June 1, 2017: Theatre Yesterday and Today, by Ron Fassler

There are many sumptuous treats awaiting anyone lucky enough to get a ticket for the current Broadway revival of Jerry Herman and Michael Stewart’s Hello, Dolly! starring Bette Midler, but for me, the highlight was the show’s third song: the rhythmically pulsating and entirely satisfying “Put on Your Sunday Clothes.” It’s hard to come up with a song written for any other musical that exemplifies how to set up an audience’s expectations better than this one. And oh … how it delivers!

When constructing a musical’s opening number, great care goes into making sure to identify the tone and clarity of all that there is to come. Such milestones as “Wilkomen” in Cabaret, or “Comedy Tonight” in A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, are cited as but two outstanding examples. This, however, was not the way Hello, Dolly! went about it. It hands its first song to its title character, Dolly Gallagher Levi, who aided by the chorus sings, “I Put My Hand in Here,” which establishes in a witty fashion just who she is and what she does. How it all fits into the plot — whatever that is — will come later. The show’s second song is given to the leading man, Horace Vandergelder, who states his credo on how the female sex fits into his world and personal view in “It Takes a Woman.” It is not until the third song (the first of a number of show stoppers the score provides) that everything is set up for what we need to know in terms of where this all is heading. “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” starts slow, then builds to a smashing climax by way of not only the composition of its music, but by its sets, costumes, lighting and choreography. And the version on display right now at the Shubert Theatre does not disappoint.

Part of the genius in its nimble staging (originally created by Gower Champion) and lovingly recreated by director Jerry Zaks and the choreographer Warren Carlyisle, has a lot to do with the restraint necessary in staying out of the song’s way. Even though the costumes in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” are designed with every bustle and top hat to look as if they have been soaked and dyed to resemble an MGM technicolor spectacular at its finest, it’s really just window dressing. And even with a train coming in (!) at the song’s height (nearing the four minute mark of its five minute running time), it still manages to keep its elegant simplicity. No one moves in leaps and bounds (that comes later in the second act with the show’s title song), so that by the time “Sunday Clothes” has reached its climax, we are completely clear about the stakes of its leading characters (“We won’t come home until we’ve fallen in love”). A rooting interest in all that follows is set in cement.

Bette Midler and David Hyde Pierce in as Dolly and Horace (Photo by Julia Cervantes).

When faced with the task of first coming up with the score of Dolly!, Jerry Herman was a thirty-two year old composer with one medium Broadway hit to his credit, Milk and Honey, which ran for over a year between 1962 and 1963. Upon first hearing that David Merrick had secured the rights for a musical version of Thornton Wilder’s 1955 play The Matchmaker, Herman was thrilled to be considered for the open job of writing it. All he had to do was convince Merrick, one of the most feared (but talented) producers in the theatre, that he was right for it. And Merrick wasn’t convinced.

When Herman was summoned to his office above the St. James Theatre, Merrick informed him of the two strikes he had against him. “Milk and Honey was an operetta. I need somebody who can write Americana, not something ethnic.” In response, Herman explained, that with that show set in Israel, he was only writing for what the style demanded. It being a Friday, he suggested to Merrick that he go home and write four songs over the weekend that would show him that he could compose “Americana.”

So it was that Herman set about setting four scenes from The Matchmaker to music. When he returned to Merrick’s office on Monday, he played them for him. One was the first song for Dolly, “I Put My Hand in Here,” (extracting a line straight out of Wilder’s play); the second was “Dancing,” and the third was “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” (based yet again on another line of dialogue). Upon hearing them Merrick told Herman, “Kid, the show is yours,” and those three songs remained in the show for eternity.

Dolly! was the biggest hit of 1964 and, alongside Fiddler on the Roof, which opened later in the same year, the two ruled the decade, battling it out for which one would overtake My Fair Lady to become the longest running musical in Broadway history. Dolly!, by virtue of its opening first, got there first, but closed shortly thereafter, paving the way for Fiddler to overtake it a few months later. These two great successes had one other thing in common: neither had it easy when they opened out of town. Dolly! in particular, was something of a nightmare, as Merrick was a far more anxious and nervous producer than Fiddler’s Harold Prince. Merrick fiddled with Dolly! until everyone’s nerves were frayed, encouraging in-fighting in his belief that when everyone got along, a dull show was often the result. Thus certain individuals nearly came to blows on Dolly!

One story, conveyed in Howard Kissel’s 1993 Merrick bio, The Abominable Showman, was how Merrick had let loose his wrath on Freddy Wittop, who had designed Dolly’s original (and brilliant) costumes. While out of town in Detroit, even though the entrance of the chorus in “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” was getting applause, Merrick felt there was something wrong with just about every number in the show (except for the title song, which worked like magic from Day One). Merrick told Wittop that he hated his work and it was left to Herman to buck up Wittop’s wilted ego. “Freddy, listen to me … there’s no music, just a vamp. There’s no dancing. There’s no dialogue. Who do you think they’re applauding.”

In his essential book 2015 book The Secret Life of the American Musical, Jack Viertel ravishingly writes why “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” works so perfectly. Referring specifically to the original Broadway production of Dolly!, which he saw as a young man in 1964, but is equally appropriate to the current revival’s rendition of the number, Viertel writes: “At its conclusion, Dolly’s! merry band of explorers had escaped the provinces and arrived in the most beautiful place in the world; life teemed with limitless possibilities. This, the audience told itself, is why there are musicals.”

Amen to that. And do whatever it takes to see Bette Midler, David Hyde Pierce and company in this 2017 Hello, Dolly! Just like its predecessor, it’s one for the ages.

Ron Fassler’s Up in the Cheap Seats: a Historical Memoir of Broadway, is now available at Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Up-Cheap-Seats-Historical-Broadway/dp/0998168629/ref=sr_1_4?ie=UTF8&qid=1494611605&sr=8-4&keywords=up+in+the+cheap+seats+book



Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.

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Ron Fassler

Author, playwright, director, actor, theatre critic and historian, his book, “Up in the Cheap Seats,” is available at Amazon.com.