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David Wylie

David Wylie (Director: Patrice Munsel in Hello, Dolly! 1984)

David Wylie

“The artist’s task is to save the soul of mankind; and anything less is fiddling while Rome burns. If artists cannot find the way, then the way cannot be found.”
-Terence McKenna

Back in 1994, just as Carol Channing was about to open in Denver for what would be her last national tour of Hello, Dolly!, famed critic Richard L. Coe wrote in the now defunct Theater Week Magazine, “Every couple of decades or so comes a rich, vivid role so suited to its creator that theatrical history is made.

Yul Brynner so audaciously captured The King and Ithat in the billing for several of the revivals, the I of Gertrude Lawrence’s original portrait was obliterated into strikingly small type indeed.”

Richard Livingston Coe (1914–1995), born in New York City, was a theatre and cinema critic for The Washington Post for more than fifty years. Coe was renowned for the astute advice he gave to many pre-Broadway try-out companies. The above comments are referring, for the most part, to Carol’s indelible performance as Dolly Gallagher Levi.

The International Dolly, Mary Martin

Over the past fifty years, Hello, Dolly! has given audiences around the world a sense of pure joy! As far as the Carol Channing Hello, Dolly!, David Wylie doesn’t think there is anyone who has ever seen the stage show or Carol on television as Dolly who will ever forget that experience or her....he cannot even think about it and her without smiling. He thinks that anyone who has only seen Barbra Streisand in the movie, still relates the role of Dolly to Channing. It’s just a “given.”

Many actresses have made Dolly Levi their own. It may take a woman to make Dolly Levi a living, breathing person, but it takes a director to get her there.

One such actress who took on the persona of Dolly Levi was Patrice Munsel, at Louisiana Tech University in 1984. The young director who assisted her in getting there was David Wylie.

David first fell in love with Hello, Dolly! when he had the opportunity to see it on Broadway in 1964, and has continued to love it to this day. The show, the characters and the music are timeless.

David has an intense passion for this iconic show. He directed the production that starred Patrice Munsel, the American coloratura soprano, and the youngest singer to ever star at the Metropolitan Opera. She was given the nickname…"Princess Pat".

David’s Hello,Dolly! story begins a few years ago. He received his Bachelors and Masters degrees in voice and opera.  After singing in the United States and Europe for a number of years, he accepted, while continuing to perform for another 10 years, a teaching position at his undergraduate alma mater, Louisiana Tech University.  In addition to teaching studio voice and related courses, one of David’s many responsibilities was Director of Opera and Musical Stage Productions. He would select, cast, produce and direct the spring musical.  Their productions were cast primarily from the student body and community, and used university resources, with the occasional rented drops and costumes. 

As a novice director, David was determined to bring the best of traditional musicals to his audiences and make use of all the local talent. No, No, NanetteSouth Pacific, and Annie Get Your Gun were among them.

As for the Louisiana Tech production in 1984, it was really a turning point for their university musicals. The performing arts facilitywhich included two theatres and the music and theater departments went into massive renovation in the Fall of 1982, and was scheduled to reopen in the Spring of 1984. The main theater would seat 1125 people. The university President asked David to look into bringing a major star to campus in a musical that would open their new performing arts center, and basically gave him a “blank check” for the production of his choice.

The Dallas Summer Musicals provided wonderful shows, many of which were national tours, and was not a very long drive from Ruston. David went to see the 1982 touring production of Hello, Dolly! with  Carol Channing and knew that this had to be high on his list of priorities, but on a much smaller scale for them. The search for the perfect show began. Shortly into 1983, David found that the physical touring production he had seen in Dallas was available to rent and was actually being stored in Dallas. The costumes from that tour were available through Eaves Brooks, so the next step was to find his Dolly Levi.

David did a lot of research into the ladies who had played Dolly on and off Broadway and in regional productions. David spoke with a number of them and they were either not interested or the time frame didn’t work with their schedule. A colleague of David’s at a nearby university suggested that he consider Patrice Munsel.  He had seen her perform the role and knew that she had done several productions across the country.

Patrice Munsel

He gave David her contact information and David made the call.

He was surprised when she answered the phone herself. He introduced himself and gave her all the details and she couldn’t have been more gracious. She asked him some additional questions and said that she loved the South, their food, their warm hospitality, and of course, Hello, Dolly!  She had her secretary check her schedule while they talked about the production. Moments later she agreed to his offer. And so their Hello, Dolly! adventure was about to begin!

David had read The Matchmaker, and after reading the musical script and searching through the score for ideas, he realized that it was wonderful the way it was. The way it was written, it practically ran itself from beginning to end. He knew that things would need to be adjusted in the way of choreography, and to accommodate a guest artist who had done the role before. It was an “amateur” production, so the strengths and weaknesses of the cast members would have to be taken into consideration as he cast the show.

1984 was David’s fifth year of college teaching and directing, so Dolly and its success would have a tremendous effect on him.  This was a university production made up of university students and community people. They were in class or at work all day and came to rehearsals in the evenings, so yes, there were a lot of “pep talks.”  Every director gives them. There was never a lack of excitement or enthusiasm for what the cast was doing, it was just something else to add to their already full day of activities, and they needed to change their focus. They never stopped having fun from the minute the rehearsal period began, but they were also very serious about the job at hand. Of course, rehearsals were staggered with blocking, music and choreography so they were full evenings and weekends. He feels that the cast remained completely positive from the beginning to the end for so many of the reasons we have discussed previously. When Pat arrived, the “pep” was always present. He gave “notes” after rehearsals as they got further along in the process and began to run full scenes and acts and the entire show.

After the dress rehearsals, things were pretty well set, and aside for something unforeseen happening, it was “kudos” to all for a job well done. This was a serious, fun loving group of people, but very professional in their attitudes. David has always been a firm believer that every cast member of a show know the story and who they are and what they are doing on stage, where they are coming from when they enter, and where they are going when they exit.

Staying in character is so important at any level. He and his production staff watched the movie and after reading the script, etc., discussed what they felt they could do to make their production a success. After the show was cast, there were several full cast meetings where they all watched the movie, talked about the story, each character and what they thought they should do, and how they wanted to approach their parts. David laid out the ideas that he had for the show. He liked to give some creative expression and freedom to actors at any level of competence, but eventually all those thoughts would have to be put together into one idea.

The physical production and the music were gorgeous and just fell into place with guidance from the vocal director, the choreographer and perhaps some assistance from him.

The actors emerged as their characters and related to each other and the audiences so much more than David could have expected from college age students of all academic disciplines and townspeople. They had a great time at every rehearsal and worked very hard. When Pat arrived, the entire atmosphere became even more electric and just accelerated until opening night and throughout their brief run.

There was also the knowledge that Pat Munsel had done the role and would have her own ideas to contribute to her character, her stage movement and everything that she would be a part of. Nothing could be cemented until she arrived. The complete show was blocked and choreographed around his ideas, the general outline of the productions he had seen, and the directions in the script and score prior to her arrival.

They, of course, had an advantage from the outset with the gorgeous physical production and Pat Munsel as Dolly Levi. They only played three performances, but it really helped that the audiences came out in full force and continued to want to be a part of their musicals every spring. They had “sold out” houses for the Dolly performances.

From the moment Pat arrived, David knew they had a hit on their hands and a perfect Dolly Levi in their midst.

They began by running the show for her to get a feel for everything that had been done prior to her arrival. They had an understudy for Pat throughout the entire rehearsal process who sat in on rehearsals after Pat arrived and did one dress rehearsal and the matinee performance as Dolly for the area schools the day before they officially opened. Having done the role, Pat had a few changes and ideas that really only affected her interpretation, but immediately established a wonderful chemistry with the entire cast.

She drew them in like a magnet. She asked for his directorial thoughts about many things. She laughingly said, “If it is alright, I am accustomed to making my entrance or exit from the other side of the stage so I don’t confuse the cast.” She became Dolly Levi the moment she took the stage, which made his job easier and such a pleasure. The cast reacted to her like they all had been doing this together for months. It was a huge production and undertaking.  He proved to himself that he was up to the challenge.   It gave him more confidence and belief in his ability to be a good director of opera and/or the musical theater. There was always something new to be learned and assimilated in directing and working with people on stage, but this really was a “shot in the arm” for a young director to chalk up to some valuable experience..

To sum it up...”what a joy it was to direct Pat Munsel in the role.” They have remained dear friends to this day.

Hello, Dolly! is a great introductory musical for those people not really familiar with the musical theater hits of Kern, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Lerner and Lowe, Cole Porter and the like. The word that comes to mind is “awareness” that this is a great art form.

David doesn’t know that he would do anything differently today directing Hello,Dolly!  

He would be a more experienced director and that might loosen the reins a bit on the entire production. David may have been a bit cautious in 1984 given the circumstances.

Since the original cast recording had been issued before he saw the show in New York, it was a “must have” before his trip. From the moment the “Prologue” began, he was hooked. It was infectious and so happy and full of fun and anticipation of the wonderful musical and theatrical experiences audiences were about to have.

It is amazing how Jerry Herman develops the story line and introduces each character with their individual musical number. Lilting melodies and harmonies fill the score.  The orchestration, not to mention the lyrics themselves and how they make the characters and music come to life throughout the show are wonderful.

Looking at the song list, each number adds to the story and propels it right along to the next scene, and introduces the next character and story line. Each one is a “gem” in itself.

Carol Channing was unmatched in the role. All the ladies who followed her had their own wonderful things to add, but she was “Dolly Gallagher Levi.” And, of course, she became an institution and known for that role, and the greatest exponent of it ever. She had a way of singing and acting on stage that made everything work as only she could.

David had only seen Carol in the role. He had seen clips and excerpts from Pearl Bailey’s performances and feels that she and her cast really brought another wonderful side to it, but one just a glorious and joyous as the Carol Channing production. Pearl Bailey and Carol Channing are “cut from the same comedic cloth!” The remaining leading and supporting roles in their productions were artfully cast and couldn’t have been any better. There obviously have been better singers and perhaps better actors in the role, but Carol Channing set the standard for who and what Dolly Levi should be and that has never been surpassed in David’s opinion.

From the day that he picked Hello, Dolly! for the musical in the spring of 1984, David knew that whatever path it took, it would be great. And after casting the show, acquiring the sets and costumes, and most of all, Pat Munsel.....it was great! There wasn’t any aspect of the production that wasn’t great!

David grew up surrounded by music of all kinds, but primarily classical music and opera. Pat Munsel joined the Metropolitan Opera in 1943 at the age of 18, and remained with the company almost 20 seasons.  As a young boy growing up, David’s Mom enjoyed listening to the Saturday afternoon Met broadcasts on the radio. David would listen with her many afternoons after a morning of playing outside and knew who Patrice Munsel was early on, and even heard her sing a few times on the broadcasts. She was well known in the opera world and went on to star in operettas, films, have her own variety show on television in the 1950's and her own Las Vegas show. She also portrayed the majority of the major Broadway leading ladies across the United States throughout her career. He was a bit nervous, but very excited to have the chance to work with her and wanted to make this experience as wonderful for Pat and everyone involved as it could possibly be.

During his academic career, he directed about 15 musicals, operas and operetta productions over the years. Dolly is by far one of David’s favorites. The other productions they did that included Broadway sets and costumes were Fiddler on the Roof (1985 with John Raitt as Tevye) and The King and I(1987 with Patricia Wells as Anna). One cannot go wrong with any musical from that “golden age” of Broadway. David tried to include as many shows and composers as possible in his repertoire for his audiences, as well as introducing new composers and shows to them.

David had a good concept of Dolly to begin with. How could he not be excited about this show? The icing on the cake for David was the fact that they acquired not only the Broadway sets and costumes, but a major star in Patrice Munsel.  If nothing else, David brought a youthful enthusiasm and excitement to the production.

He was flexible to a certain point in the direction he desired the production to go, and always open to suggestions from his cast and creative team during the process. His creative staff could not have been better and more enthusiastic and easy to work with. That made for success. As an actor and singer, David was able to look for physical as well as vocal characteristics to enhance the characters that would complement what he thought Pat would bring to the show.

The production was pretty well set in place prior to Pat’s arrival. Once she came “on board,” whatever “tweaking” that needed to be done happened in that time prior to dress rehearsals. Most everything fell into place by then. Obviously, there were things that might change before and during a run, but the general look and feel of the show was in place. Pat was in Ruston for a week prior for rehearsals and performed two of the three dress rehearsals and three performances.

Their Irene Molloy was a former Music Education major and a community member. David thought she was perfect for the role. She looked the part and sang beautifully. She had the strength and determination that Irene needed, but also that vulnerability that made her such a wonderful character. Her comedic timing was perfectly natural. She and the student cast as Minnie Fay were a perfect pairing of comedic and physical characteristics and combined just the right chemistry on stage.

The one thing that David took from this production and continued to carry with him throughout the rest of his career was the confidence in his ability to direct just about anything, to meet any and all challenges “head on” and be successful. Here again, we are talking about a university production with basically amateur performers of college age. As for the management of the show, the music and theater faculty assisted with each of their specialties. The orchestra was made up of students and faculty musicians with a music faculty member as the conductor. The choreographer was a student and herself a dancer. The stage crew was overseen by the theatre technical director and was made up of students, as were the costume and prop crews. The “front of house” and publicity crews were made up of arts and business majors. Any student was given elective credit for their participation in the production if they so desired. It all ran smoothly after all the ground work was laid out and guidelines set for what needed to be done and how important the success of each area was to the entire production.

As stated earlier, Pat had done several productions around the country, so David knew that she would have her own ideas about things that she would like to do. Those things would not really affect any major staging of the show, but more with those characters with whom she interacted.  He had already laid the general groundwork for the direction and staging of the show when she arrived and she saw what he had done.  David asked for her thoughts about what she liked and what things he could adjust to make her feel more comfortable. They were almost to dress rehearsals, so major changes would be difficult and she knew that.

The overall staging was perfect for her and she went about adding and subtracting things about her character to fit their production and her Dolly with the characters around her. She fell in love with the cast, and they with her. She had such a great time and that meant they all did. She had a couple of arrangements for songs in the show that had been done for her in more comfortable keys. That was easy enough to fix, since she sent them ahead of her arrival for the orchestra to work on. She was just lovely and gracious and so full of fun and “mischief” as only a Dolly Levi could and should be.

Her comedic timing was flawless. Her characterization was impeccable and truly her own creation, so that was a bonus for everyone. She was already the consummate artist, singer and actor with a world of experience to her credit. Her Dolly brought out the best in everyone. She was a true professional in every sense of the word. How could her Dolly Levi not be memorable?

Her Horace was David Buice, a member of the Ruston community and the Louisiana Tech Department of English. This was the first of David’s musicals he auditioned for. He went on to portray Lazar Wolf in Fiddler on the Roof and the King in The King and I. He was a fine actor, having done a number of plays over the years prior to this time. He didn’t call himself a singer, but he was eager, willing and ready to learn, and so he did. He became a very competent singer as the time went on and did a great job with each of the musical characters he portrayed.  He was a joy to work with and did his homework on his characters. His Horace was the perfect foil to Pat’s Dolly Levi. They had a wonderful chemistry from the moment they met and it just blossomed during the entire rehearsal and performance process. He was just blustery enough, but also vulnerable as the aging bachelor from Yonkers seeking love. David thinks Buice found another dimension to his acting skills in the musicalsthat he didn’t know he had.

David cannot talk about Cornelius without talking about Barnaby at the same time. To him, they are inseparable. Cornelius and Barnaby were non music majors, but very fine singers and actors. What made them so wonderful a pair was that they were physically different body and voice types. Cornelius was a big guy, not fat, just big, and a baritone. Barnaby was of a smaller frame and a tenor. That was comedy ready to happen, and David really played to it as far as he could. They were a perfect pair and had great chemistry and comedic timing. Their scenes with Horace were hilarious. They were also a perfect fit for Irene and Minnie Fay. In the hat shop scene, the laughter never stopped. When Dolly and Horace were added, it just was a masterpiece of comedy and choreography. They both had their ideas about who their characters were, and together they worked those out to perfection, knowing they would be involved with the other four characters a great deal. David loved them together. Cornelius led the way most of the time, but out of nowhere Barnaby would come forth with something unexpected and hilarious.

When asked if he could think of other ladies he would like to see play the role, David said he thinks that Pamela Myers (Company) would be a perfect Dolly Gallagher Levi, and if he had the opportunity, and was a bit younger, would love to play the role of Horace opposite her Dolly Levi! David and Pam have known each other since the mid 1970’s when they did The Most Happy Fella at Wolf Trap. She is a fabulous person, singer and wonderful actress.

David feels that Jerry Herman is a giant among the composers of our time! From Milk and Honey in 1961 to Jerry’s Girls in 1985, look at the stories, the different, memorable characters and the music that fits so perfectly for each role and into each score. David can name and probably sing parts of songs from each show Herman has written. What a writer of melodies and memorable tunes he is. The orchestral and vocal writing is superb. He always manages to set the characters apart from the others in his other shows. They each have their own incarnations and development in character and music....in a word...Fabulous! And the fact that his shows are having so many revivals and being done all the time is a testament to his staying power as a composer in the musical theater genre.

When David thinks of a show stopping number, he thinks of something big, as in title number from Mame. The shows lead up to the introduction of their leading ladies and musical numbers. What could be more exciting than that? There are a couple of scenes leading up to the Harmonia Gardens and the anticipation that Dolly Levi is going to return after quite an absence. The set, itself, with the staircase is a show stopper waiting to happen. Throughout the minutes leading up to her arrival, Rudolf is running around telling the waiters to get ready. We have the meeting of Horace and Ernestina, the loss of Barnaby’s wallet at dinner with Irene, Cornelius and Minnie Fay….and the famous “waiters gallop!” The musical number is fabulous!  Dolly’s descent down the stairs after she appears in the doorway at the top cannot be beaten. She exudes such nostalgia between herself and the waiters and it is obvious how much they adore her. If a production is fortunate enough to have a “Dolly” ramp out around the orchestra pit, this just adds to the excitement and to the show stopping moment. The choreography with her and the waiters as they make their way around the ramp is a moment all its own.

You could say that there were three opening and closing nights given their situation at Louisiana Tech. Of course, the last performance was very sentimental as Pat would be leaving and all the cast and crew members would be returning to their lives as students, teachers and working professionals. Each night, Pat was given bouquets of roses at the curtain call and each night she recognized the entire cast, orchestra, and crews, as well as the university, the university president and the Music Department for asking her to be a part of the production. She urged the administration, the audiences and community to support what Tech was doing in the arts! There is a DVD and I believe it includes Pat’s remarks following that performance. She was so very gracious and surprised with all the things that had been done for her during her stay.

David would do another production of Dolly in a “New York” minute. Without a doubt, the 1984 Louisiana Tech University production of Hello, Dolly! was without a doubt a wonderful and joyous musical and theatrical experience, and one that he will never forget!

Having read all of your blog entries over these past months and who you were planning to interview or already had talked with, I cannot imagine that you will miss anyone. CONGRATULATIONS!!!!!!!! What an accomplishment this is for you and such a wonderful tribute to Carol Channing, “Hello, Dolly!” and everyone that has been associated with so many productions since its inception. And thank you, Richard, for asking me to be a part of this adventure and letting me share my fond memories of my “Hello, Dolly!” with Patrice Munsel at Louisiana Tech University in 1984!!!!!! It has been an honor and my pleasure.

-David Wylie

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