressions terribly surreptitious before lowering their voices to excitedly say “I like darrrrk musicals. Sweeney Todd. West Side Story. Kiss of the Spider Woman.” Hell, I even know a woman in Ohio who says she always (yes, always) wants to see a musical in which someone dies. I’ve never asked her what she thinks of Dolly, but I’m sure that if I had done so in 2013, I’d then have met a one-hater-a-month quota.

There is indeed a death in Dolly: the demise of Horace Vandergelder’s Scrooge-like attitude. And that’s good enough for me.

I know why some musical theater enthusiasts feel this way about Dolly. We live in a society where the vast majority of citizens view musicals as silly, stupid and utterly beneath them. That’s why we’ve had so much junk in the past few years from Evil Dead to Silence! People who never attended good musicals now show up to enjoy bad ones. They come to mock every time a performer opens his mouth to sing, which makes them feel superior to what they’re seeing. Musicals may well be the only minority that these days you can safely dismiss and criticize without fear of any reproach. (And don’t say fat people are, too, because – face it — we’re fast becoming the majority.)

Even those who have always liked commercial hit musicals don’t dare to buck the rest of the world. So they decide that Hello, Dolly! – the type of show that’s fun-filled, life-affirming and makes you feel good after you’ve seen it – is too inconsequential. If you like Dolly, well, then you’re admitting that you’re soft, sentimental and easily pleased. If you like Sweeney Todd, you’re a MAN – or at least (as the world foolishly perceives it) as much of a man as someone who likes musicals can be.

Some of this hatred happens to every hit. Although Dolly had a thirteen-year head start on Annie, many hate the little girl in the little red dress even more than that big woman in the big red dress. Once America and the world at large become aware of any musical and cherish it, the true aficionado often feels duty-bound to loathe it.

How awful that it’s come to this. May we judge Hello, Dolly! on its own terms? And really – when was the last time you listened to it? (Young ‘uns: have you ever?)

Get it now and appreciate the melody and craft that Jerry Herman (and perhaps others) brought to this musicalization of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker.

Most cast albums of the era started out with an overture; Dolly doesn’t quite; it simply lets its title tune stand alone. This was pretty prescient, for no one knew when the album was recorded on Jan. 19 that the song would be sweeping the nation in a few months’ time.

“Call on Dolly,” the chorus wisely advises, allowing Dolly Gallagher Levi to make her presence known. In “I Put My Hand In” – an expression that comes from Wilder – she admits that she “arranges things, like furniture and daffodils and” – here’s the one that fits far above the others – “lives.” Later she puts it a little better: “luncheon parties, poker games – and love.” She’ll “twist a little, stir a little,” which allows her to change two pronouns to verbs when claiming to “him a little, her a little.” Nice!

On the other end of the spectrum is the aforementioned Horace Vandergelder, the merchant of Yonkers whom we meet in “It Takes a Woman.” Good lyrics have the ability to turn on a dime from one sentiment to a completely different one, and Herman skillfully accomplishes that here; he starts with “It takes a woman all powdered and pink” – a lovely image – followed by “to joyously clean out the drain in the sink” – as Vandergelder comes down to earth and brass tacks.

“Put on Your Sunday Clothes” is the quintessential show song. Here Vandergelder’s employees Cornelius and Barnaby decide to abandon the store and spend a day in exciting New York City. Note that Herman refers to “dime cigars” and makes us realize that in this turn-of-the-century tale that what now sounds cheap to us were actually luxury items. Herman also deftly includes another important line from Wilder – “We won’t come home until we’ve kissed a girl” — and knew enough to make it the final line of a refrain. And while Stephen Sondheim is generally crowned the master of the interior rhyme, hear what Herman subtly does with “dream/seem,” “(para)sol/all,” “brim/sim(ple)” and “hat/at.” Pay attention: they’re easy to miss.

In “Ribbons Down My Back,” milliner Irene Molloy, too long a widow, says she’s again ready to find love. Traditionally this results in a barnburner of a number, but Herman saves such an approach for Dolly. (More on that later.) Instead, his slow but wistful melody smartly suggests a widow who still feels a bit bad that she’s moving on because she won’t be loyal to her husband’s memory – but that there must be a time when mourning must end.

“Motherhood” wittily shows that history is not Dolly Levi’s forte. Waterloo was not an American battle and Lincoln didn’t say “One if by land, two if by sea.” But that’s the fun of it: seeing the unflappable Dolly make mistakes and be so sure she’s right that no one corrects her.

The idea of Dolly’s teaching everyone “Dancing” – musical theater’s equivalent of having sex – results in a wondrously swirling waltz. Making it more potent is what happens after everyone dances off: the matchmaker has paired everyone but herself. That’s when Dolly gets to express what Irene felt, but only in more explosive terms. Perhaps it’s because she’s been a widow considerably longer that she feels the need to live “Before the Parade Passes By.” Whatever the case, the song includes a simple but impressive lyric: “I want to feel my heart coming alive again.”

It will – but one song arrives before that happens. Cornelius and Barnaby are pretenders to the financial throne in “Elegance.” They and their dates (Irene and Minnie Fay) unexpectedly boast of “savoir faire” before adding the unexpected “we reek of it!” Fun!

Then comes – like it or not, Dolly-haters – the biggest showstopper of the ‘60s. Enough has been written about the wonders of “Hello, Dolly!” and how the song propelled THIS cast album to the number one position on the charts during much of the summer of 1964. Instead, let’s concentrate on Peter Howard’s marvelous dance music mid-number which slyly incorporates a bit of “Call on Dolly.” Listen for it.

Herman said after “Hello, Dolly!” became a nationwide hit that he never expected that that would be the song to step out of the score; if he had to guess on which song would become popular, he’d have chosen “It Only Takes a Moment,” the charming song in which Cornelius and Irene admit their love. And while artists then recording singles pretty much ignored it, we can still appreciate it as the beautiful song that Herman knows it is.

Any great musical must have a great eleven o’clock number, and Dolly succeeds there, too. “So Long, Dearie,” Dolly sings to Vandergelder when she feels he doesn’t deserve her. Herman adroitly plays on his title when Dolly tells him that she “should have said so long, so long ago.”

All that’s left is for Horace to capitulate which he does in a tender reprise of the title song. That leads to a marvelous mega-mix – arguably the best on any cast album – when the chorus joins in on “Hello, Dolly!” before segueing into “Dancing,” “It Only Takes a Moment,” “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” all leading to the moment when we can envision our star entering for her curtain call
as the chorus one again salutes her with that title tune.

Whether you choose the Carol Channing original, the Mary Martin London edition or the Pearl Bailey mid-run disc, you’ll find all of the above assets wonderfully represented. Hey, haters of Hello, Dolly! — what’s not to like?

Peter Filichia also writes a column each Friday at His books on musicals are available at