Hello Dolly! opened January 16, 1964 and closed after 2844 performances on December 27, 1970. No previous Broadway musical had such a long run. Carol Channing as Dolly Gallagher Levi led the cast. It also ran for 794 performances at London’s West End.
The Broadway show won 10 Tony Awards, including Best Musical, and for Channing, Best Actress in a Musical. Not till 35 years later did another musical surpass Hello Dolly!
Carol Channing performing “Before the Parade Passes By” at the 1964 Tony awards:
Louis Armstrong’s recording of the title song also appeared in 1964 and reached no. 1 on the pop chart. It knocked the Beatles out of the top spot they had owned for 14 months. At 63, Armstrong was the oldest performer to make it to the top of the chart.
John Gielgud told TV host Charles Osgood, “You Americans forget your classic characters–I do Hamlet every fifteen years or so. You should continue to do Hello, Dolly! Your contribution to American art form is the American musical comedy–musical theatre.”
Perhaps Gielgud would be pleased that Hello Dolly! has not only been revived and taken on tour by star performers, but performed in regional theaters, both professional, amateur, and student for half a century.
It’s worth recalling the historical context of its original run. War raged in Vietnam and protests raged at home. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated. And let’s not forget how controversial the Beatles were or the revolution in popular music that they represented. Hello Dolly! provided a welcome and joyful relief from the social turbulence of those times.
Fiddler on the Roof, and Funny Girl, among other great musicals, also opened in 1964.
The origin of Hello Dolly!
Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman, who wrote both the music and the lyrics, adapted Hello Dolly! from Thornton Wilder’s hit play The Matchmaker (1955). It is a very faithful adaptation. I saw a production of The Matchmaker and recognized numerous bits of dialog. At the places where Herman inserted songs, I was always somewhat surprised that no one started singing!
Wilder wrote The Matchmaker as a revision of a play called The Merchant of Yonkers, which had flopped in 1938. That farce was based indirectly on an English play, A Day Well Spent (1835) by John Oxenford.
Channing was not the first choice to create the part of Dolly. The show was written for Ethel Merman, who declined the part so she could rest after she finished a long run of Gypsy. Mary Martin and Nanette Fabray also turned down the part before it was offered to Channing. Merman and Martin both portrayed Dolly during its Broadway run.
Hello Dolly! surpassed The Matchmaker’s success. In fact, Wilder told Channing that he had worked on the story for 36 years and felt he had never quite gotten it right. But, he added, Stewart, Herman, and director/choreographer Gower Champion had achieved the result he desired.
In the 1890s, widowed Dolly Gallagher Levi, a wildly popular socialite in New York, makes a living meddling. Among other things, she’s a matchmaker. One of her clients, rich and grumpy Horace Vandergelder, owns a feed store in Yonkers. He wants to visit New York to propose to Irene Molloy, a widow who owns a hat shop. But Dolly has other ideas. She intends for Horace to marry her and suggests he should meet a rich heiress named Ernestina Money. On the side, she’s matching Horace’s niece Ermengarde with Ambrose Kemper, an artist Horace disapproves of.
Vandergelder tells his two clerks, Cornelius and Barnaby, that he is going to New York to march in a parade and get married. So they’re in charge of the store. But they, too, have other ideas. They want to go to New York and have a good time. Each one especially wants to kiss a girl. Dolly recommends that they visit Irene Molloy and her assistant, Minnie Fay.
Meanwhile, Irene tells Dolly she wants to get married, but she’s not interested in Horace. So of course, Horace, Ernestina, Dolly, Cornelius and Irene, Barnaby and Minnie Fay, and Ambrose and Ermengarde all wind up at the same very expensive restaurant. Ernestina leaves almost immediately, as Dolly had planned. The clerks are nervous, because they don’t have any money, but the action becomes so chaotic that both Barnaby and Horace drop their wallets and pick up each other’s.
When Horace gets ready to pay the bill, he first notices that he has only loose change. Then he spots the other three couples, who are trying to sneak out. Uproar breaks out, which lands the whole cast in court. Dolly manages to persuade the judge that everyone is innocent except Horace.
Dolly mentions marriage to Horace, not for the first time. He so vehemently rejects the idea that she finally gives up on him and suggests he should snuggle up to his cash register.
But the next morning at Horace’s store in Yonkers, as the young couples prepare for their new lives, Horace realizes how much he needs Dolly. When he says something her late husband had repeated often, she takes it as a sign that she should marry Horace after all. She promises, “Dolly will never go away again.”
Songs in Hello Dolly! in order of appearance:
- I Put My Hand In
- It Takes a Woman
- World, Take Me Back
- Put On Your Sunday Clothes
- Ribbons Down My Back
- Love, Look in My Window
- Before the Parade Passes By
- The Waiter’s Gallop
- Hello Dolly!
- Come and Be My Butterfly
- The Polka Contest
- It Only Takes a Moment
- So Long Dearie
- Hello Dolly! (reprise)
Carol Channing performing “Hello Dolly!” (London, 1979)
Hello Dolly! was revived three times on Broadway (1975, 1978, 1995) and three times in London (1979, 1984, 2009). There have also been numerous tours. It has played successfully in other countries.
Currently, Sally Struthers is headlining a 50th-anniversary tour. Struthers achieved her first fame as Gloria on the path-breaking TV series All in the Family in the 1970s. She has appeared in musicals and other plays both on Broadway and in regional theaters. A Broadway revival with Kristen Chenoweth has been announced.
Hello Dolly! on Broadway / Playbill Vault
Call on Dolly: Celebrating the First Fifty Years of Hello, Dolly!
History of the Musical Stage, 1960s / John Kenrick
Hello Dolly! / Internet Broadway Database
Sally Struthers Will Lead 50th Anniversary National Tour of Hello, Dolly! / Josh Ferri
Hello Dolly! Tickets
Photos are public domain from Wikimedia Commons