October 19, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler
With Hello, Dolly! currently breaking Broadway box offices records every week, I thought it might be fun to write about another Dolly; one who was neither the first (and inevitably far from the last) to essay this superb part for actresses anywhere from twenty-five (Barbra Streisand in the 1969 film musical) to past seventy (you-know-who).
About fifteen years ago, I found myself at a party with George Furth, the actor and playwright, who among his more significant contributions to the theatre, were Company and Merrily We Roll Along. I plunked myself in a chair next to him in the hopes I might get to hear a few stories from his long and diverse career — and George did not disappoint. I hardly had to prompt him and it was off to the races. Barely getting a word in edgewise over the next hour, I did manage one question: “What was the best performance you ever saw on the stage.”
Without a second’s hesitation he snapped, “Ruth Gordon in The Matchmaker! To this day, the greatest performance I’ve ever seen. Never been topped. I saw it at least sixty times, mostly from the wings because I was good friends at the time with Robert Morse, who was playing Barnaby. Watching Ruth Gordon in that role was a master class in the art of acting.”
That role was, of course, Dolly Gallagher Levi in Thornton Wilder’s play, upon which Michael Stewart and Jerry Herman based their musical Hello, Dolly! Actually, Wilder had based it on an earlier play written by Wilder himself. Only then it was titled The Merchant of Yonkers, more centered on the Merchant (Horace Vandergelder) that the Matchmaker (Dolly Levi). Wilder’s inspiration for both plays was A Day Well Spent, a one-act written in 1985, by the English dramatist John Oxenford. The story had already proved a popular one, as it had been adapted into a full-length play Einen Jux will er sich Machen, in 1842, by the Austrian playwright Johann Nestroy.
When Wilder’s The Merchant of Yonkers opened in 1938 it starred Jane Cowl as Dolly. A ubiquitous presence in the theatre, it was Cowl’s 32nd role on Broadway since her debut in 1903 at the age of twenty. Sadly, she did little film or television in her fifty-year career, otherwise her name might mean more today. As Dolly, Brooks Atkinson in the New York Times wrote (in highfalutin style) that Cowl “plays with the alert imagination of a queen of actresses.” As for the play itself, its mix of low comedy and high romance didn’t gel, and it folded after a disappointing thirty-nine performances.
As a friend of Wilder’s (and someone with her eye on a great part), Ruth Gordon, along with the director Tyrone Guthrie, urged the playwright to rewrite Merchant, encouraging him to expand upon its farcical aspects that worked — not the play’s more pallid romantic comedy — which didn’t. So some sixteen years later,The Matchmaker (retitled as to reflect the change in its protagonist), debuted in Edinburgh, Scotland, where it was embraced by audiences and critics alike, with special praise for Ruth Gordon’s Dolly. A West End London production quickly followed, opening on November 4, 1954, which ran close to a year. It then arrived on Broadway eleven months later with its British actors replaced by a new cast of Americans.
Among them was Robert Morse, making his Broadway debut at age twenty-four. As the sole surviving original cast member, I interviewed him in 2015 for my book Up in the Cheap Seats, thrilled to sit and listen to his memories of working with Gordon:
“Oh, Ruth Gordon was wonderful. There’s no doubt about. But she was very strict though, very tough. And she could be very mean. I was in the show for six, seven months and always doing the same thing, you know? Then one time, I had to come out from under the table in the hat shop and say, ‘We’re terribly innocent, Mrs. Levi.’ And one night I forgot the line. Just … blanked. And Ruth covered for me, which made me feel awful. ‘How did that happen?’ And I went up to Arthur Hill [who played Cornelius] during intermission … and let me explain something: during intermission, Ruth Gordon would sit in a chair against the back wall of the theatre for the entire fifteen minutes. Stagehands would walk around her … tiptoe, really. And what she was doing, was sit there and quietly mouth the lines to the whole second act. Now I’m nearby with Arthur, and I ask him, ‘What should I do? I feel terrible.’ And he said, ‘Go over and apologize to her. You must.’ So I approached her as meekly as you can imagine, and said, ‘Miss Gordon, I apologize for what just happened.’ And she said, ‘You ought to be sorry!’ And I was stunned.
From that day on, for the rest of my life in theatre, whenever somebody has forgotten a line, I have never acted the way Ruth Gordon did with me. I’ll say, ‘It’s okay, it’s normal.’ And I’ve worked with people that have been drunk, or had trouble with age in remembering a line or something … but it’s okay. I let the stage manager or producers handle it. As another actor, I won’t say, ‘That son-of-a-bitch!’ No, I don’t do it.”
Morse was the only actor from the Broadway production to continue on in the 1958 film version, in which Shirley Booth took on the role of Dolly. And Morse was in strong company: the great comic actor Paul Ford was Horace Vandergelder, Tony Perkins was Cornelius Hackel and Shirley MacLaine was Irene Malloy — all of them perfectly suited to their roles. Stream it sometime, if you can. Under the direction of the veteran Broadway director Joseph Anthony, the film’s style is perfectly calibrated, especially in its use of the actors talking to the camera, which to my mind, has never been handled better in a film comedy.
Losing the role in the film had to have been a bitter blow to Gordon. But she abandoned her film work as an actress during a twenty-two year period between 1943 and 1965, when she concentrated on her screenwriting career with her husband, the playwright and director Garson Kanin. Together they wrote such now classic films as Adam’s Rib and Pat and Mike (both specifically for Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn). Then at age seventy-two, she found herself a movie star again, taking home a well-deserved Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress for Rosemary’s Baby. At the time, she was the oldest actor to ever win an Oscar and had made her first film (a silent one) in 1915. The opening line of her acceptance speech is still a classic: “I can’t tell you how encouraging a thing like this is.” And check out her walk to the podium in the YouTube clip below, filled with confidence, pride and great poise.
With two-time Tony Award winner Donna Murphy playing the current Broadway revival of Hello, Dolly! on Monday nights, and with Bette Midler the rest of the week through January 14, 2018, it is possible then when Bernadette Peters takes over every night of the week on January 20th, that some true theatre aficionado with the wherewithal (and the budget), could potentially see three different Dollys in a twelve-day period.
Hello, Dolly!, indeed.
If you enjoy these columns, I encourage you to purchase Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, now available at Amazon.com. Please email me with comments or questions at Ron@ronfassler.org.