BROADWAY'S LIVING DOLL: AN INTERVIEW WITH CAROL CHANNING
For those of us who were lucky enough to see the original production of Hello, Dolly!, it seems unbelievable to realize that 40 years have passed since it opened on January 16, 1964. In the time that has elapsed since, America has seen eight Presidents in the White House, the birth if the Internet, three wars, the demise of the Automat, the creation of the cellphone, the spread of the AIDS epidemic, the attempted assassination of a President and a Pope, new colors for M & M's, and the tragic events of September 11, 2001. As Mrs. Rose says toward the end of Act One, "It's been a long time, Dolly; a long, long time."
Yes, it has been a long time, and to commemorate the 40th anniversary of what producer David Merrick dubbed "The World's Happiest Musical", BroadwayWorld.Com was fortunate enough to obtain a telephone interview with its original star just after she announced Mr. Blackwell's "Worst Dressed List" in California.
Miss Carol Channing originated the title role in Hello, Dolly! and won a Tony Award for her efforts.She went on to play Mrs. Levi for over 5,000 performances and holds a special place in the theater community for never missing a scheduled performance on Broadway.
Looking back on the show's Opening Night in 1964, Miss Channing recalls it as being a wonderful blending of Jerry Herman's tuneful score coupled with Gower Champion's ingenious direction and choreography. She says the collaboration was "harmonious", although so many changes were made during the show's try-out in Detroit, that 6'5" David Hartman (who played Rudolph) was squeezed into one of the barrels that served as props in Vandergelder's Feed Store--along with a script and a flashlight. Mr Hartman, who went on to became a popular figure on ABC News, fed Miss Channing and the late David Burns the newly revised lines until they were able to fully learn them. She admits that such a technique did "result in some pregnant pauses, but it gave Jerry Herman, Gower Champion, Mike Stewart David Merrick and all the powers that be...it gave them a chance to see if the revisions were an improvement or if it was for the worst."
Of the other members of the original cast, Miss Channing says she still sees Charles Nelson Reilly, and that she and Jerry Herman "are joined at the hip". However, she sadly notes that "very few of us are left."
Another memory of the original production that stands out in Miss Channing's memory is a visit she received from Jacqueline Kennedy with her children Caroline and John on the one year anniversary of President Kennedy's death. It was a Wednesday matinee and Mrs. Kennedy brought the two children to see Dolly!. Miss Channing muses that "not one lady in the audience asked for their autographs or tried to talk to them, They just wanted them very much to enjoy the show...and the Kennedys came backstage; knocking on the [dressing room] door. I opened it and said, 'Caroline Kennedy, why how do you do?' and Caroline looked up at her mother and said, 'She knew my name! Dolly Levi knew my name!'
The crew was there and asked The Children if they would like to ride on the train...we had a train that went all around the stage...and the crew stayed; they pulled the train down from three stories high, lowered it down on the stage, Caroline got into the caboose and John got up in the front with an engineer and ran the train until it was almost dinner time and we had to get ready for the evening show. The crew kept asking if they would like to go again...the men were just glad to give The Children something they were so happy about...and it was never reported it to the union; they stayed there all that time to run their train... now, of course, it's too late for the union to chastise them!"
Something else that Miss Channing takes great pride in is the fact that the Original Broadway Cast album of the show topped the charts for many weeks, knocking the Beatles out of first place. It was probably the last Broadway cast album to achieve such success.
Down through the years Miss Channing has left the role of Dolly Levi for other projects, but came back to it time and again. Had she ever discovered new aspects of the character that she explored in her performances? "I did. I got better and easier in it. It depends...You know I find when you are creating a character and if you're doing honest work: if you're painting a picture, if you're writing a poem, you re-create yourself and you have no idea what you're doing. So I didn't trust myself, especially when I was playing over 5,000 performances in the same role. I went to the critics I trusted, like Richard Coe of The Washington Post and Miles Standish of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch--critics that I really trusted--and asked them if I was getting better or worse. Was I overdoing or underdoing?--and they said I was getting BETTER and that just made me so happy. I could never trust myself on that, I had to ask them."
Although Miss Channing has never missed performances, she pauses when asked if playing opposite an understudy modifies the performance she is giving. "....Yes, it does...You've got to be relating to the character you're talking to. I've found that the worse I felt or when I was sick or had the flu I wound up giving my best work. So when other actors would miss performances I'd speak to them and they would say, ' but I was SICK,' and I'd say to them 'well, you missed your own best performance.' "
As the conversation touched upon Miss Channing's stamina and her incredible performance record, she doesn't ascribe it to good health--not at all: "I've gone on in a wheelchair, another performance I did with no voice--and I had to apologize to the audience and whisper. The microphone men were marvelous, they 'lifted' me. The audience kept applauding to let me know they could hear me. That was Charlotte, North Carolina. I'll never forget it." She also added that she broke both of her arms on different occasions She also fell into the orchestra pit and the audience thought it was part of the show. She adds, "I broke every bone in my body but I didn't care because I adored that show so much!" She writes off all her injuries as being "occupational hazards."
Interestingly enough, Miss Channing volunteered that much of the character of Dolly Gallagher Levi came from Thornton Wilder himself. It is common knowledge that Hello, Dolly! is based on Mr. Wilder's farce entitled The Matchmaker, and Miss Channing feels much of Dolly's humor was to be found in Mr. Wilder's own personality. The average person may find it hard to believe that the author of such somber works as Our Town and The Bridge of San Luis Rey could have such a comical personality, but Miss Channing explains: "He wrote himself into the role of Dolly. Dolly was hilariously funny and didn't know it. And that's what Thornton Wilder was. He was an adorable man."
When asked about other actresses who have played Dolly, Miss Channing became extremely enthusiastic about Pearl Bailey. "You see, Gower dictated to me what he wanted me to play. However, Pearl was PEARL and she didn't play the role any other way. She was marvelous. She wasn't influenced by me and that's very important. My version of Dolly was mine and it shouldn't be anyone else's." She added that she and Pearl Bailey worked on a television special and they both genuinely liked each other.
In her memoir, Just Lucky I Guess, Miss Channing affectionally calls Gower Champion a "benevolent despot" but in our conversation she explained how he wa a genius for using what he had and making it work so beautifully. Mr. Champion respected her interpretation of Dolly, as well as the interpretations that the various waiters had of their roles and fashioned one of the most brilliant numbers ever conceived for the Broadway stage. And the audience response at the end of the number she says " was like an explosion and it hit smack in the solar plexis...right in the middle." Her tone becomes quite subdued when she is asked about how she learned of Gower Champion's untimely death. She was in London at the time and he called her from the hospital. "He said, 'Carol, this is absolutely my last call to you. He said that he wanted to thank me for the contribution I'd made to Dolly's character. He said that he had some notes that I had given to him during the rehearsals for Dolly! and he wanted to send them to me." Ironically, Mr. Champion died on the very day that his last show, the original Forty Second Street opened at the Winter Garden Theater in 1980.
Inevitably the subject of the Hello, Dolly! movie comes up. "Well, I saw it once," she says."and it was a beautiful piece of scenery...they had lots of scenery...and let's face it Barbra Streisand has the greatest singing voice probably of the 20th century. But the thing is, Thornton Wilder wrote a comedy and when I saw the film I thought to myself, 'Oh I hope he's not still with us to see this' because he thought he wrote a COMEDY. It was a lot of beautiful costumes and wonderful scenery, but a barrel of laughs she ain't...Streisand's just not funny!"
Joseph Panarello with the incomparable Carol Channing
Upon hearing that many of the members of BroadwayWorld.Com are teenagers who are aspiring to careers in the theater, Miss Channing explains, "When they ask me 'Do you think from seeing my work that I should continue my efforts to be in the theater since it's so difficult to get into it?' I always tell them, 'If you can ask me that question, I don't think you'll ever make it. You just have to stick to it beyond all reason and all sanity, you just keep at it. You have to believe that you've GOT to be in the theater."<