She’s Still Got Elegance!

The 1960s were an interesting time for show tunes. They were sounding less and less like contemporary pop music and yet some of the most beloved musicals ever written made their debuts in the sixties. I’m not going to attempt a definitive ranking, but if I did, Jerry Herman’s masterpiece Hello, Dolly! would certainly make the list.

Hello, Dolly! was the very first musical I ever saw live on stage. Although it was a high school production, I was awestruck by the choreography, massive sets, and that iconic feathered headdress. It holds a special place in my heart but I have never listened to some of the Dolly cast albums. What better chance to rectify that?

The title song was already a smash hit for Louis Armstrong when Hello, Dolly! opened at Broadway’s St. James Theatre on January 16, 1964. It starred Carol Channing in her signature role as Dolly Gallagher Levi, a widowed matchmaker who believes the perfect match for the wealthy Horace Vandergelder is herself. The original Broadway production swept the Tony Awards and ran for a record-breaking 2,844 performances, taking it all the way to the end of 1970. For a little under two months of its original run, Hello, Dolly! was staged with an all-black cast featuring Pearl Bailey in the lead role. A film version starring Barbra Streisand was released in 1969. The musical has dominated recent theater news thanks to a popular 2017 revival which first starred Bette Midler, who has since been replaced by Bernadette Peters. All in all, six English language cast albums have been released.

I am willing to bet that a survey asking those familiar with Dolly to name the musical’s definitive cast album would yield a nearly even split between the original 1964 Broadway cast recording and the 1969 film soundtrack. With that in mind, let’s go back to 1964. Lyndon B. Johnson is president, Bewitched is TV’s hottest new show, the surgeon general has just announced that smoking might actually be bad for you, and Carol Channing has brought Dolly Gallagher Levi “back where she belongs” for the very first time!

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The first thing I noticed about the 1964 original Broadway cast recording was the lounge feel of the overture. I must never have listened to it before and was surprised by my impression because the thought of Hello, Dolly! does not exactly evoke the feeling of a lounge atmosphere. Soon, Channing is with us and what a presence she is! She charmingly warbles her way through her numbers and I can’t help but smile when she sings her playful interpretation of Dolly. If this cast has a second standout performance it would have to be Charles Nelson Riley’s Cornelius. He plays the part with an admirable amount of boyish innocence that must have been a joy to see on stage.

Now, I have to say that there is a song in Hello, Dolly! that always makes me wince. “It Takes a Woman” is kind of gross to my 21st century ears. With lyrics like “she’ll work until infinity/three cheers for femininity,” I don’t see how it wasn’t cut from the current production.  Perhaps my perception will shift by end of my Dolly tour, but for now I am forcing myself to muddle through it. I am rewarded with some other very good music, including the always fun “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and the act one finale “Before the Parade Passes By.” Then we come to the famous title number. It may be a good thing that Armstrong had already made this song a hit because I don’t think Channing could have done it by herself. She is a bit out of her league here and even sounds tired and out of place for most of what is supposed to be her showstopper. Still, she knows what she’s doing for most of the album, especially when it comes to the comedic bits that she expertly delivers throughout.

The 1965 London cast recording has Mary Martin in the role of Dolly. Martin brings a new maternal warmth to the character while keeping her funny and charming. She is a  stronger singer than Channing and she lets you know it with an almost perfect technical performance. Throughout the album, the music is faster and more to the point. “It Only Takes a Moment,” for example, is shorter and does not feature as much of the supporting chorus that it does in the 1964 Broadway cast recording. There are two notable improvements here: one is Loring Smith in the role of Vandergelder and the other is the title song. This “Hello, Dolly!” number features a confident, capable Martin who sounds like she is actually having a good time along with her chorus. She even yodels a bit! And the pleasure of hearing a chorus sing “you’re still crowin'” to an actress who is arguably most famous for playing Peter Pan is the kind of happy thing that I think I will especially like about this experiment.

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It is extremely rare for a Broadway production to issue multiple cast albums during a single run, but in 1967 Hello, Dolly! did just that to commemorate an all-black cast led by Pearl Bailey.  Here, Bailey does not embody Dolly; it’s the other way around! She puts a lot of herself into the role and that turns out to be a good thing, resulting in track after track of the most natural Dolly performance yet. At the beginning of listening, I was unsure how I felt about Jack Crowder in the role of Cornelius. He has a gorgeous baritone but it seemed misplaced in the larynx of someone who is supposed to be a young shop clerk. My opinion changed when I heard his version of “Elegance” (one of my favorite Dolly numbers) and it was favorably cemented by his sensational performance on “It Only Takes a Moment.” I also have to say that this cast performed two miracles: 1) They recorded a version of “It Takes a Woman” that I did not hate thanks to the impression that Vandergelder is a dolt. And 2) The so far impossibly sappy “Ribbons Down My Back” is made thoroughly enjoyable for the first time by Emily Lancy. By the end of the album, this is my favorite Hello, Dolly! I’ve listened to yet.

I would like to address something before I begin the second half of my Dolly marathon. While most of the music is wonderful and the cast is consistently delightful, I have to ask, is Hello, Dolly! the best musical with a bad finale? The finale consists of what is essentially a retrospective of songs that we’ve just heard. It comes off as clunky and unnecessary, especially after the great songs that come before it. Answering this is my new, unexpected quest as I fire up the next three cast albums.

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Significant changes are common for movie adaptations of stage musicals and Gene Kelly’s 1969 Hello, Dolly! film is no exception. It stars Barbra Streisand as Dolly, Walter Matthau as Vandergelder, and Michael Crawford (who would later play the original Phantom) as Cornelius. The movie opens with a brand new song composed specially by Herman to show off Streisand’s remarkable talent for singing. I actually think the new “Just Leave Everything to Me” is a better Dolly opener than the stage’s “I Put My Hand In.” It shows off more of Dolly’s character and her ambition in life, which is to help anyone in anyway that she can. She still sings about her penchant for arranging things, but here it sounds more urgent. “You need my help, you just don’t know it,” is the message, where on stage it’s a more straightforward “I am able to help you.”

Some of my excitement about a new Dolly song to sing along with is melted away by Matthau’s questionable performance. Even having seen the film multiple times, I can’t understand why is he was cast. His first song is the ever dreadful “It Takes a Woman”, which is subsidized by a reprise sung by Streisand that doesn’t really add anything new to the song or the album as a whole. However, Streisand’s acrobatic vocals do add much to the rest of the soundtrack’s songs, especially “Before the Parade Passes By” and her incredible performance of “So Long Dearie” which she brings to life more than any of her predecessors. She has a second new song, “Love is Only Love,” which is pretty enough but wouldn’t be missed. A highlight for some fans might be the duet with Armstrong on the title song, which, of course, he made famous.

I have finally left the sixties! Because no Hello, Dolly! cast albums were released in seventies and eighties, the next stop I am making is the 1995 Broadway cast album (often labeled as 1994, though the production began in October of ’95. Why is a mystery to me). This was the thirty-first anniversary of Dolly on Broadway and we find Carol Channing back in the role that she created.

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Now, it is important to understand that this is not the first time Channing has reprised her role. In fact, she played Dolly in more than 4,000 performances throughout her career. For reference, that’s almost 11 years worth of nightly shows! So by this time she is seasoned. And boy, does it show. Where I found her lackluster on the original cast album, here she is exquisite. She sounds noticeably older but, more importantly, she sounds confident and fun. I can practically hear her smiling through the speakers! Both the cast and orchestrations are stunning on this recording and it features the famous “Waiters’ Gallop” for the first time. My only small reservation is that Michael DeVries’ Cornelius had me longing for Riley’s youthful charm but hey, every masterpiece has to have a smudge, right? And besides, he has a beautiful voice. This is my new favorite Dolly album.

Which brings me to the current Broadway production of Hello, Dolly! Well, the original Bette Midler led cast of that revival anyway. The Divine Miss M is… well, divine! Her unique sense of humor is where she shines strongest and her gifted voice is the icing on top of that. However, the best thing about the this album for my money is Gavin Creel as Cornelius. He is perfect! His combination of youth and vocal expertise is the best balance I could have asked for. I am not enthused by the addition of the originally cut “Penny in My Pocket,” sung here at the beginning of the second act by Vandergelder, played by the exceptionally talented David Hyde Pierce. I understand that they needed to give Pierce something cute to do, but this did not need to be that thing. Still, the fact that they mercifully cut the finale short is enough to redeem the recording’s few shortcomings. This is a solid cast album!

As much as I enjoyed the 2017 version, I do wish that Bernadette Peters and the current company were given the chance to record their own cast album. As it is, I can only imagine how much Peters gives to this legendary role.

About that finale: I still don’t enjoy it. I have no choice but to verify that this is, in fact, the best musical with a bad finale. It’s a shame because Hello, Dolly! has some of the best and most endearing songs that Broadway has ever heard.

Hello, Dolly! is one of those musicals that has always stayed with me. Over the past few days I have been caught singing “Before the Parade Passes By” and “Hello, Dolly!” more times than I can count. The fact that songs written more than fifty years are so catchy to my millennial ears may actually prove the prophesy that serves as the last line of the show: “Dolly, you’ll never go away again!”

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Musical: Hello, Dolly!

Music and Lyrics by Jerry Herman

Opening Performance: January 16, 1964, New York City

Cast Albums I Listened To: 1964 Original Broadway Cast, 1965 Original London Cast, 1967 Broadway Cast, 1969 Film Soundtrack, 1995 Broadway Revival Cast, and 2017 Broadway Revival Cast

Song You Might Know: “Hello, Dolly!”

Highlights: “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” “Before the Parade Passes By,” “Hello, Dolly!,” “Elegance,” “It Only Takes a Moment”

Honorable Mention: Streisand’s “So Long Dearie”

Favorite Cast Album: 1995 Broadway Revival Cast

Overall Impression: Forever a favorite. The music holds up and the comedic moments are still fun. It is especially interesting to hear such a range of performances by the talented women tasked with singing the part of Dolly.

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