“Dolly Will Never Go Away Again”: The Bygone Era of the Transcendent Broadway Diva

Stephen Petrovich

  • New York Columnist

“Then again, pretty much everything Ms. Midler does stops the show.  As for that much anticipated moment when she puts on fire-engine plumes and sequins to lead a cakewalk of singing waiters, well, let’s just hope that this show’s producers have earthquake insurance,” wrote The New York Times’ Ben Brantley of Bette Midler’s triumphant opening night in Hello, Dolly! at the Shubert Theatre on April 20th.  The highly anticipated revival, which Brantley claims “is generating a succession of seismic responses that make Trump election rallies look like Quaker prayer meetings,” is actually that momentous – it marks the first time the classic musical has been revived on Broadway in over 20 years, and one of the first times it isn’t being headlined by Carol Channing.

Channing of course has become synonymous with the meddling title character.  She headlined the original Broadway production in 1964 and has since played Dolly Levi over 5,000 times.  The original production won a record 10 Tonys and scaled to prominence as the first American “mega musical.”  Dolly was a blockbuster hit, akin to today’s Wicked or Phantom.

Multiple divas would leave their mark on Dolly Gallagher Levi – Channing was replaced by Ginger Rogers, then Martha Raye, Betty Grable, Phyllis Diller, and the mother of all belters, Ethel Merman.  A young Barbra Streisand starred in the 1969 motion picture, and Pearl Bailey headlined an all black Broadway company. 

But it was the zany Channing who would forever satisfy the imaginations of generations of theatergoers so taken with the brassy matchmaker from Yonkers.  She returned to the role in 1978 and in 1995, headlining touring companies in the interim. 

The concept of a blockbuster Broadway diva reviving her star turn ten, 20, or [in Channing’s case] 30 years after the fact is not common on today’s Broadway scene.  Carol Channing reached her career zenith in Hello, Dolly! and rode the show out for the duration of its full cultural impact.  But today’s stars, it seems, are disinclined to ride out their contracts beyond awards season.  Actors want to capitalize on their success in one leading role by immediately pouncing on another role, and so on - there is an implicit inadequacy in becoming too identified with one specific character. 

Of course there are exceptions to this rule.  Donna McKechnie made a big splash when she returned to the long running A Chorus Line in 1986, 11 years after originating the hypnotizing, red leotard clad “Cassie” in Michael Bennett’s smash hit musical about chorus dancers auditioning for an unspecified Broadway show. 

YouTube footage of McKechnie’s return performance shows an older, less reckless, but nonetheless more seasoned Cassie.  Her voice rings with more depth and desperation as she cries out to Zack, “give me the chance to come through!”  Also, if you watch carefully you will see that she has modified the pirouette sequence at the end of her dance solo in “The Music and the Mirror,” presumably to accommodate the physical limitations of dancing the role eleven years later.  Indeed, McKechnie had recently overcome crippling arthritis prior to her return to the show, and the struggle to regain her “chance to dance” is palpable and all the more thrilling in the 1986 video. 

Other examples of leading ladies returning to their most eminent roles are few and far between.  Glenn Close is the most recent instance, returning to this season’s Sunset Boulevard a whole 20 years after winning her Tony for Norma Desmond in 1995.  Lea Salonga had enduring stints in both Miss Saigon and Les Miserables, and Idina Menzel hopped the pond to originate Elphaba on the West End a few years after the success of Wicked on Broadway.  But these occasions pale in comparison with the lifelong commitment Carol Channing made to Hello, Dolly!

If actors were as ageless as the characters they imbue, perhaps there would be more Carol Channings on Broadway.  Sutton Foster could still tear up her 2002 breakout Thoroughly Modern Millie, and we’d all love to see Christine Ebersole revive her tragic Little Edie in Grey Gardens, or hear Victoria Clark sing The Light in the Piazza again, or witness another turn for LaChanze in The Color Purple.  But the demands of today’s industry do not lend themselves to an especially extended run, much less a celebrated return engagement.

And so, audiences flock to the Shubert to catch the “Divine Miss M” descend that celebrated staircase at the Harmonia Gardens, a moment bursting with so much nostalgia it is hard to forget the parade of divas who have donned the famous scarlet plumes for decades preceding.