BWW Interview: Carolee Carmello of HELLO DOLLY at Bass Performance Hall
One of the things synonymous with the musical Hello Dolly is the world-class caliber of talent in the leading ladies of Broadway that have tackled the title role of Dolly Levi. Now actress Carolee Carmello has joined the ranks of such talents as Carol Channing, Ginger Rogers and Bette Midler appearing as Dolly Levi in the current national tour.
Carolee has been one of Broadway's leading ladies for over 25 years, appearing in 14 Broadway shows, as well as being a three-time Tony nominee for her performances in Parade, Lestat & Scandalous. I was thrilled to chat with her during the holiday season about touring life, her iconic Dolly tribute photos via Instagram and so much more.
Sarah Comley Caldwell: Carolee, I'm so excited to talk to you! Have you been to Dallas before with a touring production?
Carolee Carmello: It will be my first visit in a very long time. I'm definitely looking forward to being there again, its been quite a while.
SCC: Since I live in Texas, I have to ask about your connection to Betty Buckley, who toured as Dolly Levi in last year's national tour. Were you able to chat with her before taking on the role?
CC: Yes! We definitely did chat. We didn't talk specifically about the Texas run, although I know that's near and dear to her heart. I first saw the show when she was doing it in Washington D.C. and we talked a little bit then. Then I came to Boston when the tour was there and I followed her around backstage. She was great-very supportive and lovely. We had worked together a long time ago at Lincoln Center doing a show called Elegies [by William Finn] and got to be friends back then.
SCC: I have been enjoying your Instagram account on social media and in particular your #TributeTuesday photos. They are beautiful and creative and such a wonderful homage to all of the incredible women like yourself who have been a part of Hello, Dolly!
CC: Thank you! So many amazing people have played this role, I couldn't not acknowledge that because its such a big part of the history of the show!
SCC: Absolutely! How do you get inspiration for the next tribute photo? Do you have any particular way you're approaching whom you feature next?
CC: Right now I'm going chronologically, in the order that the ladies took on the role, starting originally with Carol, and working through the Broadway company. When I finish up (with those actresses)-Ethel Merman was the last woman to do the role on Broadway-I think I'll open it up to other people that played it on tour or other parts of the country. I know there were some amazing women who have done it over the years. Its been fun!
SCC: I also loved the tribute photo in Detroit, where you re-created a photo of Carol Channing at the theatre stage door.
CC: Oh, wasn't that a cool shot? We actually had to be really creative. I had that [original] photo before I was doing the show. I saw it and thought, "Oh, when we get to Detroit at the theatre where Carol did the pre-Broadway tryout, I'm going to see if that stage door looks the same as it did then."
With the hat boxes, it was particularly challenging, because the ones in the picture that Carol's holding are wig boxes, and our wigs don't travel that way. We took one of the hat boxes that's in the show, and we covered it with paper. The other piece was one of the suitcases that's a prop in the show. We tried to get as close as we could to whatever the shapes were in the picture, though of course, we couldn't be exact. I had a lot of help from my dresser and from the wardrobe supervisor. We had a craft day putting it together!
SCC: I love that! That brings me to your creativity. You have played so many interesting roles. How do you bring your own creative personality and process to a role like Dolly Levi?
CC: I often think of the lyric from Sondheim's Sunday in the Park with George. He wrote, "Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new." I try to rely on the fact that [the role] is getting filtered through my body and my voice, so it will be a new version. I don't think that I can re-invent the wheel here, because it has been done so many times by so many amazing women. I'm just trying to live up to everything that's gone before me, and I try to be as honest with it as I can.
SCC: Since there are so many iconic women who have played the role of Dolly, was there a particular actress or portrayal that inspired you more than others?
CC: I tried to watch as much as I could (YouTube clips, etc.) and see how different women approached the role. I don't know if there's one in particular. I think the two in my head were Carol [Channing], who did it originally [on Broadway] and Barbra Streisand, who was in the movie since those two were the most original versions that I knew about. I didn't get to see the show in New York, so I didn't see Bette [Midler] or Bernadette [Peters], but I saw clips [of their work] online, as well as Ginger Rogers, Pearl Bailey and lots of different people. I think its a conglomeration of everybody!
SARAH: Do you personally have particular actors that you look up to who have taught you about your craft?
CC: I have to say--and this is not just because we were talking about her--Betty Buckley is one of those people that I really admired. When we first met I had of course been aware of her amazing work and I have so much respect for her acting ability. The thing that gets me really excited about musical theatre performers is when they are great actors. Of course, she has an amazing voice, there's no doubt about that, but she's just so honest on stage and authentic. I remember when we did the show together at Lincoln Center, most of us got to be onstage for the whole show. I got to watch her up close and personal and see the emotions she is able to convey. I love that about her, and I've always tried to live up to that standard. She's definitely one of the people I have so much respect for in this business. [She has] such a long career, so many decades of great work!
SCC: Something I love and respect about your career is your longevity and how you continually find incredible roles to play. I would love to hear if you have any advice or inspiration for other actors?
CC: Gosh, I never feel like I'm an expert on anything. I feel like anyone who is making a living in this business is doing a good job! The advice that I got when I was starting out is don't count yourself out. Audition for anything that comes along because you never know, you might just walk into the room and be the exact thing that they are looking for. Auditioning is the hardest part of this business. Once you get the job, its smooth sailing, but getting the job is really hard. So the more you audition, the better you are at it, and the less nervous you'll be the next time you walk in the room.
SCC: I love that advice. Is there something specific you feel Dolly has taught you that you carry into your own life?
CC: I think it would be her optimism. The way the character is written, she is definitely at a certain point in her own life, having been a widow for ten years. She feels like its time for a second chance, and I think there's something really relatable and universal about trying to find love. There are so many characters in the show that are trying to find love. She is one of those people that has put on a good front for all of those years with her public face. But she's also lonely and talks about her financial woes. I'm not sure I'm always like that in real life, so its nice to play a character who has that much optimism and an optimistic take on life.
SCC: How has life been out on the road?
CAROLEE: It's been great! It has come at a particularly good time in my life where I'm able to travel. My youngest [child] just went off to college. Now I'm not sitting home, feeling like an empty nester, I'm out enjoying life and seeing the country. Its been a great opportunity for me! The thing that's been most fun is the cast, they have been so great! I love working with John Bolton. [The actor playing alongside Carmello as Vandergelder.] He is just so much fun to be with onstage. We have such great chemistry on stage, and that's been such a nice surprise too because we didn't know each other at all before this.
SCC: Being that Hello Dolly is the type of show you can see again and again, what can audiences look forward to with this production?
CAROLEE: There certainly is a lot of fresh energy in the show. I think that if you didn't get to see it last time when it came through Dallas, definitely come and check it out. If you saw it the first time, and you just love that joyful energy, why not see it again with another cast? One of the things I've been talking about in interviews is the spirit of the show and how important it is right now in our country to have something joyful. I feel like there is a lot of tension and discord in the country right now. It is nice to have an evening of a few hours of uplifting fun that doesn't have any political point of view and doesn't take sides. Live theatre has the ability to bond people in ways that I don't think other art forms do.
SCC: I couldn't agree more! Thanks so much for chatting, I can't wait to see your performance!
CAROLEE: Thank you!
Hello Dolly! plays the Bass Performance Hall in Fort Worth, TX January 14-19, 2020.