On this date in 1970, close to seven years past its opening night, Hello, Dolly! became the longest running musical in Broadway history. Of course this milestone has now been surpassed many times (Phantom of the Opera has been at the Majestic for the past twenty-eight years), but in light of its recent smash hit Broadway revival, I thought it might be fun to look back and appreciate what it all meant forty-seven years ago.
Ethel Merman as Dolly and Jack Goode as Horace in Hello, Dolly! (1970)
I consider myself lucky indeed that as a teenager I got to see this impeccable production twice; once with Dolly #5 (Pearl Bailey) and again with Dolly #7 (Ethel Merman). Unfortunately, I was too young in 1964 to have seen its original cast which consisted of Carol Channing, David Burns, Charles Nelson Reilly and Eileen Brennan. But from anyone I've ever spoken to that did, I've only been told it was every bit as good as the ten Tony Awards bestowed upon it would have you believe. I did get to see Channing on one of her many tours that followed over the decades, but by then I honestly think that what I was seeing, enjoyable as it was, would have to be described as a pale imitation of the original.
One producer, four shows: the ubiquitous David Merrick.
Dolly's producer, the ingenious, sly and altogether unbeatable producer David Merrick, worked tirelessly to keep the biggest hit he ever had running as long as possible. He did this by bringing in suitable star power with every Dolly he chose to succeed Channing over the show's seven-year run. In 1966, he brought Ginger Rogers back to Broadway after an absence of nearly two decades, and her star power from her hey day as Fred Astaire's dancing partner led to audiences of the day still interested to see what the old girl could do. She was followed by the comedienne Martha Raye, then the former 20th Century Fox film star and pin-up girl, Betty Grable. When it came time for the fifth Dolly, Merrick had yet another ace up his sleeve. He did an extraordinary switch that helped reverse time and turn a nearly four year-old show back into a newborn babe.
Merrick had the idea to send out a Dolly! company that consisted entirely of African-American actors. Some thought this progressive; some regressive. It was a time of tremendous racial unrest in the U.S., and choosing Washington D.C. to begin with was a bit dicey. But Merrick’s choice to portray the meddlesome Dolly—Pearl Bailey—was an inspired one. She loved the idea of opening the show at a theatre where as a child she would have been forbidden to enter through the front door. And with her superb comic timing and keen musicality, Bailey was a sensation. It didn’t take long for Merrick to do the obvious and bring her and the entire company to Broadway in November 1967. Heralding the arrival with a full page ad in the New York Times, it announced: The Event of the Century!” It wasn’t far off the mark as the show became toughest ticket in town all over again.
After Pearl Bailey, Merrick brought in the offbeat choice of Phyllis Diller, known primarily for her wacky standup routine, seen regularly on Ed Sullivan or Johnny Carson. But Diller had played the show in Las Vegas to good reviews and was, from all reports, disciplined and quite good in the role. However, she didn't provide any sort of box office boost and Merrick was faced with closing Dolly before it could hit its milestone. This is when he launched a full-out charm offensive that, with the proper arm-twisting, finally got the legendary Ethel Merman to finish the run in a role that was intended for her all along. But Merman had no interest in getting involved so soon after her turn in Gypsy, in what figured to be another long run. Now, seven years later, the show's composer and lyricist Jerry Herman sweetened the pot by offering to put back two songs he had expressly written for her, neither of which were performed by Channing or any of the other Dolly's. And believe me when I say that I can conjure up the un-miked Ethel Merman belting out both "Love, Look Into My Window" and "World Take Me Back" like it was yesterday (at the bargain price of $3.60, no less). And yes, I still have the stub.
This odd looking ticket is the result of my using a two-fer (long before the TKTS booth). It was a way of purchasing half-price tickets, though sometimes the box office would have to hand write them.
So it was with near-perfect symmetry that "the Merm" was the Dolly Gallagher Levi who wore the famous red dress at the September 9th, 1970 performance (its 2,718th), which gave Merrick the honor of being the producer who broke the record for the longest running Broadway musical, set the previous decade by My Fair Lady. It all meant a great deal to him, even with the knowledge that it would be a temporary distinction at best, since Fiddler on the Roof, which had opened in the same calendar year (if not the same Tony season), was hot on Dolly's heels. As proof, see below the somewhat passive-aggressive full-page ad that Harold Prince took out in the New York Times on the day of Dolly's victory lap:
"Congratulations!" (mixed in with a bit of a dig to rival producer Merrick).
Note how Prince also couldn't resist pushing two of his current shows.
True to his word, not only did Prince make sure that Fiddler surpassed Dolly! ten months later, but he kept Tevye and his daughters around long enough to ensure its becoming the longest running show in Broadway history. It took another year, but in 1972, Fiddler blew past Life with Father, which had held the record since the day it closed in 1947 for twenty-three years. And where do Fiddler and Dolly! stand today in the long-run department against The Phantom?
Well, Dolly is now #16 and Fiddler is #19, although The Book of Mormon is on track to displace Dolly within the next five months.
In the meantime, it's truly "nice to have Dolly back where she belongs" in the current Bette Midler (soon to be Bernadette Peters) revival. No way it will be with us for seven years, but if you haven't yet seen it, get there as soon as you can. The production is truly worth your time as well as your hard-earned bucks.
Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon.com. Feel free to comment or email me anytime at Ron@ronfassler.org.