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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.
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.
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.