I learned what a real standing ovation was. It came after Carol Channing and cast sang the title number to Hello, Dolly! in 1994, during the show’s pre-Broadway tour. If you’ve seen the show, you know the scene. Dolly Levi returns to her old haunting ground, the Harmonia Gardens restaurant, her return to living life after years of mourning the loss of her late husband. She arrives and is greeted with joy by the waiters and chefs. Great Gower Champion choreography ensues (largely recreated for the tour), and when the casts stops, the audience begins.
That Tuesday night (October 12, 1994), I was one of the first to stand to my feet, a shy eighteen-year old seeing his first Broadway musical, not because I wanted to but because I had to. The only decision made was not to check my shyness at the door because I knew even standing for such a performance by such a woman still wouldn’t be enough to express what was going on in that theatre and inside of me.
This repeated for the curtain call, another thrilling moment when my legs spoke for me. I couldn’t clap hard enough when Carol Channing came down in her wedding dress. I knew I had seen something phenomenal, something I would never get a chance to relive.
It was a miracle I even went. As a high school student, plays weren’t even on my radar. Like so many other kids, my experience with drama was from well-intentioned teachers who took us on field trips to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream or some other unreachable play that made drama seem boring. Furthermore, for my family, the cost of attending a Broadway musical (even in 1994) was high enough that it was literally the equivalent of going to Italy for many other families. Broadway musical was nowhere in my vocabulary.
It was when the producers offered a 50% discount on tickets that my mom saw the ad and suggested we go. I had labored my summer away in utter misery at Target, and I had some of the money left over (my parents would no way have had the money to fund two tickets). My mom wanted to see Carol Channing, and on a whim, I agreed to go. We didn’t go for the highest priced ticket because it seemed superfluous all things considered and went for the second-tier pricing (those seats, by the way, are now considered first-tier pricing). I paid $21.75 for row BB. I paid $21.75 for one of the best nights of my life.
It’s hard to explain the magic of that night. People who haven’t seen Carol Channing on stage can’t possible understand the impact she has on an audience, the domination she has over comedic timing and musical delivery, not to mention the magnitude of stage presence she carries in her hip pocket. Remember, I was an eighteen-year old, and women of her age weren’t exactly on my radar; it’s not like she was a cast member from Saved By the Bell. But the moment she appeared on stage, I knew. I knew this was going to be something special.
My favorite moment from the evening was “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” with those Victorian-era costumes in bright reds, greens, and oranges. Like its star, the number was larger-than-life. But in truth, so much of that evening still stands out in my mind—moments of Channing’s performance, looks she gave, bits of stage business.
Amazingly, ten years to the week that I had originally seen Hello, Dolly!, Carol Channing came to town in her one-woman show. In that show, she performed the title number in its entirety, including the choreography, even going so far as to indicate when she pulled up on her dress. Yes, I had tingles, lots and lots of tingles.
It’s sad to me that so little of her performance has been captured on film. I know there was a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade performance from a number of years ago that has yet to make it on YouTube as well as a CBS Sunday Morning profile from 1995 that featured a healthy dose of clips, but off all the cities she toured, of all the performances she played as Dolly Levi, there sure isn’t much of her performance recorded. I don’t know if it was recorded for the Lincoln Center, but if you live in New York City or visit there, make a point of checking to see if it was.
The God-send in all this—and I do mean God-send—is the wonderful PBS documentary Words and Music by Jerry Herman DVD, which provides the entire “Hello, Dolly!” number in black-and-white as a bonus feature. What’s interesting is that as someone who was so moved by that number, seeing it in its entirety almost as I saw it (there were some changes made for the revival), I was so incredibly moved. For others, though, seeing it on the screen doesn’t really do justice (as is the case with most filmed live performances); I don’t know if the average Joe would grasp exactly how powerful that number is with that woman and that choreography when performed live.
The legacy of the Lee Roy Reams-directed revival lives on. At the theatre, I bought the OBCR and literally listened to it for three straight months, never popping in another CD the whole time (and when the revival cast recording was released, I got that too). In the week after seeing it, I generated the idea for my first musical (which I would produce and direct a reading of in 2003). Yeah, after that, I knew I needed to write musicals, that I had to have more of this in my life. And when I started directing plays at a high school, the first show I did was Hello, Dolly!.
We Broadway fans, we all have similar stories, stories of how the bug bit us, the story of that magical first time. I urge everyone out there, take a young person to a Broadway musical or tour. Pick a show that you think they’ll like, then make it a magical first time. Get them the CD, the program, and if you can, take them out to dinner. Like me, that child might become a lifelong Broadway fan, whose ticket dollars and cast recording purchases continues to fuel Broadway for generations.
the Broadway Mouth
November 8, 2008