Why This Dolly Will Never Go Away For Me
Wednesday, July 19, 2017  •  
Wed Jul 19, 2017  •  
Broadway  •   16 comments Share This
Despite the show's endearing characters and colorful costumes, it is Dolly herself who makes or breaks the performance.

A musical lover remembers the understudy who first captured his heart


On a recent Sunday afternoon, I settled in to my seat in the upper balcony of the Shubert Theatre to watch Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly!. Over half a century earlier at age 10, I had attended my first Broadway show, Oliver!, in the same theatre, sitting in the same section. I have seen many a musical in the intervening years. Nowadays, I rarely attend revivals -- I'm old enough that they tend to be of shows I saw in their original productions, and I don't feel the new incarnations have much to offer me. But Hello, Dolly! is different.

It was down the block, in the upper balcony of the St. James Theatre, where I first encountered the irrepressible matchmaker of the title. She wasn't played by Carol Channing or any of her big-name replacements such as Ginger Rogers, Betty Grable, or Martha Raye. It wasn't even Pearl Bailey…though it was supposed to be.

Bailey had revitalized the show headlining an all-black cast that included Cab Calloway as Horace Vandergelder and, in supporting roles, future notables Morgan Freeman, Clifton Davis, and Winston DeWitt Hemsley. However, Bailey had a higher-than-average cancellation rate, and there were several understudies on call throughout her engagement. The day of my matinee, Novella Nelson -- a veteran character actress still working today at age 77 -- stepped up.

Novella Nelson
Novella Nelson

So it was Nelson who put her hand in here and there; who stood for Motherhood, America, and a hot lunch for orphans; who wouldn't let the parade pass by; and who strode down the staircase at the Harmonia Gardens, enveloping us all in musical comedy magic. Despite the show's numerous endearing characters, colorful costumes and scenery, and a glorious score full of earworms, it is Dolly herself who makes or breaks the performance. So Nelson imprinted on me as my "reference" Dolly.

I would only encounter Nelson twice more on stage: a few years later in the musical Purlie, and the 1981 Elizabeth Taylor revival of The Little Foxes. And yet, her Dolly never really went away, even as I experienced other interpretations.

In 1970, Hello, Dolly! became the first show I saw a second time during its original run. When Ethel Merman went into the cast (with two songs -- "World, Take Me Back" and "Love, Look in My Window" -- added just for her), I knew I needed to return to the St. James; it was the only time I would get to see her on stage. I was just 15, but already attuned to the nostalgic (and ironic) significance of her staircase descent at the Harmonia Gardens. Everybody else did good work, too, but it was all about Merman that day. Still, she couldn't displace Nelson in my Dolly pantheon.

Carol Channing in
Carol Channing in 'Hello, Dolly!' in 1995; photo by Joan Marcus

Although Bailey brought the show back to Broadway in 1975 and Channing in 1978, it wasn't until 1996 that Dolly and I crossed paths again. That's when the indefatigable Channing returned yet again to her most famous role, this time at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre. Examining the names of the rest of the cast, few resonate now. Once again, we were there for Dolly…or, rather, for Carol. I assume many audience members had their own memories of Channing with which to compare her performance; for us first-timers, it was a little like a theme-park attraction. But she gave it her all, and probably added at least 10 years to the moratorium on future Broadway revivals.

(Meanwhile, back at the pantheon, Nelson had nothing to worry about.)

Now it's 21 years later and, amazingly, Channing is still with us to "pass the torch" to Bette Midler. Even though the 2017 production has been lovingly and luxuriously staged and cast -- even double cast, inasmuch as the formidable Donna Murphy is going on as Dolly once a week -- I was a bit apprehensive. Would I be able to set aside memories of Nelson and experience the show anew?

To my surprise, it was funnier than I remembered (thanks no doubt to the direction of Jerry Zaks), and Dolly had acquired a new dimension. It wasn't Midler's rendition of the songs that distinguished this performance for me; I was struck by her characterization. Her voice goes interesting places. It reminded me of Shirley Booth, who played Dolly in the film version of Thornton Wilder's The Matchmaker, on which the musical is based. The first time Midler as Dolly addressed her late husband, Ephraim, I felt a catch in my throat no previous Dolly had put there. It only took a moment…that moment…for Dolly to become a real person for me again.

Perhaps time helped Midler out a bit. It's been 50 years since I first saw Hello, Dolly!; I've acquired firsthand experience in parades passing me by, and I've had many a conversation with departed relatives and friends. Not too long ago, I got married for the first time. I never used to like parades…but now I'm ready to move out in front.

Nelson will always be my first Dolly; I don't yet know whether Midler will be my last. But my pantheon has expanded to accommodate them both. Novella, say hello, Dolly to Bette.

Have you ever been blown away by a star's understudy? Share your story in the comments.


Daniel Guss is a native New Yorker. During his career at RCA, he reissued over 1,000 compact discs, ranging from the recordings of such classical superstars as Arturo Toscanini, Jascha Heifetz, Arthur Rubinstein, Enrico Caruso, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Leontyne Price, and James Galway, to classical music compilations and original cast recordings, including the deluxe collector's edition of Hello, Dolly!

Top image: Bette Midler in Hello, Dolly! Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

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Debbie said:
Mary Testa for Liza Minnelli in "The Rink". She was great!
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 9:17 AM
Frank Guerrasio said:
No one knew who Judy Kaye was in the late 70s, but when I saw her after she took over in "On The 20th Century" for Madeline Kahn, I knew I was watching a star being born right in front of my eyes. Her breath-taking performance carried her through a glorious career right up to the star status she enjoys today. An unforgettable evening !
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 12:08 PM
Robert Landau said:
We are living in an age of very effective understudies. I would like to call attention to the performance of Kerry Jones as Achilles in last year's Central Park production of Troilus and Cressida. David Harbour, who had been cast originally had been hurt; Mr.Jones, had obviously replaced him on short notice, yet he effectively captured Achilles' savage and revengeful nature.
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 12:12 PM
Natasha Brenner said:
It was the early 1950s and I was going to my first Broadway show after a divorce. I was very excited, especially because I was going to see Carol Haney in "Pajama Game"! She had gotten rave reviews. Then came the slip of paper in the program! Carole Haney's role tonight will be performed by.....SHIRLEY MC CLAINE!!! I will never forget her "Steam Heat"!
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 1:54 PM
Claudia said:
I had tickets to see Bernadette Peters in "Gypsy" and heard Maureen Moore instead. I was crushed at first. I did hear Rose, though I could not see her. Moore's voice was fabulous. Also, Moore had played June. Contemplating that link sounded deep notes in Rose I had not heard before.
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 3:40 PM
Raven Snook said:
These are all such incredible stories! Being able to see stars being born as understudies! Robert, I did want to make one quick correction: David Harbour was replaced by Louis Calcelmi (not Kerry Jones) last summer in Troilus and Cressida, and he was excellent. And he's Annie Parisse's brother!
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 9:18 PM
Daniel Guss said:
Frank Guerrasio - I, too, saw Judy Kaye, although by the time I saw her, she had already been given the role and was playing it, not as an understudy, but as a replacement.
Posted on 7/22/2017 at 11:32 PM
Karen DeAngelis said:
Had the great privilege of seeing Bette Midler in Hello Dolly in previews on March 29. Standing in for Gavin Creel was Christian Dante White. He was fabulous,not one miscue, And when Bette took her bows on the third one she took him with her. Fantastico!!!.
Posted on 7/23/2017 at 11:34 AM
Katie Lander said:
Recently I had an interesting experience seeing an understudy perform. A friend was visiting NYC and she was able to get us SRO tix for Dear Evan Hansen thru a theatre connection. Ben Platt was not performing that day, and his understudy, Colton Ryan, went on. Not only did Colton give a stellar performance, but I discovered later that he and I are from the same hometown! (Lexington, KY)
Posted on 7/23/2017 at 11:46 AM
Celia Bressack said:
In 1977, I waited until one of the final performances of the original production of Pippin to see it. I was too late to see John Rubinstein in the title role, but lucky enough to see the talented Dean Pitchford. He went on to have a career as a b'way lyricist. He was adorable in the role!
Posted on 7/24/2017 at 1:41 PM
Daniel Guss said:
On my 12th birthday, I was taken to see "Fiddle on the Roof" (original production). Zero Mostel had left the show already, but Herschel Bernardi had replaced him. However, as a birthday present, the fates arranged for me to see his understudy, Harry Goz. I didn't know what I was missing, and loved him as well as the show. Years later, he got to play the part himself, with top billing.
Posted on 7/31/2017 at 7:30 PM
Fred Plotkin said:
Hello Daniel, I enjoyed your comments. I too saw Oliver and then various Dollys from Channing to Bailey. I did not see Novella Nelson, who has lived on my block for decades but remember her well from Purlie. And I remember you well from RCA. I saw Bette Midler as Dolly and next comes Donna Murphy. All best, Fred
Posted on 8/1/2017 at 4:03 PM
John Bonanni said:
Nice article, and did it ever bring back memories. I saw Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Ginger Rodgers, Ethel Merman, Pearl Bailey and Phyllis Diller ALL from the 7th floor dressing room level of the St. James. There was a fire door that opened up to the grid and I'd climb down to a lower landing and watch Wednesday matinees. I was an office intern for David Merrick then. Thanks for the reminder!
Posted on 8/26/2017 at 12:03 PM
Daniel Guss said:
RIP Novella Nelson...she passed away Friday, September 1.
Posted on 9/5/2017 at 2:21 PM
Novella's Daughter said:
Thanks for writing this Mr. Guss. I'm sorry I didn't see your article until now. She would have been very humbled.
Posted on 9/24/2017 at 5:55 AM
Leo said:
Can’t remember this teen-ager’s name — but he did a memorable stand-in performance. He was cast as the older nephews in Mame, in a production at the barn theatre in Rhinebeck, NY. When the younger nephew became ill, this actor learned most of his lines in 24 hours. But, just in case, a hastily rigged radio was set up to transmit lines to the earpiece he was wearing. The show went on.
Posted on 11/23/2018 at 11:32 AM
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